Monday, May 30, 2016

When Something Just Doesn't Look Quite Right.

This house is one of my favorites in my hometown of Spencer, Iowa.  The ornament and detailing are classic examples of the Queen Anne.  Note the beaded spindle work on the porch, including the frieze across the top, turned porch posts and large newels.  This sort of elaborate spindle work is characteristic of the Eastlake sub-type of the Queen Anne.  Other features commonly found on examples of the Eastlake are the incised, geometric patterns between the second story corner windows and on the porch gable and the baroque-style scrollwork under the front eave.  
A beautiful home for sure.  But can you spot something that doesn't look quite right?
However, when you look at this house as a whole, something does not look quite right.  Here are a few things that stick out to me. On most buildings the rake angle of gables and the pitch of the roof are similar.  That isn't the case here as the gable on the porch roof has a much steeper angle than the very low-pitched roof.  Queen Anne houses are also known for their asymmetrical shape where bay windows, porches and wings are often capped with a complicated roof with hips, valleys, gables and dormers.  This roof is symmetrical and does not follow the irregular shape of the house below. 

What is going on?  This house is an example of how buildings can change through time.  Sometime around 1910 this ca.1890 Queen Anne had a fire which destroyed the roof.  Rather than rebuild the original roof, the owners built one typically found on Foursquare homes popular at that time.  It is unclear whether this decision was a stylistic one or due to expense, since rebuilding the more complicated Queen Anne roof would have been more expensive.   The results are not unpleasant, but do lead to a moment of pause as we try to reconcile the different parts into a stylistic whole.  

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Why choose Historic Design Consulting to help you select historic paint colors for your Victorian era home or business?

There is an abundance of colorists, consultants and other professionals who specialize in Victorian-era paint colors and ornament for historic homes.  This can make selecting a consultant who is right for you and your historic architecture difficult considering their varying levels of training, education and expertise.  Historic Design's color consultants, however, have a unique background which includes academic training in architectural history and building conservation as well as hands-on experience in restoration which distinguishes us from others in the field.  

Unlike colorists whose backgrounds are in decoration and design, Historic Design's consultants are grounded in a graduate level education in history and architectural history.  Like any good historian, we start our research with primary sources and period color palettes rather than rely on modern authors and paint manufacturers to tell us how people painted their homes and businesses.  We know which pigments painters used and when. We know how architectural styles and aesthetic ideals evolved during the 19th century and how color palettes reflected these changes. We know that colors used on an 1850s Italianate home might not be appropriate for a 1905 Colonial Revival or Shingle Style home.    

19th century card with paint chips from Lion Brand.  Historic Design
 Consulting has a collection of primary sources like period color
samples which we use to select our period-correct color palettes.

In short, we use the same materials and literature that painters used in the 19th century to write custom color reports for our clients.

John W. Masury's 1881 book on house painting.  Period literature offers
an instructive account of 19th century painting practice and theory.

Our knowledge of architectural history is supplemented by our training in building conservation. Building conservation is the modern discipline of preserving and restoring historic architecture. This includes a thorough knowledge of historic building materials and methods and the best practices to preserve them.  Indeed, many 19th century buildings present challenges that are unique to historic architecture and a background in building conservation is necessary to preserve these building's distinguishing characteristics.  

Historic Design Consulting has a library of period photos which we use to determine correct
color placement. 

Historic Design Consulting also benefits from hands-on experience in building maintenance and restoration.   Although academic training is important, there is no substitute for actual experience in paint preparation, window restoration and building repair.  Our expertise in modern maintenance methods as well as 19th century carpentry and house joinery using Civil War era tools and techniques makes Historic Design Consulting stand apart from other consultants and colorists.  

To get your own historic paint color report for your Victorian era house or business, visit our web page at and click on the Paint Colors button in the Our Services Menu.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

The Second Empire Style

Many 19th century building styles, including the Federal, Greek Revival, Gothic Revival and Italianate, were inspired by historic precedents and featured antique details such as lancet arches, brackets and classical architraves.  Around the middle of the century, however, some Americans opted for a more “modern” style which emulated fashionable designs current in Paris.  This modern style, called the Second Empire, proved to be especially popular in the Midwest and Northeast following the Civil War and many examples remain in small towns and large cities alike.

One outstanding example is the Early Mansion, a 1875 house built by D. Carr Early in Sac City, IA.  A native of Freeburg, OH, Early pre-empted a quarter section of land near Sac City in 1857 and prospered due to his investments in a local bank and railroad.   He built a grand home in the fashionable Second Empire style and had its furnishings delivered via ox cart from Fort Dodge, IA, which was 60 miles distant across the open prairie.  

The 1875 Early Mansion in Sac City, IA.
   What distinguishes the Second Empire?  First and foremost is the mansard roof.  This dual-pitched roof design, named after the 17th century French architect Fran├žois Mansart (1598-1666), allowed more efficient use of attic space.  The design proved so practical that many existing buildings with traditional roofs were remodeled with the mansard.  High style examples of the Second Empire often feature towers, elaborate molded hoods over windows and brackets along the cornice. Despite being considered a “modern” style, its detailing (apart from the mansard roof) closely resembles the picturesque Italianate style popular since the 1840s.  

Closeup showing the elaborate porch, brackets and window hoods.

Another fine Iowa example of the Second Empire style is the Harker House in Storm Lake, IA.  This cottage was built by 1875 by J. M. Russell for $500 dollars.  Although smaller than the Early Mansion, the Harker House features many of the same design elements.  The Harker House has been preserved as a house museum with many of its original furnishings thanks to efforts of Russell's granddaughter Nora Harker.  

The 1875 Harker House in Storm Lake, IA. 

You might ask "What exactly does the name Second Empire mean?"  The Second Empire refers to the regime of Napoleon III who ruled France between 1852 and 1870 (the First Empire was, of course, the regime of his uncle Napoleon Bonaparte).  One major project of Napoleon III was the modernization of medieval Paris into a modern capital city capable of supporting its burgeoning population.   Napoleon III tasked Baron Haussmann with renovating the old city and, over the following decades, virtually all of medieval Paris was demolished and replaced with the grand boulevards and buildings we recognize today. The design for many of the buildings built in Haussmann's new Paris was based on Renaissance precedents and incorporated the Mansard roof. The Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1855 and the International Exhibition in London in 1867 popularized the new style and it was to become popular in style books in the United States.

To visit the Harken House, check out their web page  or visit their Facebook page. 


Thursday, December 24, 2015

Maintenance Plans and Report for Historic Homes and Businesses

Is your paint peeling or plaster cracked? We can help!

Is your Victorian-era storefront or Queen Anne home looking a little worse for the wear?  You can take some comfort because help is one the way! Historic Design Consulting is very happy to announce a new  service for owners of historic homes and businesses: Maintenance plans and reports.  As historic buildings age they present special challenges to their owners.  Exposure to the elements and years of wear and tear not only affect the appearance of a building but can also compromise its structural integrity.  While some deterioration is inevitable over time, decay can accelerate if a building does not undergo regular maintenance.  Deferred maintenance can lead to substantial problems while emergency repairs made during a crisis or critical failure can alter or irreparably damage  historic materials.   Inappropriate repairs and replacement are especially important in designated historic districts and down towns because the integrity of an historic buildings is an important factor its eligibility for many tax credits and grants. Furthermore, regular maintenance is far more cost effective than the replacement of deteriorated, historic features.  

Historic Design offers two maintenance services: Maintenance plans and maintenance reports.  Maintenance plans are comprehensive documents describing the upkeep of an entire building and include care recommendations, a maintenance schedule and step-by-step instructions showing you what to do, how to do it and when.  A maintenance report focuses on a particular issue with precise instructions.  Typical issues include:

  • Care of windows and doors
  • Repair of cracking plaster on walls and ceilings
  • Deteriorated or dirty finishes on mill work and molding  
  • Recommendations for interior and exterior painting
  • Care of masonry, bricks and stonework
  • Refinishing front doors
For more information about Historic Design's maintenance plans and reports, please visit our website and  If you have questions about a particular maintenance issue on your historic home or business, click on the "Contact Us" link to send us a message.

Saturday, January 10, 2015


Special Offer on Color Consults!

Just $249 for a limited time only.

$50 discount on all exterior paint consults

for the 2016 painting season.

Vintage 1890s advertisement  for
C.T. Raynolds Paint

The 2016 painting season will soon begin!  Historic Design Consulting is offering a special promotion for House Color Consults to kick off the 2016 painting season.  If you are planning to paint your Victorian-era home or business this Spring or Summer this is a special opportunity to save extra money while restoring your property using authentic Victorian colors. If you book your color consult before April 1st, 2016, Historic Design Consulting will complete a custom color report for a discounted price of only $249.00 ($50 discount from regular price of $299).  When many consultants charge fees of $400 or even more for a color consultation, a custom report for only $249 is a real value.   If the clock is already ticking and you need your custom report in a hurry, Historic Design offers expedited consults for a modest upcharge of only $50.  To get started, please visit the Historic Design Webpage and click on the Paint Colors button today.  

Historic Design Consulting specializes in assisting home and business owners select color schemes that will  reflect the customer's tastes and be appropriate for the style, age and setting of their historic properties. We use period paint swatches, brochures and advertising to develop authentic, period color schemes that complement your home or business's surroundings and accent its special features.  Our reports include a custom color palette, color maps and specially prepared photos that show how your home will look when all the work is done. 

We hope to hear from you soon!

Sunday, December 28, 2014

A Few More Recipes for the Victorian Home

In a previous post I transcribed a few helpful recipes for housekeeping and home maintenance found in a 19th century receipt book.  I promised that some more recipes were soon to follow and here they are!  These recipes and hints come from an older publication, Mrs. Winslow's Domestic Receipt Book, published in 1869 by Jeremiah Curtis & Sons and John I. Brown & Sons of New York, NY.

  To Remove Mortar or Paint from Window Glass:
Rub mortar spots with a stiff brush dipped in sharp, hot vinegar and paint-spots with camphene and sand.

To Purify a Sink or Drain:  Dissolve one-half pound copperas in two gallons of water.  Pour in half this liquid one day, and the other half the next day.

To Extract Oil and Grease Spots from Carpets:  If oil is spilled on a carpet, put on plenty of white flour, and do it as soon as possible, to prevent the oil spreading.  If the oil is near a seam, but does not reach it, rip the seam, in order to stop it.  Put flour on the floor under the oil spot.  The next day brush up all the flour from the carpet and the floor with a stiff brush, and repeat the putting on of fresh flour.  It will not need it the third time.  To take the grease spots rub them with a bit of white flannel dipped in spirits of turpentine.  If they show again, repeat the process.  It is well to put paper under the carpet, when grease spots are on the floor, as no scouring will remove them entirely.   

To Keep Steel Knives from Rust:  Have them rubbed bright, and perfectly dry; have a soft rag, and rub each blade with dry wood ashes.  Wrap them in thick brown paper, and place them in a dry closet.  If taken care of in this way, they may be kept years free from rust.  

And, for the hungry reader:

Tomato Catsup:  Slice the tomatoes, and sprinkle with salt.  Boil one hour, and strain through a course sieve.  For every gallon, slice two large onions, add one-half spoonful of ginger, two spoonful cloves, two spoonful allspice, one teaspoon black pepper.  Boil twenty minutes after these are added, and keep it in a covered jar.

Tripe Curry:  Boil two pounds of tripe and cut it into strips; peel two large onions and cut them into square pieces, and put the onions into a stew pan with three tablespoons butter. Let it stew till brown, stirring well and mixing a tablespoon curry powder.  Now add one pint of milk and cut up the tripe.  Let all stew for an hour, skimming it well.  Serve in a deep dish with boiled rice also to eat it with.  An East India curry powder is made thus: -- Pound very fine in a mortar six ounces of coriander seed, three-fourths of an ounce of cayenne, one and one-half ounces of foenugreek seed, one ounce cummium seed, and three ounces tumeric.  These articles can be bought at a druggists.  Pound fine, sift through fine muslin, spread on a dish and dry before the fire for three hours , stirring frequently.  Keep this in a bottle with a glass stopper.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Michigan House Detective

A recent book by Fred Peterson titled Homes in the Heartland describes the evolution of the balloon-frame farmhouse in the upper Midwest.  Peterson notes one characteristic of many, first generation farmhouses: an eclectic nature where they were built in stages with several additions.  

When settlers arrived in the Midwest one of their first priorities was building shelter.  This might be a log cabin or a small, hastily built frame house.  As the family established themselves in their new home, earned some money and had more children, the original home rapidly became insufficient.  Some abandoned their old log house and used it as a barn or shed.  Others built additions onto their simple home and added fashionable Greek Revival or Victorian ornament to display the family's growing prosperity.  Indeed, many Midwestern log cabins and first-generation claim shacks survive to this day cocooned within clapboard siding or surrounded by later additions.

This presents us with many opportunities to play "house detective" and try to determine the history of a building. Consider this example: A Greek Revival farmhouse built somewhere in Michigan. Take a look at the photo below and try to be a house detective yourself.  How many additions do you see? Which section is the oldest?  In what order were they built?   See what you can figure out and then continue reading to see if you agree with me

A ca. 1905 photograph showing a proud Michigan family and their Greek Revival farmhouse.
    I can identify three different sections: 1) the story-and-a-half, Greek Revival house on the right 2) A middle section with wide siding 3) The section to the left with narrow clapboard siding. 

Which section is the oldest?  It it impossible to say with absolute certainty, but I believe the section to the right is the oldest.  The Greek Revival was an early building style popular during the middle of the 19th century, suggesting it was likely built first around the time of the Civil War.  The multi-paned, nine-over-six window glazing is characteristic of the style as are the the gable returns and frieze boards.  This section most certainly has a centrally located, side entrance with a three or four room floor plan. The entrance door we see on the corner is certainly a later addition, as this would be a very unusual arrangement on a Greek Revival style home. 

Nine-over-six window
Most often the first addition to a simple farmhouse was a kitchen as it allowed the family to remove the heat from the wood stove and cooking odors from the main part of the house. These additions frequently included a small pantry or an additional bedroom. In this case the kitchen addition is the middle section. We find many Midwestern and Northeastern farmhouses configured this way and they are called an upright-and-wing or a gable-and-wing. Although some were built this way at the beginning many, like this example, were built this way in stages.  

How do I know that the house wasn't built this way originally?  Because of the kitchen's wide siding. Although the builder added some Greek Revival style molding along the eaves with decorative posts on the wash porch, the wide siding suggests it was built at a different time.  Furthermore, since there is bit of the wide siding on the story-and-a-half section, this suggests that original, narrow clapboards were removed when the kitchen addition was built.   When the new entrance door was added at the right corner they used the new kitchen siding on the older section of the house. The original, centrally located entrance door became the interior door leading to the kitchen addition.  Since the kitchen window is also multi-paned, this time six-over-six, I suspect the kitchen was added fairly early in the house's history. 

We are left with the section to the left.  It is distinct from the kitchen addition due to the narrow, clapboard siding.  Although the builder again continued the band of molding across the front and added gable returns, the plain, one-over-one window glazing suggests this could be a later addition, perhaps from the 1880s or later.  Although it is possible that the window is a replacement of an original, the very simple casing around it suggests a later date. Another possibility is that is section was actually another, older building which was moved in and attached with newer style windows installed.  Only a close examination could tell us for sure. 

One-over-one window sashes with
simple casing.
There are other ways to date additions, although they are difficult with photographs such as this.  Square nails were commonly used until 1880s when wire nails (also called French nails) became prevalent.  Another easy way is to look at the foundation.  Early foundations were often made from rubble stone found in the fields. By examining the type of stones, blocks, brick and mortar you can often identify the order in which additions were built.

So, how did I do?  Do you agree with me?  If not, post a comment and let me know!

The next time you are driving about in the country, look around and see if you can identify an early farmhouse.  Then try your hand at house detective and discover a bit of a family's history.