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Preserving Interior Features in Your Historic Building | Wisconsin Historical Society

General Information

Preserving Interior Features in Your Historic Building

Preserving Interior Features in Your Historic Building | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeCommercial interior

Schuette Bros. Grocery Department

Manitowoc, Wisconsin. In this grocery store, notice how every square inch of floor and wall was used to display food for sale. Especially interesting are the shelves circling the structural column. Source: WHS Archives. View the original source document: WHI 61849

Your historic commercial building may have original interior features that reflect its historic use, such as wall shelves, display cases, counters, light fixtures and staircases. Each of these elements is an important character-defining feature of your building. You should preserve and maintain these original features whenever possible and incorporate them into your new building use. Not only do these features contribute to your building’s historic character, especially in the public spaces of your building, but it may even be less costly to keep them than to demolish or remove them.

If you plan to rehabilitate your historic commercial building, make an inventory of its original features and consider how you can preserve or reuse them in your business. If you will be using federal or state tax credits to rehabilitate your building, you may be required to preserve and maintain your building’s significant interior features such as the features described below.

Preserve Your Original Light and Mechanical Fixtures

EnlargeOriginal light fixture

Mabel Tainter Memorial Theater, 1889

Menomonie, Wisconsin. If original light fixtures are found in place or perhaps stored in the attic, these should be retained. Often times original light fixtures are rewired to meet current electrical codes. Source: WHS Archives. View the original source document: WHI 68386

If your building has original light or mechanical fixtures, you may want to keep and preserve them. The oldest commercial buildings in Wisconsin were lit with gas lights, but these fixtures were all replaced with electric lights by the early 20th century. If your building still has disconnected gas sconces, you may want to keep these historic features in place. When electric lights became widely available in the early 1900s, many building owners installed light fixtures that were suspended from the ceiling or wall sconces. You may find that these fixtures are still in place in your building, in either their original condition or rewired condition. If you have these original fixtures, consider keeping the globes or sconces and updating the wiring. If you need additional lighting, add compatible new light fixtures or those based on historic designs. Many companies now provide period light fixtures appropriate for late 19th and early 20th century commercial buildings.  

Your building may also retain remnants of original mechanical units, such as furnaces and radiators. These units are probably no longer functional, but you will help to preserve the character and tell the history of your building by keeping them in place. You can refinish radiators as decorative elements or even rehabilitate them as part of a new heating system.

Preserve Your Original Skylights and Staircases

Historic commercial buildings were often illuminated by natural light from skylights located on the roof in the center of a building. These skylights were constructed of steel or wood and glass and placed on hipped or gable roofs. They were especially popular for one-story buildings, but they were also used in multi-story buildings with central lightwells. In the mid-20th century, many building owners removed or concealed their skylights when they added modern lighting and dropped ceilings. If your building has any existing skylights, whether visible or concealed, you may want to keep and unveil them. Skylights can be an attractive historic feature, provide natural light and reduce your energy costs to illuminate your building.

If you have a multi-story building, the interior probably has an original staircase connecting each set of floors. These staircases can be significant defining features. Victorian-era buildings in particular may have milled newel posts and railings. In any rehabilitation project or adaptive reuse of your building, you should consider preserving these staircases in place or reusing them. Your historic staircases and stairwells may not meet today’s fire code regulations, but you can use methods to retrofit them to meet today’s safety standards.       

Preserve Your Original Counters and Shelves

EnlargeCommercial interior

Margraff & Freiburger's Dry Goods Store

New London, Wisconsin. In this historic photo, you can see the types of casework used to display items for sale - in this example, wood and glass cases are used to display cigars. Source: WHS Archives. View the original source document: WHI 10006

Many 19th and early 20th century commercial buildings contain shelving and display counters to arrange and display products for sale. As marketing, sales and technology changed in the mid-20th century, many building owners removed these original fixtures. If your building retains these rare fixtures, you may want to preserve, maintain and find an adaptive reuse for them. These fixtures typically offer high-quality craftsmanship, and they show a tangible association with the history and original function of your building.

Many 19th and early 20th century commercial buildings were built with a narrow width and a deep floor space. To make the best use of this space, merchants often lined the long walls with display and storage shelves. Stand-alone glass and wood counters and display cases and tables were also a common merchandising practice. You should preserve these original or historic counters and shelves whenever possible.

Preserve Your Unique Building Identity Features

EnlargeHistoric scale

Equipment such as scales are character-defining features and should be retained as part of any rehabilitation. Source: Phil Thomason.

If your building has any feature unique to its original function and use, you may want to preserve these features in place or adaptively reuse them if possible. Some examples of these unique features include:

  • Safes in banks and other financial institutions.
  • Scales in hardware and feed stores.
  • Pneumatic tubes used to transfer orders and payments between offices and floors in department stores.

Follow Best Practices

When you are making preservation and adaptive reuse decisions about the interior features of your historic commercial building, consider these preservation best practices:

  • Preserve and maintain your original light fixtures and mechanical units. Before you remove any original light fixtures or mechanical units, determine if they can be reused or left place as decorative features.
  • Preserve and maintain your original skylights and staircases. Preserve your original skylights and staircases if possible, and find an adaptive reuse if necessary. If reuse is not an option for you, preserve these features in place so future owners of your building have the option to reuse them.
  • Preserve and maintain your original shelving. Maintain your original shelving fixtures to preserve the architectural integrity of your building.
  • Repair your existing shelving and counters. If your building’s shelving or counters have minor damage, you can probably repair them yourself. Sand and refinish wood surfaces, and replace broken glass sections with new pieces. If your metal components show some oxidation, gently
    EnlargeBar Interior

    Bronk's Saloon

    Berlin, Wisconsin. The back bar at Rendezvous in Berlin is an example of a character-defining feature in a commercial space and should be retained. Source: Photographer Mark Fay View the property record: AHI 48606

    clean away the rust with a wire hand-brush.
  • Replace missing parts with in-kind materials. If your building’s shelving or counters are missing glass or metal parts, repair them with in-kind or compatible substitute materials.  
  • Preserve and reuse unique features in your building. If your building retains features that define the history and use of your building, consider preserving these features in place or adaptively reusing them in your business or that of your tenants.