What gives a historic building its defining character? It may be the era, the type of building—but often, it’s what’s inside that captures the imagination.
While some buildings are purely functional, for many of our country’s oldest buildings, the purpose is larger, and this story is told through the details and finishes of their interiors. Government buildings were intended to convey the importance of democracy. Libraries were intended to make learning accessible to all. Our cities’ most iconic buildings carry a sense of community history.
They are treasures of metal work, marble, intricate plaster details, decorative painting and ornamental trims. A grand staircase. Fine wood wainscoting. Intricately painted murals.
For example, entering the Oklahoma Capitol Building, which will undergo interior restoration beginning in 2016, a visitor is greeted with open rotundas connected by marble staircases, a space of luxe materials and intricate detail.
During the building’s construction, The Daily Oklahoman described it this way: “Visitors are now able to comprehend in an imaginative way the wonderful architectural beauty of the edifice as it will be when completed, especially as they stand on the basement floor at one of the entrances. The Oklahoma Capitol will invite future visitors with an impression of monumental loftiness.”
“In a historic building, a lot of thought was put into details that you are seeing from 100 feet away— shadows, highlights, one extra stroke of metallic finish that creates the perception of depth on a wall,” says Todd Renyer, architect with Treanor Architects Preservation studio.
Playing historic detective. Interior preservation isn’t just restoring what is worn or has suffered neglect over time. It means uncovering details and design features that building owners might not be aware of—those hidden under a coat of paint, dropped ceiling or modern “update.” It may also mean reconstructing original details that have been removed or repairing well-intentioned “fixes” from the past.
Historic photos, floor plans and documentation are a good place to start, along with physical exploration of the building itself. Detective work may involve nondestructive or destructive investigative techniques, from removing cover plates and lights to creating an exposure window to remove paint one layer at a time.
Testing can help to determine the condition and age of finishes and a path to restoration. Historic metals, for example, tarnish over time; they may need gentle cleaning and new lacquers or protective layers. Copper-plated cast iron or painted metals can be damaged by corrosive housekeeping processes or age, and may need tinted lacquer or waxes to restore their appearance. Marble floors often have scratches and chips, and need partial repair or full restoration.
Old light fixtures can be brought up to standard by repairing internal parts and using catalogue reproduction fixtures. Cracks in plaster, from time or electrical installation, can be patched and blended. Crown molding damaged by water and decorative paint techniques can be recreated.
Sometimes, you find more than expected. At the Kansas Statehouse, workmen repairing a leaky ceiling in the House of Representatives chambers revealed a hidden mural. When test scrapes showed there were actually four murals, a full-scale art restoration began, says Jeff Russell, who served as Kansas’ legislative services director at the time.
“It is the interior beauty of this building that is the showstopper, and with this restoration, we honor the building, its history and the work that happens there,” says Russell. “In a building like this, perhaps you’ll stand a little straighter and listen a little more. It takes people’s breath away.”
Choosing what to restore. Historically, the more opulent and high quality finishes, such as metals, marble and oak, were used in public spaces, with private spaces finished in simpler materials. “Today, we do the same and often spend money where most people would see it,” says Renyer. “We start with classification of spaces by historic significance. The highest level of integrity rises to a higher level of preservation. Lower significances are not treated with the same rules.”
It’s a careful dance between what historic standards require, the level of importance of individual features, the budget and additional project goals. In restoring the Dillon House, a prominent Topeka mansion, for its corporate headquarters, real estate development firm Pioneer Group (Topeka, KS) wanted to showcase its historic rehabilitation work, as well as create offices and hospitality spaces for the growing company.
“We wanted to achieve a thing of beauty,” says President Ross Freeman, who chose the building in part because he felt a personal connection to it and its creator. That required an investment in the building’s rich finishes, from oak hardwood floors and fireplaces in the upstairs offices to the grand staircase and a library of stained glass windows featuring English authors and poets. “When they cleaned those windows for the first time in 104 years, the colors came alive,” Freeman recalls.
History as identity. Often, historic details can take on a life of their own—inspiring private building owners and public citizens alike. They may even become part of a brand identity for the building occupant.
That’s what happened in Pittsburg, Kansas, where a restoration and expansion of the community’s Carnegie library revealed the historic significance of its Prairie architecture. Today, those distinct Prairie details are a part of the library’s identity— appearing on its letterhead, signage and throughout daily library life.
When viewed through the lens of history and preservation, paying close attention to interior finishes is an opportunity to revive the context of our historic buildings and pass that on to future generations. The end result is more than a decision to repair an alabaster railing, reclaim a painted rotunda or find room in a budget for hardwood floors.
“A state capitol, for example, was never meant to be ‘just a building.’ It’s a piece of art and a showpiece for our state. It is our front door to the world,” says Trait Thompson, project manager for Oklahoma’s Capitol Renovation. “In restoring it, you’ve just saved an integral part of your culture.”
COMING SOON: We’ll be taking an in-depth look at some of the interior finishes that define our most treasured historic buildings. Watch for future emails to help you make the most of yesterday’s interiors.
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