Five Reasons to Restore a Historic House

So you’re looking for a place to buy and you have a foggy idea where you want to live and equally foggy reasons why you want to live there.  You look at school districts, house values and prices, transportation, quality of life, lifestyle, and proximity to work.  And then you start house hunting.  The more little blocks you check off your list the higher the prices seem to get till you’re in so much sticker shock that you have to decide what little blocks to uncheck.  You’re just following all the guidelines and advice you’ve been told you need to follow in choosing a house, but it’s just so darn expensive and the neighborhood just doesn’t seem worth it.

But what if you use different factors?  What if there were reasons to choose a house and a community other than financial ones?  What if you chose a house based on values of a different kind?  We all talk about quality of life, but today we are culturally poor compared to previous generations.  We give value to a house made out of sheets of chips of scrappy wood and formaldahyde glue, wrapped in polyvinyl chloride on the outside and sheets of wall board made of gypsum and waste fly ash from a power plant on the inside.  The community is a once productive farm field laid out by a designer to maximize the most housing units.  To further entice you to buy there they offer a tennis court and community building convenient to shopping in the, well er, the plan.  Buildings are designed to mimic the best of styles that actually exist in nearby older towns.

If the land of make believe isn’t for you and you’re looking for something different, something better, something historic, then I offer the following alternative.  Here are five reasons why you should consider something totally different – restoring a house in a culturally rich historic district for your home – in the Economy Landmark District, aka Old Economy Village:

  1. Reason one.  They’re not making them any more.  You would be hard pressed to find any pre-Civil War Houses in the Pittsburgh area, let alone houses built in the 1820’s.  Houses are historic for many reasons.  Age is of course one.  What little early efforts to save older buildings there were was focused on high-style buildings like banks, libraries, or governmental buildings, not lowly home spun houses of the time – vernacular architecture.   In 1898 architectural William Ware, commenting about the rapid loss of vernacular buildings said, “the losses are irreplaceable, because those early builders will never come again.”  So older houses are rare, very rare.
  2. Reason two. They’re hand made of natural sustainable materials.  A typical Harmonist house, one built by the Harmony Society, was hewn of virgin timber into hand sawn beams, flooring, and siding, fitted together by mortise and tendons, or nailed with hand forged square nails; or made with hand thrown bricks of local clay and sand and laid with locally kiln fired lime mortar. You can’t get more sustainable than that.
  3. Reason three.  They’re professionally designed by an architect.  Few today live in a house designed by an architect.  Starting in 1824, Frederick Rapp designed the architecture of “Old” Economy Village, both high style and low.  He followed a rhythm, scale, and proportion that is pleasing to the eye.  Yet there’s more to the style than looks.  Practicality was worked into every aspect of the typical house plan – something house restorers discover on their own.
  4. Reason four.  A Harmonist house is of a one-of-a-kind style found no where else in the world.  His style was one of adaptation, where he melded earlier German features into a new Early American Republic so as to blend into the local landscape but yet be separate and apart.
  5. Reason five.  They’re relatively simple and easy to restore (as opposed to a more complicated style like a high Victorian house).  They are of a simple three or five bay plan, of smaller dimension with simpler architectural features and trim, so tend to be a more straight forward restoration than other more ornate and complicated styles.  Consider the Eastlake or Gothic style in comparison.

There are of course many more reasons, and of course down sides to restoring a historic house.  But that’ll be left for future blogs.

Visit the state historic site of Old Economy Village.  See the museum exhibits, tour the historic buildings, view the fine arts gallery or natural history exhibits and consider attending one of the cultural events.  Then walk around the surrounding historic district and if you have vision you’ll get it.