Irreplaceable Old House Features
Old houses have many beautiful features that you just can’t find in newer homes.
We’re talking about wide-plank pumpkin pine floors, beautiful Victorian moldings, and many other details both large and small. These are the features old house lovers treasure. There are, I think, two main reasons why some of the best features of old houses aren’t found in new homes. The first reason is that highly skilled craftsmanship has become rare and extremely expensive. The once-rigorous apprenticeship system is a thing of the past. House construction materials have become increasingly modular—designed to be installed without much skill. The other reason is that the wealth of high-quality old-growth timber that this continent once was blessed with is now gone.
Old-growth timberis strong and rot resistance. It is also a lot more beautiful—especially when it comes to softwoods such as pine.Nothing adds to the character of an old home quite like the pronounced grain patterns and warm orange color of those wide-plank floors we often refer to as pumpkin pine. These floors typically were milled from old-growth longleaf pine which once was one of the most common species of wood on this continent.
The photo shows a sample of old-growth long leaf atop a piece of the soft and featureless quickly grown pine you’ll find at a lumberyard. Appearance aside, new pine is just too soft to wear well as flooring. Today, old growth pine is only available as reclaimed wood that’s more costly than the most expensive hardwoods. You’ll only find reclaimed woods used for flooring in very high-end homes.
Just as an as an aside, there are two ways wood is reclaimed. One way, as you might guess, is by salvaging it from old buildings. The other is by harvesting “sinker” logs from river bottoms. Before railroads and trucks, logs were transported by floating them down rivers.In the process, some logs sunk. Because the logs were not exposed to air, they were preserved, waiting 120 or more years to be harvested. Of course harvesting involves scuba divers and specially equipped boats, so you can image why this would is so costly.
Until well into the 20th century, beautiful moldings were an important status symbol and selling point for a house. Not so much now of course--many high-end new houses don’t even have casings around the windows and doors. I’m guessing that one reason for this is that that buyers of new houses tend to be focused on lots of space and on amenities—stuff like master baths with Jacuzzi tubs and the latest and greatest kitchen appliances. Since this stuff that didn't exist in earlier centuries, builders focused on making houses beautiful.
And the moldings you do see are almost always painted—rarely do you see clear-coated hardwoods anymore. That kind of wood is just too expensive now except for very high- end homes. Most of today’s molding stock is made of finger-jointed scraps of pine or increasingly, extruded PVC. Truthfully the plastic molding are superior to new painted wood—plastic is more stable and uniform—it doesn’t warp and joints don’t open up.
But for lovers of old houses, moldings are still a big selling point. And if the molding sports an original clear finish, that’s a big plus.
I won’t go into all the varieties of wood that were used to create moldings but I did want to mention chestnut, shown in the photo below. Old chestnut moldings are often mistaken for oak because the grain is similar. But chestnut was actually a much more popular wood for making moldings. There are several reasons. At one time about one in four trees was American chestnut—so it was readily available. It was lightweight, and you could drive finish nails into it—something you can’t do with oak and other hardwoods unless you predrill every hole. It was also a lot more stable than most other woods, which meant humidity changes wouldn't cause gaps in joints due to wood shrinkage. And of course, it looked great with just a couple of coats of shellac
Tragically by the 1940s, the species was all but wiped out by the chestnut blight. So if you see unpainted chestnut molding, you have particularly a valuable and irreplaceable feature.
Some of the finest moldings installed during the 18th and 19th centuries weren’t wood at all, they were made of plaster. Because it requires lots of skill and time, plaster molding was always expensive. As a result, it has always been a status symbol and except for the very rich, it was reserved for rooms that would receive guests such as the parlor and living room.
Ornate plasterwork ranged from relatively simple ceiling fixture medallions consisting of concentric circles that were formed in place, to highly detailed moldings that were cast in molds and then applied to walls and ceilings.
As you can see in the photo below , plaster can be formed around curved walls, something that’s very hard to do with wood. Like other architecture details, plaster—and wood—molding styles changed over the decades and can help date an old house. We’ll talk about architectural styles in a later blog.
By the way, while we are talking about plaster, I should mention that lath and plaster walls have been used for hundreds of years and were the most common interior wall surface until the second world war. Drywall was invented around in 1916 but was virtually ignored by the construction industry until World War II created a domestic labor shortage. Builders began using drywall because it could be installed quickly and less skill was required. By the 50s, with the huge housing demand created by the GI bill, lath and plaster was pretty much a thing of the past. The slightly wavy plaster surface is part of the charm of an old house—drywall seems sterile by comparison. Also, as anyone who has lived in an old house can tell you, plaster and lath walls are much more sound-proof than drywall.