A historic home, the dining room renovated by Laura U Interior Design

Renovating a historic home is one of the most rewarding things as I do as a designer. And as a homeowner! Giving these old homes new love and new life honors their unique beauty. There’s a certain magic and romance to it. And I love marrying traditional or iconic designs with contemporary finishes. Add in some hi-tech touches, and you have a home that is renewed, livable, and functional. It’s a win/win/win.

But renovations can also be scary. With older homes, you really can’t be sure of what you’re getting into!

There’s a reason there are so many reno shows on HGTV. It’s the classic hero story. There are ups and downs, there are good guys and bad ones, and in the end, the homeowner prevails. I love a good challenge, and so of course, I love historic home renovation.

The exterior of my home on Dryden, before and after
The exterior of my home on Dryden, before and after

Our home on Boulevard Oaks isn’t my first historic home renovation. The house on Dryden, which I miss every time we talk about it, was also a historic home. You can see a photo of the empty living room (before renovation) above. After having gone through the process twice myself and with countless clients, I know what it takes to renovate these historic homes. Today I want to share my top 5 tips for renovating a historic home and making it livable for the 21st century.

Before and AFter of the Dryden Living Room
Our living room at Dryden

Tip #1 – Hire an architect and builder

It’s important that your new home is functional and suited to your family’s needs. The way that people lived in the early 20th Century differs greatly from how we live today. There weren’t many open-concept floorplans back then, and I’m pretty happy to have air conditioning in Houston!

Regardless of the home’s age, it’s critical that the bones are structurally sound and wired properly for electrical and HVAC. These are the not-so-sexy, but oh-so-essential elements you should not DIY. An architect will guide you through the process of restoring the home’s floorplan and flow, in a way that makes sense for modern living. I recommend working with both an architect AND a builder. Your architect will lay out the plans, and your builder will execute those plans.

Laura Umansky's home on Dryden, the kitchen before and after
My kitchen on Dryden, before and after

Newberry Architecture was able to take Dyden’s bones and re-frame them into my dream home.  Consider for a moment that this home had just one bathroom. ONE. For my family of four. The team at Newberry developed a plan for doubling the original square footage, giving us a new master bath and a kids playroom. Then they handed off those plans to Blue River Custom Builders, who brought those drawings to life. Seeing them work in hand in hand with Newberry is really a sight to see, and I’ve worked with them both on my current home!

A 1950s home on Buffalo Bayou restored - Before and After
A 1950s home on Buffalo Bayou restored – Adam Joseph, builder

Tip #2 – Source pieces that match the architecture of your home

I’m a huge believer in matching your interiors to the architecture of your home. Even if you would describe your style as eclectic and strange, you must include something that honors the original build-out. Not all trends stay that way. Sometimes, a decade-specific style will evolve into something timeless, chic, or historically significant. These are the kinds of items I recommend sourcing and including in your home.

For example, let’s say you have a home built in the late 1950’s. It is distinctly Mid-Century Modern. The iconic Eames Lounge Chair would be a perfect addition to your home. It sleekly defines that period and when combined with more contemporary and personal pieces, you will begin to see your home mature in a very authentic way.

A classic Eames Lounge chair in a modern home
A classic Eames Lounge chair

You may also have a home that is late 19th century. A little more difficult to find in my native Houston! But this home would beautifully invite French oak casegoods or maximalist floral prints. Think ornately turned tables and the late, great Mario Buatta. If maximalism isn’t your thing, make a small piece of your home an homage to the time period. Like a powder room, for example. Even if you’re seeking to juxtapose a more traditional exterior with a contemporary interior, there is always room to honor your home’s history in some small way.

Add drama to your powder room like this blue and black toned room
A dramatic powder room

Tip #3 – Go green & bring the home up to today’s energy efficiency standards

We’ve only been environmentally conscious about our homes for the last few decades. Around the 1970s, we started to really think about how we could conserve energy and reduce our environmental impact. We also began considering what materials had negative effects on our well-being (remember lead-based paints for the INSIDE of your home?). Since then, we’ve developed low VOC paints, energy efficient light bulbs and windows, appliances that keep our utility costs low, and we’ve removed asbestos from our insulating materials.

The insulation you use is one of the most important factors in your home’s energy efficiency. Choosing the right insulation reduces your energy usage and most importantly, your energy bills. When your home is 10,000 sq. ft., you will love those new windows during that unexpected cold snap! Opt for energy efficient windows to place less stress on your HVAC system too.

A 1950s home, the dining room restored - Before and After
A 1950s home, the dining room restored

Reupholstering your current pieces is another good way to go green and bring your home into the modern era. Older fabrics may contain formaldehyde to reduce wrinkling. Heck, even newer fabrics may contain it. Stay on the safe side and use materials that you know are sustainably sourced. We select high-performance fabrics for our projects based on their sustainability, durability, and the positive impact they make on the community.

Tip #4 – Get smart, technology that is!

Technology is a huge part of our lives. Hidden surround sound speakers, the latest security systems, and app-controlled lights are all ways to make your home more functional and make your life so much easier. I recommend installing a traditional security system, like the ones Symbio provides (more on that below). It gives you the peace of mind to know your home is safe when you’re away. A home surround sound system is a must if you love entertaining. The one I have at home is hidden within the walls! But the sound is so rich and all-encompassing that you can hear it clearly and with such incredible depth throughout the home. It’s a big hit at parties.

And if you want to spend less time in the kitchen and more time with your family and friends, consider using Monogram smart appliances. They can connect with your phone and systems like a Nest and Amazon Alexa. I’ve talked about my oven before and if I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times. The Advantium Speed-Oven is amazing. When you can cut my cooking time in half, my life takes such a positive turn. Especially on weeknights.

Before and After of a renovated 1950s kitchen with MidCentury Modern details
A stunning kitchen transformation

I suggest working with a company like Symbio Lighting + Control. They create home automation systems that allow you to manage all your home technology in one place. Working with Symbio to install a home automation in our home has brought it out of the past and into the future! Managing our home technology has never been easier.

Tip #5 – Go with a Classically Current, timeless design

I’ve got to talk about the design, of course! If you renovate a historic home, it can feel dated if you only source items from the period in which the home was built. Much like the home itself, combining old with new is a sure fire way to create some visual cohesion. I love mixing family heirlooms with modern accessories. It’s a great contrast that creates tension and when done well, is the key to a polished and authentic interior.

I like to say my signature style is Classically Current and these are the principals I use in practice to guide my design projects. Curated and timeless style interprets designs of the past in a modern way. If you aren’t afraid to go bold, pair disparate, unexpected items against a high contrast color palette. And I love mixing masculine and feminine styles. Black with white never goes out of style. Neither do soft forms against angular shapes. Contrast, contrast, contrast!

Before and After of a foyer renovation in Houston
We brought new light, literally, into this foyer

Through the renovation process, I’ve developed a Rolodex of the best resources in the industry. My home renovations wouldn’t have been possible without the hard work and dedication of these vendors, people, and sponsors! From the foundation, to the roof, and everything in between, these resources are a critical part of a successful historic home renovation.

It all starts by working with an architect and builder. I cannot recommend this crucial step enough. Working with them ensures you have the right materials, systems, and technologies to bring your home into the 21st century. But a successful renovation isn’t just about the outside.

Kitchen before and after - new double islands
Another stunning kitchen remodel

What you bring into your home is just as important. Interiors that blend period pieces with modern furnishings is the best way to create designs that never go out of style. When you incorporate elements of your own personality into the design, that’s when your historic home becomes truly livable and yours.

For more interior design inspiration and reveals, check out our portfolio. And if you’re considering a historic renovation and aren’t sure where to begin (or if you should even buy the home!), let’s chat.

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Laura U

Laura Umansky is a story-teller at heart. Her unique perspective and tailored design process empower her to create singular interiors for clients all over the world.

10 thoughts on “How to Restore a Historic Home & Bring It into the 21st Century

  1. Dakwerken on March 6, 2019 at 10:43 am Reply

    Really loved the way you transformed the look of the house. Eagerly waiting for more such stuff!

    1. Laura U on March 6, 2019 at 4:53 pm Reply

      Thank you! We have some big projects in the works that we cannot wait to share. Stay tuned.

  2. Afbraakwerken on March 9, 2019 at 1:58 pm Reply

    Loved it! Beautiful renovation so elegant, great pictures. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    1. Laura U on March 14, 2019 at 8:58 pm Reply

      Who doesn’t love a good before and after? Thank you for reading!

  3. Debra Riordan on March 21, 2019 at 3:51 pm Reply

    That kitchen transformation is AMAZING! Love the red lacquer.

    1. Laura U on March 21, 2019 at 4:39 pm Reply

      Thank you, Debra! I do too. It’s so fun!

  4. Ida Greenburg on March 22, 2019 at 3:20 pm Reply

    How do you brighten the stairwell in the second to last photo?

    1. Laura U on March 22, 2019 at 8:08 pm Reply

      Great question Ida! Recessed lighting!

  5. Michael on March 22, 2019 at 4:19 pm Reply

    I miss Dryden! Such a fun project and comfy home

    1. Laura U on March 22, 2019 at 8:07 pm Reply

      Every time I look at the photos I miss it too! Thanks for reading:)

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