Heritage Homes - Woodwork and Millwork
By Johanne Yakula
How does one go about determining the type of millwork or woodwork that should be used in the restoration of a heritage home?
Interior architectural details play a significant role in the decoration and overall ambiance of any room. Unless a home has had its entire interior stripped of these elements, the easiest way to determine what existed is to look at what is left. Look carefully at the walls and floors. The positioning of old nail holes, and the shadow left where wood may have been removed will help you get a sense of what was once there. If this is not the case, you will have to start at the beginning. This means research.
One of the best ways to start your research is by visiting other heritage homes that are similar to yours. Pay attention to how the rooms flow into each other and how the millwork helps to accomplish this. Appropriate woodwork acts as a seam to connect the rooms, and it must be in scale with the size of the rooms. Keep in mind as always, the monetary value of your home at the time it was built. Grander homes would have a tendency to have more spacious rooms, thus the millwork would be larger and more ornate.
Books on historic interiors, architectural plans and building catalogues from the era in which your home was built will also yield a lot of information. Advice may also be provided by local heritage groups, traditional carpenters, or architects and decorators that specialize in old house restoration. Information on your home might also be available at your municipal or provincial archives. Either way, it behooves you to learn about some of the basic materials and how they were used.LATE VICTORIAN AND EDWARDIAN HOMES 1895 – 1915
The latter part of the Victorian era saw a change in interior decoration. Although the tendency to embellish was still strong, it became increasingly acceptable to simplify one’s surroundings. Room proportions changed from the predominantly vertical thrust of earlier Victorian rooms to a more horizontal shape. Arts and Crafts rusticity and Edwardian classicism existed side by side and both trends influenced the style of millwork.
One of the biggest changes was the division of the walls. In older Victorian homes, the walls were divided into three parts and were known as tripartite walls. They consisted of the wainscot at the bottom, and the frieze at the top. The area between the two was known as the fill or the field. Ceilings were anywhere from 10 to 14 feet in height and the frieze was a regulated 18 inches high. As the ceiling heights were lowered to 9 or 10 feet at the turn of the century, the standard frieze height also gave way to a broad variety of heights. The wainscot reached a height that covered 2/3 of the wall, and it was often paneled with fir, birch or pine. In grander homes, oak or more rarely, mahogany was used. The wainscot was usually topped with a plate rail or cap molding. Often, wallpaper replaced the wood inside the panels, and this became a characteristic feature of many dining rooms. In homes lacking woodwork, this popular look was created through the use of paper borders surrounding wallpaper panels - an easy look to recreate today.
Box beams became popular and were often seen in entrances, dining rooms and living rooms. These were made of oak, pine, beech, fir and birch. Ceilings were covered with wallpaper in a light color. Some specialty wallpapers had mica fragments, which reflected the low light from early electric light fixtures.
Although box beams were considered to be more in the Arts and crafts style, it was not unusual to see such design elements juxtaposed with Colonial Revival elements. This included classical columns used to divide the entrance and the living room, cornices and Paladian windows. In addition, ornate Victorian style “grilles” and gingerbread used to divide rooms could still be purchased as late as 1910!
The dueling effects of these styles affected the type of finish that could be found on the woodwork. Arts and Crafts inspired woodwork favored clear finishes. The pores of woods such as oak were filled with a colored wood filler, sanded, then simply varnished in order to display the grain of the wood. However, lower quality wood was more often stained to emulate more expensive woods, or to hide uneven graining.
Pine, beech and birch were usually painted. Wealthy Victorians originally frowned upon the painting of woodwork, but as the century drew to a close, the practice became more acceptable. Some revival styles, such as Colonial and French, urged painted wood finishes. Certain rooms however had almost always had painted woodwork: drawing rooms and bedrooms. White or ivory woodwork was considered more “feminine”, and since the decoration of these spaces were the domain of the woman of the house, it was permissible to have painted woodwork. Bathrooms in upscale homes might feature some woodwork, but kitchens rarely did.
One feature of early millwork that is rarely seen today is the picture rail. This was a strip of wood that had a rounded profile milled on one side in order to accommodate picture hooks. Pictures were hung from these hooks with small chains or decorative ropes. This eliminated the need to pound nails into the walls – a great idea even today. These hooks are still available through specialty sources.INTERWAR YEARS 1920 – 1945
Dramatic changes did not really occur until after WWI. This was considered the beginning of the “modern” movement. Although most homes were still traditional in style, they made use of designs that accommodated new technology, modern conveniences, and the new simplicity in décor. Arts and Crafts styling, with its geometric shapes and smooth surfaces, continued to be popular. Interiors became brighter as more light was admitted into the rooms through simpler window treatments, larger windows, softer colors, and more open house plans.
Woodwork continued to be popular, but the profiles became simpler. In the earlier years of this time period, wood paneling was still in vogue, as was built in furniture. Bookcases and columns still separated rooms on the main floor. Most architects still favored traditional home designs. Houses were filled with furniture based on previous styles, such as Queen Anne, Tudor, Sheraton and Hepplewhite.
As the years passed, simplification became the key. Large expanses of wall were capped by plainer, low profile millwork. Ceiling heights were lowered once again, and traditional cornice moldings gave way to rounded “cove” ceilings in the 1940’s. Arched doorways, devoid of any woodwork, separated rooms. Base boards went from 12” at the turn of the century, to 10” in the Edwardian era, to 5” and even lower by the 1940’s. Doors suffered the same fate, as they were replaced with plain flat slabs of wood. Modernism was here to stay.RESTORATION TODAY
Once you have identified the style of woodwork your home may have had, you will be faced with certain decisions. Much of the wood that is available today is different from that which may have been in your home. It is also very difficult to reproduce the patina of old wood, therefor it might be advisable to use all the older wood in one room. New materials act differently – they will continue to shrink and move, and the splicing of new and old will be very apparent. Check with a carpenter that is knowledgeable about old houses.
You may also not be able to find the proper profile of your millwork in the building supply centers. New wood can be milled to your specifications and it is worth exploring this option. It all depends on how “pure” a restoration job you want to do.
Old houses are worth preserving – not just for the enjoyment of their present owners but for the future. After all, chances are they will still be there long after we are all gone.
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