Three ways an old house is trend proof

Have you suffered from decorating analysis-paralysis because you’re afraid something you choose today is going to look out of style in a few short years? You can bypass that fear in at least three instances if you have an old house.

Hardware color. Black, brass, chrome, nickel—you can choose the finish you want without fearing it will become dated in a historic house. That’s because each of these finishes has been popular at different times over the decades, and in an old house, whatever you choose will likely look original to the home. In my house, I have black, brass, and chrome, and I never feel like they compete or don’t go with the house.

Try your darndest to keep whatever original hardware you can, right down to the door hinges. Not only will this save you money, but the old ones are flat made better than anything you’ll buy new. For instance, I have 14 crystal doorknobs in my house. Eight are original, and six are reproductions. Two of them have broken since we finished remodeling in August. I’ll let you guess if the broken ones are the originals or reproductions.

Brass hardware + wallpaper + dark ceiling = divinity

Wallpaper. Wallpaper has been hung in houses for hundreds of years, so if you love a print on the walls, go for it. In a historic house, it will never look out of place.

Cute wallpaper in a scene from The Greatest Showman

That’s not to say that any print will stand the test of time or that you’ll like a certain pattern forever. To avoid getting sick of the pattern, select something timeless like plaid, stripes, damask, toile, or even some florals, and steer clear of chevron, birch trees, and other faddish motifs. And if you want to play it really safe, install removable wallpaper.

via—the New Room in Mount Vernon after a restoration that concluded in 2014. Note the wallpaper borders around the millwork and mantel. By the way, Mount Vernon is one of my favorite places on the earth. Get there if you have to crawl.

Paint color. Old houses love color, and old-house owners should feel free to indulge. Famous historic homes like Monticello and Mount Vernon are loaded with color, which was often selected by the upper crust as a way to show off their prosperity; pigment was expensive, and it cost more (sometimes much more) to have colored walls.

via—Monticello dining room. For an exact match, try Ralph Lauren Monticello Yellow.

Early on, pigment was often mixed into plaster, and according to Old House Online, the first colored paints were mixed on site by blending dry pigments available locally, like sand from a nearby beach or powders from the desert. Selecting more obscure pigments from afar resulted in higher prices. Prussian blue (dark blue with green undertones) was one of the first “it” colors, making a splash in the 1700s, and people went nuts for it. It wasn’t until the 1870s that pre-mixed paints arrived on the scene. After that, it was easier for people to get the shades they wanted.

So don’t shy away from colors you love because chances are, they’ll feel appropriate in a historic house. Part of the reason is that every shade has enjoyed popularity at some point historically. If you are loving pink, so did ladies in the 1920s and ’50s. Falling hard for sage? You would have seen that color in houses in the 1930s and early 1800s.

Surprise—this is new construction! But the yellow trim makes it feel historic (and awfully happy). 

If you choose color (including color on the trim), it will not only feel timeless but appropriate for an old house, adding to the perceived depth and history of the home. Like the house evolved over the years. Which it has.

P.S. Wanna fall down a beautiful rabbit hole? Sherwin-Williams’s Color Through the Decades is a visual delight. •

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5 thoughts

    1. What a fun project! I can’t wait to see what you build. For starters, there are hundreds of online resources that identify characteristics common in 1930s homes, but actually, I’d prefer to take a trip to the library. They have many books with similar information, and some have actual house plans from decades gone by. Also, the local Historic Preservation Commission sometimes holds summer tours where you can get inside old houses, and lots of the ones featured locally were built in the ’30s.

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  1. I can’t believe how much I love painted trim! And your master bedroom! How the walls AND trim are all the same color! You definitely know what you’re doing!

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