By Patricia Poore
The snow has melted and good weather approaches. Go across the street, turn around, and look at your house. Critically. Take a picture. Undoubtedly it needs a little work. Not a full-blown facelift, perhaps—neither a new porch nor a whole-house paint job. But what about a good cleaning, cosmetics, and a new outfit? Here are some ideas for low- to medium-cost improvements with immediate payback.
The fun part—planting pansies and hanging new curtains—can only come after the grunt work. (Call the kids!) Move the trashcans and clean around them. Clear the porch or entry steps and sweep. Hose everything down. Wash the windows (at least the front ones). Wash down doors and trim around the entry. Clear the gutters. Prune plants that touch the house.
The ultimate cosmetic, and inexpensive if you pick your spot and do it yourself. Consider first the front door, to rejuvenate a worn entry or to add punch. (The door is often done in an accent color, different from the body and trim.) Other rewarding places to paint: porch parts, porch decking, ornaments, window sash. See Choosing Victorian Exterior Paint Colors for inspiration.
Emergency (911) regulations have made better signing of the address mandatory. Make it a period statement: gold leaf on a transom, hand-painted numbers on a street-front mailbox, or numerals made of anything from ceramic tile to brass, iron, or bronze. These are available in styles from early American to Art Deco, with fonts reminiscent of Victoriana, the bungalow era, Art Nouveau, and Frank Lloyd Wright.
It’s amazing how often a tidy approach is marred by a cheap and dented (or plastic) mailbox. Again, it’s a small but significant place to splurge on good materials (say, verdigris copper) and period style.
Redoing the landscape or planting a border may not be in the budget this year, but annuals planted in containers—on the entry path, steps, or porch—add exuberant color and life for up to three seasons. Install hooks on the porch for hanging planters. Think about window boxes too, on the first floor, or across a prominent bay. And specimen grasses planted in the dooryard will give you years of low-maintenance appeal.
Replacement windows are fraught with expense and the possibility of remuddling. But windows may not need replacing. Beyond the obvious fixes—a good washing, weatherstripping, painting—how do they “read” as part of the façade? Many old-house styles were meant to have dark sash—black or brown, bottle green, maroon or Indian read—which helps glass recede. (Does your white sash create a blank stare?) How about curtains? I put three lace panels in a porminent oriel window and it gave a finished impression to the whole front!
Replace a home-center pot-metal entry lamp with a period reproduction for under $200 and change the quality statement of the entry in one move. With a bigger budget, you can add lighting to driveway, entry path, or porch. Beauty comes from not only the fixtures themselves, but also from the soft lighting accents on specimen trees or the house. The change can be dramatic. (And safety is improved.)
A New Door
If paint won’t do it, consider springing for a new (high quality) front door, especially if the old one is energy-inefficient, badly worn, or is a style anachronism.
Old entry door or new, what about swapping out the builder’s hardware for a period-style entry set in iron, brass, or bronze? Throw in a matching doorbell and perhaps a mail slot.
Gutters & Leaders
Copper gutters and fittings can be art objects, adding long-lived dignity to houses from Federal to Tudor.
An old house deserves real wood shutters in the right size, so this isn’t a cheap redo. But shutters add immediate appeal that brings out the history and style of storybook, Colonial Revival, Dutch Colonial, and cottage architecture. You need not add shutters to every window or every elevation.
Expense can be reasonable (for a single porch awning, say) to more significant, but again the rewards are high. Old-fashioned canvas-type awnings evoke another era like nothing else, while cutting air-conditioning costs and protecting furnishings from fading.
Go from the end-of-winter pileup to a room plan. First stow shovels and sports gear someplace else. A few traditional, well proportioned pieces give a sense of order and invite rest—a nice welcome home. Consider a hammock, outdoor wicker, a lineup of green, white, or primary-color rockers, a bench or table, all arranged for conversation or napping.
Published in: Old-House Interiors March/April 2009
Paint: Paint manufacturers that integrate a respect for history into their paint colors.
Exterior Accessories: Mailboxes, house numbers, and other outdoor accessories to outfit your house in style.
Windows: Reproduction and storm windows for your old home. Also see: shutters.
Lighting: Early American through mid-century modern fixtures.
Doors Authentic and period-inspired doors.
Hardware: Antique and reproduction hardware.
Outdoor Furniture: Weather-proof reproductions of period furniture.