The historic significance of a building does not stop at the exterior. The interior matters, too. The plan of a house, its features and materials, all reflect its history and evolution and contribute to its historic character. On Nantucket, where only the exterior is regulated, what’s inside is frequently overlooked.
An important part of the NPT mission is to demonstrate what is possible. Properly preserved and maintained interiors not only have historic significance, they are valuable as real estate assets. Preserving interior features of a historic house makes sense financially and is essential for the edification of future generations.
The original floor plan is essential to defining historic character. Parlors, hallways, and staircases all contribute to the character of the building and should be retained in a preservation project.
In some cases, changes in floor plans are necessary. The appropriateness of interior changes can be analyzed by using a hierarchical approach that “ranks” the significance of spaces in a building. In residential buildings, there are usually “private” and “public” spaces, reflecting the need for formal functional areas and private individual living spaces. For example, stair halls and parlors are often on the main floor, while bedrooms, closets, and service areas are on upper floors or in rear areas.
If changes are desired, character-defining “public” areas should be retained; and the proposed use, program, and plan should not alter those primary historic spaces. Features and materials such as woodwork, doors, and mantels should be treated carefully even in the areas of secondary significance. New baths, closets, and kitchens, for example, might appropriately be placed in ells that have been added to the historic structure or in a new wing.
Design Features, Materials, and Finishes
Floor plans are only part of the historic interior’s character. Wall, ceiling, and floor treatments; doors and door and window trim; fireplaces and their mantels; and other finishes are all important features. Interiors often exhibit a mix of historic styles that reflect changes in use and taste. An early twentieth-century interior that has been placed in a nineteenth-century building, for example, is part of the building’s history and might be worthy of preservation.
All sound interior features should be retained and repaired. If damaged or deteriorated beyond repair, they should be replaced in-kind. Ceiling height, another important interior feature, helps convey historic character because it defines spatial volume, proportion, and light.
New Interior Construction and Related Demolition
Historic building rehabilitation often requires new construction and limited amounts of demolition. This work should take place at secondary or nonsignificant spaces to minimize impacts to the historic resource.
New interior work should be compatible with the existing historic character. Exact duplication of historic materials and elements is discouraged to avoid confusion between historic and new. For example, where new walls or other partitions are planned, an appropriate approach is to use new trim matching
the historic in scale, material, and general profile, rather than replicating historic woodwork. Demolition should always be kept to a minimum, and limited to secondary spaces or areas of extreme deterioration. Because demolition can involve the removal of historic material, it should be planned to have the least possible impact on the historic building.
Routine maintenance is a key to preserving interior historic materials; it prevents small problems from becoming large ones. Keeping up with maintenance will preserve your house for many years to come.