Historically Inspired: Just How Fresh Can an Old House Get?

By American standards, I live in an old, OLD house. It isn’t First Period or anything, but 1790 is about as early as it gets in most parts. Luckily, being built late in the 18th century, our house doesn’t have the low ceilings of earlier saltboxes or Georgians, and the windows are pretty big compared to earlier standards as well.

Here it is, if you’re curious. We call it Maple Rest, and someday we’ll have a sign to that effect and a lamp post when we have the funds to put toward it. Obviously, this is a pic from last fall. Let me tell you, raking the leaves each year is no joke!

Maple Rest

It’s a Federal, maybe tending toward early Greek Revival, but it’s also a farmhouse; rooms are smaller than more grand in-town compatriots, and ceilings max out at 8 feet. Inside, the house has retained some older features — Victorian stair banister, plaster walls, colonial revival moldings — though very few original details, except flooring in the main section and the fireplace in the library.  The kitchen wing was muddled during addition in the 1970s, which also included a guest room bump-out. Don’t even get me started on re-muddling. “Out, damned spot!” (Lady Macbeth, Shakespeare’s Macbeth).

Respect the Architect: Restoration vs. Rehabilitation and Inspiration

Restoring a house is the process of bringing it back to its original state, as closely as possible anyway. Rehabilitating a house means to make it useful and functional for contemporary living while preserving important historic and architectural features, giving a sense of the changes that have occurred over time — present time included! The key to a good rehabilitation is how well it accommodates modern living styles without destroying historically significant features. New changes and decor are “inspired” by the past, but allow for current inhabitants to live comfortably.

Which option would we choose? “Restoring” this house presented us with three major design challenges:

  1. Comfort
  2. Character
  3. Cost

Let’s address comfort first. Because of the smaller rooms and the antique nature of the house, I was worried that I would have to go with the smaller-framed and (by today’s standards) uncomfortable, no-way-are-you-going-to-slouch-on-me seating options of the period — things like camelback sofas and Windsor chairs.

No way could my family live in an 18th century time capsule.

via Old House Online
Photo by Tim Street-Porter, via Old House Online

The above is lovely and tasteful — “very graceful and correct” (according St. John Rivers in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre). But can you see a couple of 7- and 3-year-old boys snuggling on the sofa and watching TV in here? Wait — where’s the sofa?! Oh yeah, they didn’t really exist in 1790.

Then there’s character. “Graceful and correct”  my family definitely is not. The above is just too muted for us, both in style and hue. Oh, we definitely teach good posture and manners, but we emphasize big love, smiles, and joy infinitely more. In short, I wanted our home to reflect the off-kilter and colorful character of our family while still staying true to the history that attracted us to the house in the first place.

Lastly, there’s cost. “Restoration,” bringing the house back to as close as possible to original state, is just cost prohibitive for us. We can tweak here and there to bring back some of the old character — I’m dying to paint our kitchen cabinetry and install soapstone counters — but can I gut the kitchen, or frankly, pull down the whole wing, to restore it to something more like a colonial keeping room? No.

Historically Inspired Design for Timeless Interiors

For the above pretty significant reasons, we have chosen to rehabilitate our home and go the “historically inspired” route. I’ve kept my major silhouettes traditional (aka “timeless”), like upholstered and wood furniture (see my post about brown furniture here) and cabinetry, opting for English and American styles that have been around for two to three centuries because they are so good and match the lifespan of my home. For my fabrics, wall coverings, paint choices, and even lighting, I’ve chosen designs that are new takes on tradition — that’s where I get to have fun! Then I added modern art and a few transitional accent pieces. Result (IMO): timeless.

(Sidenote: Laurel Bern just did a FANTASTIC post on timeless furniture design. The pieces and designers she highlights would be at home in a structure of nearly any architectural style.)

Some examples from my home:

Photo by Eric Roth
Photo by Eric Roth

Baluster lamps (timeless shape), but in solid crystal with hand-block printed Indian fabric shade. The wallpaper could be a modern take on a toile, and the candlewick bedspread from Heirloom Collections is riff on the double wedding ring quilt pattern. Traditional four-poster bed (a freebie from a friend).

Library Chair
Photo by Eric Roth

An English roll arm chair in a toile — but a leopard print toile! Three legged faux boix iron table rather than a wooden candle stand like the below.


In the dining room, brown furniture in various American styles of the 18th and 19th centuries. The Chenonceau wallpaper by Schumacher was derived from a 17th century Persian damask but is clear in shape and happy in color. Modern vintage floral painting. Gingham silk drapes to combine formal and friendly. Crystal chandelier, probably from the ’50s. Purple crystal stemware!

Photo by Eric Roth

Over the course of the last few years, I’ve tagged some projects that I think are stunning examples of historically inspired interiors that are timeless and yet so fresh and fun.

I think you’ll notice in all of them the following:

  1. Classic furniture silhouettes
  2. Additional timeless forms, like federal mirrors, crystal chandeliers, and Oriental rugs
  3. Fresh colors
  4. Fabulous fabrics and wallcoverings
  5. Modern art
  6. Transitional accents

Here are three of my absolute favorites that bear revisiting frequently. These are of particular use to those of us with old, OLD houses.

Ramsay Gourd didn’t shy away from color and pattern in this mid-18th c. Vermont farmhouse:

Ramsay Gourd 3

Can I have this kitchen?

Ramsay Gourd Miki Duisterhof1

So beautiful. Classic rug from Stark that is almost quaint. Unexpected and interesting with the Katie Ridder Leaf wallpaper.

Ramsay Gourd2

I love this taupe, orange, ikat, and red combo. Notice the chicken fabric on the side chair. 🙂

Ramsay Gourd 4

This might be a little too fire engine red for me, but I admire his courage. Awesome fabric.

Ramsay Gourd
Ramsay Gourd, Photos by Miki Duisterhof

I adore the below project by Tiffany Eastman — a 1786 Vermont farmhouse. (Why are they all in Vermont? Oh, they must all belong to New Yorkers heading up I-91!) I especially love the dining room with the flocked silhouette wallpaper and that green kitchen! Her clients have some chutzpah for sure.


Airy and glowy.Eastman2

Charcoal walls, Federal mirror, traditional rug, wool menswear plaid, and herringbone wingback chairs!! Love the whole tweedy meets formal feel.


GORGEOUS!!!!! I wish I were so brave.


Beige was never less boring. Tongue-in-cheek reference to a historical penchants for miniature profile silhouettes.

Tiffany Eastman, Photography by Michael Partenio
Tiffany Eastman, Photography by Michael Partenio

Don’t have real books? No problem.

Imagine my dismay when I went searching the online House Beautiful archives (I’d saved the hard copy magazine) and found that my next favorite project — an 1828 Nantucket cottage by Gary McBournie — had been deleted!!! Thanks forever to Erin of House of Turquoise for still having it on her blog!!


Nothing more fresh than stripes or an aqua update to red, white, and blue.McBournie2

Slipcovered wingback and Martha Washington chairs and a Federal mirror. Abstract art.McBournie3

Very cute update to the typical smoke bell lantern.McBournie4

Updated pedestal table, iron orb lantern, classic chairs.



Finish it off with a little granny floral repeated here, there, and everywhere!!

Historically Inspired = Architecturally Inspired

Now, all of the above homes are around 200 years old or more, but lessons can be taken from them to houses up to the present of every style — farmhouse, Victorian, shingle, colonial revival and craftsman up to your ’60s and ’70s ranches and split-levels.

Take a cue from your home’s bones when furnishing it, and look for silhouettes that would be appropriate throughout the course of its life or transitional takes on those silhouettes. I wouldn’t advise going backwards in time! For example, a chesterfield sofa in an atomic ranch?



I don’t think so. But a tuxedo sofa?


Absolutely. Then add your colors, patterns, and accents.

Love the home you have. Respect the architect while you add your own character and your home will glow.

Questions, thoughts? ‘Til next Saturday….






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