Restoring a House in the City : An Interview With Ingrid Abramovitch

When I was writing The Adventuress column for Domino, Ingrid Abramovitch was employed at our big sister publication House and Garden doing wonderful features on interior designers like Roy McMakin and Kelly Wearstler. Domino staffers always thought of HG in slightly competitively terms - maybe they were a little glossier, a little fancier - but they weren't as smart or scrappy. (Ok, there was some sibling rivalry going on.)

That all changed when Si Newhouse, owner of Conde Nast, dumped all of us into the pink slip club. (The bloodletting is still going on - goodbye great Gourmet and Cookie. Get ready Details and Allure - start messengering those office supplies home now).

Since getting fired, I have been mooning around in my troll pajamas worrying about money. Ingrid, on the other hand, has gotten a job at Workman Publishing and recently published a book called Restoring a House in the City, about twenty-one very different homes from a 1763 Colonial in Philadelphia to a 1920 Beaux-Arts Limestone in Washington, D.C. I got a copy and hate to admit it - but it looked glossy, glam and good.

Still . . . she was covering the lovely, helpful side of it all, and I, former scrappy Domino girl, wanted grit. So I called her.

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CK: Ingrid, let's get to the hardest part first. Renovation is hell. I've done three homes in fourteen years and it's almost always ruined my marriage. Was it true of the people you talked to?

IA: Every single one said it was incredibly stressful. I was interviewing Clem Labine, founder of The Old House Journal, who owns a brownstone in Park Slope, and is considered the godfather of the restoration movement in NYC. He told me not to even think about renovating an old house unless your marriage is completely sound. (His own marriage didn't make it through his very ambitious restoration.) Later, I was talking about the marital pressure of renovating to a couple who were embarking on one. My husband happened to be with me. I started asking questions. It turned out that the husband, a psychiatrist, wanted to save every period detail and his wife, a psychologist, wanted to fix everything so she didn't have any potential worries - i.e. new wiring so the house wouldn't burn down, new windows, etc. etc. They started arguing. I made suggestions while my husband kicked me under the table. The psychiatrist told me that I probably should stick to writing and not give out advice.

CK: Your book covers homes ranging from 89 to 246 years old. Each one took at least a year to do. Now that we've gotten through the worst thing that can come out of this reno fantasy - divorce - tell me the tricks you picked up about the smartest way to go about it.

IA: My best one came from Julianne Moore. She realized that you don't just buy and start renovating - even if you have the money - because you'll keep realizing new things and wanting to make more changes as you go - double hell. Live in the house and experience it first. People who do that always revise their plans around the way their lives really work. Julianne rented a brownstone that was similar to the one she was buying. In these old houses, bedrooms are on the top floor and the kitchen and playroom are often on the garden level. If she kept it that way, with the kids on the top, not only would she always be going up five flights of stairs, but there would be toys scattered over the entire house. So she put the playroom upstairs near the kids' bedrooms.

Older homes were designed for the social niceties of their era - parlors, formal dining rooms and living rooms. You might be tempted to set rooms up that way - but do you still live the Victorian lifestyle - with women in carriages, leaving calling cards in the late morning? Moore put her study in the front parlor because it is a beautiful room, and the one where she spends most of her time.

Others want to totally modernize and change a house without realizing that there is often a beautiful logic and flow to the original layout. The kitchen in many antique homes was on the ground floor. Maybe your inclination is to move it upstairs, where the light is better, but what about the lovely vegetable garden that you can have right outside and snip herbs whenever you need them? Get to know the house before you start knocking walls down.

Another great idea came from the architect Steven Harris who said that before you begin, you should make a list of what he calls "every wild ass idea" that you might ever want in your home. You want a fireman's pole running through three floors, like the one Adolf Loos designed for Josephine Baker's house in Paris? Put it down - because you can't go back on a reno. Once you've got your pie-in-the-sky list, then make your list of priorities because there is no point in having a beautiful Italian plaster job before you have a decent roof.

CK. Many of these houses have been through Jocelyn Wildenstein type renos. How do you even find out what the original place looked like?

IA: Detective Work. Richard Marks, who did the Charleston house on p. 20, is a forensic restoration contractor. He goes in and spends month studying every nail to date a house, finds ghost marks of where stairs and walls used to be, takes mortar from bricks and has it analyzed to make the same recipe again to match the original. Figures out who lived there, how many families, how they used the house, etc.

CK: Can you do this yourself?

IA: Yes, lots of it. Go to libraries, municipal archives, and historical societies. From 1867 to 1970, the Sanborn Map Company created fire insurance maps of more than 12,000 American towns and cities. They're called Plat books. Ask your library how to find the digitalized versions. They show every building's footprint, size, shape, materials, height, and location of windows and doors. Look at your neighbor's houses - those developers were the Levitts of the era and usually did every house on the block the same way, using the same sources and craftspeople. Then lots of my people find incredible material in their own attics or basement. When opening walls, you often find things because much wasn't removed, just covered over, like mantels and door openings. Knock on neighbor's doors--they may have old pictures of the street your house is on or information about previous renos.

CK: Do you think it is necessary to respect a house's historical integrity when you are renovating?

IA: That was the tension throughout my book: how faithful to the original should you be and how much leeway can you have? Attitudes change about this. One generation will be very preservationist, The next is just the opposite. Baltimore in the 1930s refaced their beautiful old rowhouses with faux-stone Formstone. John Waters called it the "polyester of brick." For a while everyone had to have new modern Dwell or Wallpaper house. Now most people are looking for balance. I think you can compare it to the Slow Food Movement. An artisanal tomato isn't perfect looking, but it tastes better--you could say it has more soul. We're learning again to appreciate craftsmanship in design, to appreciate the artisans who are metalsmiths or ornamental plasterers. In Charleston, The American College of the Building Arts is the first university to teach building crafts like carpentry and masonry.

CK: Your publicist sent me a list of questions to ask you (did she think I wouldn't be able to think of any myself?) One is about controlling the contractor. How? I know several and they are Godzillas dressed in Carhartts.

IA. Most people hire a contractor, come up with a list of things that need to be done, and let the contractor go at it because they don't understand what he is doing. The whole thing goes from the contractor's point of view. Wrong. Researching this book, I figured out that you have to be in charge, and to be very clear. Indecisiveness, or conflicting messages between you and your partner are going to cost you money. When you start, put it all in writing, have a contract. I am amazed at how many people going through major renos don't even have contracts. They are spending a ton of money based on trust.

CK: It probably isn't a good idea to go on faith with Godzilla. What was your favorite part of writing this book?

IA: The glossary was fun to do. I love the whole vocabulary of antique homes--terms like egg and dart, a classical plaster motif in which egg forms alternate with darts. Or Pier mirrors, those ginormous mirrors that expand the light in a narrow room or parlor. Several people told me that the landings on Victorian houses were called coffin corners so the box could make the turn. Others have disputed this but it's a great story and I still want to believe it.

PS: This book is worth it for all of the ideas, resources and wisdom - not to mention great decorating ideas. (I am still feeling competitive with those HG writers.)