By Elizabeth Finkelstein. Photo by smilla4.
When my husband and I set out to buy a house last year (after 10+ years of casually looking), we had just three parameters:
1. We wanted something old.
2. We wanted something old.
3. And finally, we wanted something old.
Fortunately, we live in a very old part of the country, in a town busting at the seams with historical architecture. But our first-time-homebuyer budget didn’t allow for much pickiness just 30 miles from New York City (a.k.a. the most expensive place in the world). And anyway, our definition of “old” was very specific, and not easy to come by. We wanted George-Washington-slept-here old. 1600s old. Gigantic-stone-fireplace old. Stop-dreaming-guys-it’ll-never-happen old.
Well, it didn’t actually happen. We found our dream home in the form of a 1947 cape in the cutest (in my biased opinion) of the Hudson River towns. And on day one, before the boxes were even unpacked, we began our mission to turn it into something that looked really, really old.
Paint the trim, not the walls.
You know what every single new, cookie-cutter house has? White trim! I think white trim is beautiful and certainly has its place, but few people ever question the standard colored-walls-with-white-trim approach to decorating. Try reversing it, though. Wham, BAM–instant old house! I love, love, LOVE light walls with painted trim. So old world.
The rooms in this Cape-style home are so sweet and simple. More information HERE.
Fake the old window look.
Huge, single-pane, modern windows are an instant give-away that your house is not old. A few of the rooms in my house have beautiful, historical, six-over-six, wooden casement windows. The newer part (ca. 1990s) has faux “old” windows with those cheap, pop-out dividers inside that are supposed to make them look like they have divided lights. And you know what? If you paint ’em and stand back far enough, they really do give the effect. The more divisions in the windows, the older they’ll look. Someday I’ll have a whole house full of original, 12-over-12 casement windows. Until then, the fake dividers will do. Soon I’ll hit a salvage warehouse to find some real old ones. Which brings me to my next point…
Shop at salvage markets & auction houses
Putting me in a salvage warehouse is like putting a kid in a candy store. And auctions? Don’t even get me started! You can fill your house with old things on the cheap if you get to know your local salvage & auction hotspots. Keep an eye out for estate sales and never miss a Sunday garage sale. Or an evening spent on eBay or Etsy, my personal favorites.
Photo courtesy of ideasnkitchen.com.
Add molding and all sorts of wood paneling.
Newer houses often lack crown molding and trim around the doors and windows. Also, things like wainscoting and other wood paneling. Fortunately, you can buy it on the cheap at Loews or Home Depot. More of my favorite wooden things: shiplap and all sorts of beadboard. Presto! Instant old-house warmth!
I’m obsessed with shiplap! (by the way, I’ve had this photo saved for months as inspiration, but have no idea where it’s from. If it’s yours, please let me know so I can credit you!)
Nix the overhead lighting.
My husband can vouch for the fact that I’ll only eat at restaurants with nice lighting. Nothing makes me crazier than when a restaurant has spent an exorbitant amount of money on interior decor and then the whole effect is killed because of bad, overhead lighting (or worse yet, blue light from a television). Old houses relied on soft lighting from lamps, sconces and other fixtures lower to the ground. You can have a chandelier, but it should be balanced with soft light from elsewhere in the room. If you want the really old look, your house should have a soft interior glow.
Skip the curtains.
I’m really not a fan of curtains. Sure, there were definitely periods in history in which curtains were totally appropriate, but in some cases your house will look older and simpler if you let your pretty painted windows stand on their own. Now, I realize that privacy might be an issue here, but you still don’t have to succumb to curtains if you don’t want to. In our bathroom, we installed small interior shutters and painted them the same color as the window trim, so they blend right in when they’re opened.
Here’s a photo of me with my son. People have told me this looks like a Vermeer painting. I think that’s because of the lack of curtains in our house.
Choose rugs, not carpet.
Wall-to-wall carpeting is cozy, but nothing about it says “really, really old.” Opt for rugs instead, and let the floors sparkle on the edges. Don’t have nice floors? See my next tip.
Paint the floors.
If you have really nice floors, skip over this section. But if your floors were installed in the 1990s (like the ones in part of my house), painting them will give them an old-world, farmhousey feel. You can get creative here by painting checkerboard or other patterns–even “faux” rugs, like they used to do! The magic happens when the floors get scuffed and weathered–perfect for that old kilim rug you just found at an auction. I love painted floors so much that I almost wish I had bad floors all throughout my house, so I could paint them all.
I love the soft painted floors in Australia’s Red Brick Barn!
I love the painted floors in this apartment! Photo courtesy of Design*Sponge.
Usually, people think that older means heavier and fussier. But my favorite houses are decorated simply, letting the architectural details and a few beautiful old pieces stand out. Don’t hide your house under a lot of stuff. Decorate simply. Let your house breathe.
Have an additional tip? Share it with me!
AUTHOR ELIZABETH FINKELSTEIN
Elizabeth is the founder of CIRCA and a practicing writer, architectural historian and preservation consultant living in Brooklyn, NY. Elizabeth has loved historic houses for as long as she can remember, having grown up in an 1850’s Greek Revival gem that was lovingly restored by her parents. Elizabeth, her husband Ethan and their beagle Banjo remain on a relentless hunt for their perfect “Thanksgiving house.”