Preserving Your Historic Building's Character | Wisconsin Historical Society

General Information

Preserving Your Historic Building's Character

Preserving Your Historic Building's Character | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeMansard roof

Brown County. With highly ornate roof lines such as this house, care should be taken when repairing exterior features. If an element is deteriorated beyond repair it must be replaced in-kind. When doing so the building's identity is retained. Source: WHS - State Historic Preservation Office.

If you own a historic house or building, you might wonder how historic preservation requirements could affect your renovation plans. You’ll want to know if you can add certain “creature comforts” to your house or building without destroying its original character. The good news is that historic preservation “best practices” recognize that buildings must evolve with the people who use them and with their changing needs.

As you begin your renovation project, you should consider how to achieve the right balance between keeping or restoring original features and providing updates for modern living. Whether you are renovating an older building as an investment or to live in the rest of your life, it is wise to keep future resale in mind.

Understand the Difference between Public and Private Space

The most important character-defining feature on any historic building is its public face — the one facing the street. This façade contains the architectural details, porches, windows and doors that especially define the building’s style and character. Therefore, historic preservation emphasizes maintaining the essential character of a building on its front face and readily visible side elevations.

If your building is in a historic district, any exterior changes you propose for your property may be subject to review. Many communities across Wisconsin have enacted a historic preservation ordinance with design review oversight of properties in historic districts by your local historic preservation commission (HPC). Design review in your historic district will be primarily concerned with preserving your building’s essential qualities and the overall appearance of the streetscape. Your HPC will focus on the “public” space of your property — the front and readily visible side elevations. Rear elevations are generally considered to be “private” space and are reviewed with greater flexibility.

The concept of private space also extends to the interior of your building. Your review board will not require any review of a proposed interior renovation unless it has some visual effect on the exterior of your building. However, if you apply for state or federal tax credits for your rehabilitation project, both the interior and exterior proposed renovations will be reviewed. Tax credit review allows a great deal of flexibility for interior renovations, but you may be required to preserve certain interior character-defining features such as staircases, pressed metal ceilings and original plaster walls. 

Follow Federal Preservation Standards

The Secretary of the Interior is the leading authority guiding preservation work. The Secretary of the Interior developed four different sets of standards (Preservation, Rehabilitation, Restoration and Reconstruction) to assist property owners with rehabilitation and restoration projects. The standards you should follow for your project are the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation. Consult these standards to guide you in making appropriate decisions when working on your property. It will also be helpful for you to become familiar with architectural and historic preservation vocabulary.

Renovate in Character with Your Original House or Building

EnlargeBuilding with addition

Cleveland's Hall & Blacksmith Shop, 1873

Albany, Wisconsin. This historic blacksmith shop has an appropriate addition. The addition is small in scale to allow the original building to be focal point while also using sympathetic materials to the original stone but not mimic-ing the original. Source: WHS - State Historic Preservation Office. View the property record: AHI 89478

When you are planning rehabilitation projects, you should use materials and designs that are consistent with the style and character of your house or building. Any future buyer will be drawn to the historic quality of your building, just as you were.

If you desire additional living space, your community’s design guidelines will probably allow an addition on the back or rear of your building. Such additions are not generally readily visible from the street and can be designed to be both contemporary and complementary to the original part of your house. Other rear additions that are common in historic districts include attached garages, “great rooms” and outdoor decks. 

Reclaim Lost Historic Character

EnlargeBrick building

Masonic Hall, 1869

Stoughton, Wisconsin. In the case of this building, the storefront was restored/recreated after having been covered with a material called Perma-stone for many years. Source: WHS - State Historic Preservation Office. View the property record: AHI 5879

Your historic house or building may have been built before the inventions of indoor plumbing, electricity, the automobile and central heating and cooling. If this is the case, your building has probably already been modified in some way to accommodate these modern conveniences. You can reverse many of these changes by restoring historic character and features that were removed or covered up over time. However, you should not add architectural features to your house or building that are not historically documented. By introducing architectural features that do not represent your building’s original appearance, you would present a false sense of history. Your goal is for your historic building to evoke its own particular place in time.

Some common renovation projects that can recover lost historic character include the following:

  • Removing the metal panels (slipcover) from the exterior of your building.
  • Installing wood shingles on your roof.
  • Revealing the original hardwood or linoleum floors that are covered with carpeting.
  • Removing added partition walls and restoring a room to its original size.
  • Restoring an enclosed fireplace.
  • Removing a dropped ceiling to expose the original ceiling above.