“The most beautiful aspect of working with historic homes is hearing the family stories that go with them,” says Michelle Viscomi. Having completed five historic home renovations in Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, she has a base of experience from which to speak. Most of the houses had been built between 1928 and 1938.
Initially trained as a speech therapist, Viscomi never expected to get into the rehabilitation of old homes, but she was raised in a farmhouse in the Midwest and those roots gave her an appreciation and sense of place. “And, I love old things,” she adds. Her attention to detail is obvious standing under the curving arches that mirror the beveled ones on the marble fireplace mantel of this home on Fleetwood Drive.
￼￼Her favorite architectural style is Tudor, one that is seen in abundance on Lookout. Viscomi says it’s important to be true to the bones of the house. “If you want to be trendy, do it with décor. Be careful with the actual construction restoration.” She also adds that remodelers can’t go wrong using period materials if they have the means, but many are expensive and not always necessary. Using natural materials and replacing old windows with practical new ones win over absolute accuracy in a rehabilitation project. Comfort is important.
Viscomi frequently relies on Earl Chandler with Future Trends Construction who worked on this recent 5,200-square-foot family home. “He attends to details when no one else will.” Andrea Hardee and Susan Stein often help her with interiors.
Homeowners who have possession of a truly historic property feel a responsibility to maintain its authentic character. Missionary Ridge homeowners Russell and Linda Friberg have been faithful to the ideal.
“We replaced our roof with slate because we felt it was important to remain true to the original design, materials and features planned by the architect over 100 years ago.”
Rehabilitation as a Treatment
According to the National Park Service, Rehabilitation is defined as the act or process of making possible a compatible use for a property through repair, alterations, and additions while preserving those portions or features that convey its historical, cultural, or architectural values.
In its publication, Guidelines for the Treatment of Historic Properties practical applications of treatment standards to historic properties are illustrated. (These Guidelines are also available in PDF format. Go to nps.gov)
Doing the Work
Local Chattanooga company, Renew, seeks to meet a huge demand for rehabilitated housing right now in the city and region. It specializes in homes built during the late 1800s though 1930, since that time frame represents the largest number of available homes.
The three-year-old company with its office on East Main Street has completed projects in Ridgedale, St. Elmo, Highland Park and the Belvoir area of Brainerd. Co-founder and Managing Partner Jay Martin says keeping up with demand for housing in the city is challenging.
“There seems to be about a 30 percent shortage of skilled labor, right now,” says Martin. Co-founder and Director of Design, Sarah Kinnamon creates new interiors for the properties. They call what they practice—knowledge-based design. Kinnamon says in most of these home renovations have been done over the years, but no one has been doing them very well. “We have to undo most of what has been done, so we can start again,” she says. “These homes have wonderful old bones and many beautiful details.”
“We try to recover the original architectural intent and retain the character of these historic places,” says Martin. As the design team preserves character, it is also charged with opening spaces, creating more light sources and adding modern amenities, including green features, to the houses.
The company has two project managers and an environmental engineering intern working for them. They hire teams of subcontractors. “We have talented people who see opportunity in these homes,” adds Martin. “And maintaining good relationships with these teams can make your business better, not to mention improving these neighborhoods.”
He feels they are also improving and supporting the revitalization of Main Street by redeveloping the building housing their own office. The 2,500 square-foot bungalow serves Renew and a ceramic studio in the same property. In fact, the next commercial project is at 1155 East Main Street—the old Mr. T Tire store—where they will be peeling back layers of earlier renovation efforts. Many people hope that the revitalization efforts on Main Street will continue on—all the way up to Missionary Ridge’s most elegant and vintage homes, like the Friberg’s. Residential homebuyers may or may not understand all the detailed work that goes back into historic properties, but they seem pleased with outcome. “We love this house,” says Linda Friberg. “And now it has a roof that will last another 100 years.”
Choosing an appropriate treatment for a historic building or landscape is critical.
Preservation focuses on the maintenance and repair of existing historic materials and retention of a property’s form as it has evolved over time.
Rehabilitation acknowledges the need to alter or add to a historic property to meet continuing or changing uses while retaining the property’s historic character.
Restoration depicts a property at a particular period of time in its history, while removing evidence of other periods.
Reconstruction re-creates vanished or non-surviving portions of a property for interpretive purposes.
The choice of treatment depends on a variety of factors, including the property’s historical significance, physical condition, proposed use, and intended interpretation.
Photography by Neelu Eldukar and courtesy of Renew