Monday, October 25, 2010


In the field of art restoration, there’s a thing called “the principle of reversibility”.  It decrees that a restorer should never make any alteration to a work of art—regardless of how well-meaning—that can’t be undone again at some later date.   
The world of architecture would be better off if so-called “modernizations” followed this rule too, and for many of the same reasons.  In architecture, as in art, aging is a natural process to be cherished, not frantically concealed.  Just as the aged and crackled surface of a Rembrandt doesn’t detract from its beauty, we should regard the effects of time on a building as part of its charisma. 

But, please, somebody pinch me—I’m dreaming. 

Alas, the reality is that most homeowners eventually become bored with their homes, no matter how wonderful they are, and develop an itch for something more fashionable.  Conceding that people will always yearn for such “modernizations”, the least I can do is to invoke my own Principle of Reversibility:  Always be able to undo what you’ve done in the name of fashion.  
Here are a few guidelines:

•  Be wary of adding  “quick spruce-up” materials such as acoustic ceiling tile, flimsy paneling, and the like unless you’re absolutely sure you can remove them later without damaging the original stuff underneath.  Enthusiasm for such materials usually has a notoriously short lifespan, but the installations themselves often don’t.  Case in point:  The living room of my brother’s Colonial cottage, which was cursed with walls of ghastly 70s-era diagonal cedar planks for a decade after they’d gone out of fashion, all because the installer had affixed them with a permanent mastic that removed the plaster along with the planking.

•  Don’t paint over surfaces that weren’t painted to begin with.  Every few decades, decorating fads swing back toward their cyclical infatuation with paint;  it wasn’t so long ago that owners were busily painting over the gleaming hardwood interiors of their Victorians in an effort to make them more “modern”.  Those who resisted the incessant pull of faddism were ultimately rewarded with beautiful (and original) showplace interiors; those who didn’t became very intimate with paint remover.  That, by the way, is not what I mean by reversible.  

The “make-it-reversible-or-leave-it-alone” policy goes not just for wood, but for brick, tile, metal, glass, and concrete, not to mention truly irretrievable finishes such as lincrusta (a type of linoleum wainscot that was originally stained and varnished to resemble tooled leather) and—for Pete’s sake—stone and stone veneer. 
For those unswayed by aesthetic arguments, here’s a cold, hard factoid:  A house with its original interior finishes intact almost invariably commands a higher price at resale.  Not a bad return, considering there’s less effort involved.

•  Lastly, try to get to know your home.  Find out when it was built, and check into a few architecture books to learn about the ancestry of its style.  Knowing why your house looks the way it does, and appreciating it on its own merits, will go a long way toward relieving the incessant longing for change and “modernity”— whatever that is.