I have had the privilege of working on the Gingerbread House in Norway for the past two years. The house was slated to be torn down, and the owners weren’t interested in historic preservation. They had plans for the block of buildings they owned, and the house didn’t fit any of those plans.

To the owners’ credit, they considered their options and waited. In the end, they offered the house to the Norway Historical Society.

A derelict on the outside, to many the house was an architectural eyesore, an embarrassment, a visible reminder that all is not right in the world. They said, “Tear that old thing down! Don’t throw good money after bad!” And especially, “Don’t use our tax money for a useless project like that house.”

The project didn’t use any taxpayer money. Of course the town has a responsibility to all its citizens. This project was concerned with a long-term vision for Norway. A derelict building does nothing for the property values of the other buildings around it. It’s a bad use of the infrastructure in place: sidewalks, streetlights, parking, roads, and surrounding retail establishments.

The restoration of this house is a labor of love, but it’s more. It’s economic development — jobs and reinvestment on Main Street. This old house with its unique character is part of a cohesive historic district, and a draw for tourists. 

NEXT STEPS

Now that the house has been moved up the street, in many ways we are like any other homeowner faced with renovating an old house. What needs to be done first? How much will it cost? How long will it take?

Because of the high visibility of the house, we want to use the house as a model for anyone renovating a historic property. We feel the responsibility to be good stewards as we figure out how to adapt this 19th century house into a 21st century use without breaking the bank, and without destroying its colorful character and historic integrity. 

A PRESERVATION PLAN

Our next step is engaging the services of an architectural firm to do a preservation plan. The plan will help us decide what the use of the house will be and will define crucial historical and architectural details. It will look at energy efficiency and will provide cost estimates for a prioritized sequence of work.

A preservation plan can be simple or elaborate. It may be beyond the financial capabilities of the individual homeowner, but the concept is still valid. It is essentially a prioritized list of what needs to be done, in what order, and at what cost. Such a list helps to organize your thoughts on paper so they’re not swirling around in your head in dizzying disarray.

The list will not be static, but will reflect your thoughts and how they evolve over time. Items on a list can also be categorized. Not all expenses are created equal: some will solve immediate safety needs (leaking roof, chimney repair), some will address energy efficiency (insulating the attic, caulking cracks, storm windows), some will be the stuff of dreams (stone sculptures in the garden).

Maine Preservation, a statewide nonprofit dedicated to protecting Maine’s architectural heritage, has a great program for owners of historic properties. Field representatives will come to your house (or church, or opera house, or mill) to give advice on the age and significance of your property, and suggest a place to begin work. The service is free.

Because of the popularity of this program, projects are prioritized. You fill out an application about you property and its needs and the team meets to review these once a month or so. The Maine Preservation website has more information on this program and other great resources as well: go to Mainepreservation.org

COMMON SENSE PRESERVATION

There are thousands of houses more than 100 years of age in Maine, and many of them need work. With energy costs rising all the time, owners of these houses have a number of options to weigh. How best to deal with a drafty old house? What’s the best type of insulation to use? Will replacing the windows be the best bang for the buck?

Saving money and reducing energy consumption are hugely important. At the same time, it’s crucial to be mindful of the historic nature of the house. We’ve all seen unsympathetic remodels, where the design, craftsmanship, and character that were so attractive in the first place have been wrecked. As individual homeowners, we have a responsibility to be humble in our approach, and to recognize there’s no one-size-fits-all solution when working with historic properties.

You can go to a new website, “Common Sense Preservation” and learn a great deal about the taking care of your old house (www.commonsensepreservation.org/topics/energy-efficiency-basics). A partnership between Historic New England and several other preservation organizations, the premise behind the common sense approach is cost effectiveness and informed choice in protecting, maintaining, and preserving your historic property.

A basic philosophy running throughout helps guide your decisions: That is, repair rather than replace, and if replacement is the only option, do so with “in kind” materials and design.

The green building movement usually focuses on new construction, but the idea that “the greenest building is the one already standing” is fully fleshed out on this website.

The wealth of free, downloadable information is organized into basic sections to deal with the basics of energy efficiency in older buildings: building envelope, windows, mechanical systems, insulation, and weatherization. A link I found particularly valuable is at the bottom of the “Energy Efficiency Basics” page. Go to “Click Here for a PDF of some general information handouts.” These handouts include links to many resources that will be of use to anyone interested in historic preservation, including briefs by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, “Conserving energy in historic buildings,” and “Unwanted moisture in historic buildings.”

An article on windows by Pieter Nicholson Roos, executive director of the Newport (R.I.) Restoration Foundation, is a rational and thought-provoking look at the costs of replacement windows up against the energy savings.

Mainers are so lucky that historic architecture is part of our daily landscape. Some of us are even lucky enough (or crazy enough) to move in and take on the renovation of one of these old gems.

These old buildings — the barns and connected farmsteads, the hamlets, villages, and neatly fenced cemeteries — juxtaposed with the natural environment, give Maine and New England much of its charm.

Ellen Gibson is a freelance writer who lives in West Paris.