Wednesday, August 16, 2023

The Devil Is In The Details


Once curtained, now with mini-blinds, this room attempts to balance old and new


The goal of restoring a heritage house to good order presents challenges to the homeowner, especially one resolved to remain true to the building's original spirit. There will always be some need to accommodate change. The question is where we draw the line, so that the updated bits feel like they fit into, or at least don't flatly contradict, the original program. For unless we are prepared to inhabit a museum (where the original look simply doesn't ever change) a house has to evolve to accommodate new living patterns, changing tastes and ongoing technological innovation. For example, in the photo above mini-blinds now stand in for the fabric curtains the room started out with back in 1913. This new arrangement better modulates the superabundant morning light that would have overwhelmed those flimsy curtains. However, the iron rod the curtains hung from is still there, an unobtrusive token of the way things used to be. The photo also depicts light falling across a modern stereo speaker, and further to the right the edge of a television screen can be discerned. Both speakers and television mark changing use of the room: the television sits in the place once occupied by a built-in radio cabinet (shown on both the 1933 and 1951 floor plans, but gone when I arrived). The built-in radio was itself an evolution from whatever had originally occupied the alcove, as radio wasn't widespread until the 1930s.


Once a cooling cupboard, now much-modified for storage

Another example of how arrangements change over time: before the advent of standalone refrigerators (or even the ice-box era that preceded them) there was a time when a simple-yet-effective device, known as a cooling cupboard, offered a way to keep food from spoiling (see photo above). Today the original built-in cooling cupboard in our house remains intact, in modified form, but now used for storage rather than cooling. As originally designed, the cooling cupboard was of uniform width from floor to ceiling, with a door opening towards the south wall of the house. There were also two screened vents located in the wall adjacent the back door to enable the airflow that caused the cooling (courtesy of the stack effect, which exploited hot air's tendency to rise). Today the base of the cupboard reflects the original width of the cooler while the upper tier has dramatically shrunk, which allowed access to the base via a lid. Since our renovation of this room, the lid has been fixed in place and four new matching doors open towards the kitchen. The space the original cooling cupboard door opened into is now occupied by a built-in seat, marking a sea change in design of the room. The process of adapting rooms to changing times and uses without fully displacing the original program involves seeking a balance of old and new ingredients. Each room in the house raises unique issues for the person who gets to do the choosing. How far one goes in restoring a feature, or in adapting it creatively to new ends, is a judgment that you, the current homeowner, get to make. Far too many people, however, opt for casual updating to contemporary standards, which frequently show as cheap and nasty incongruities. This rarely works in character houses and never in those with any real pedigree.


How a cooling cupboard is intended to function

All objects in daily use wear down to some degree over time, even if they have been well made and designed to last. As, for example, most of the doorknobs and escutcheon plates in our bungalow (photo at left): still gamely working 110 years on, but showing a degree of surface wear, or patina as it's sometimes called. There is one knob, however, located on the inside of a cupboard where it gets little use and no exposure to light, that offers a glimpse of how these knobs may have looked while still new (photo, right below).

It's often easier (and certainly cheaper and far less involving) to fully replace things that are wearing down rather than to renew and restore what has been subjected to continual use in daily life. Yet I feel that restoration is truly worth all the extra time, trouble and cost if it contributes materially to an authentic period look that is central to the meaning of your house. 

This essay chronicles my efforts to strike a balance in an important room in our heritage bungalow in Saanich. Designed by Victoria architect Hubert Savage for himself and wife Alys, this small-but-artistic home's rather complex personality is defined by its strikingly original living room. Virtually a square, it is certainly the most highly featured (and largest) room in a modest 1500+ square feet. With abundant windows on its east- and south-facing walls, and furnished with built-in features like coffered ceilings, wooden wainscots, plate rails, bookshelves and even a signed art-frieze, this room is obviously intended to make a lasting impression. Yet for all its fancy features, it revolves around a brick fireplace and central tiled hearth - a program typical of bungalows back in their era. 


Coffered ceilings, wainscots, plate rails, bookshelves, all centred on the fireplace

Keeping faith with the spirit of the bungalow is what I aspired to do throughout the house. My quandary in this room was how best to accommodate necessary change while restoring the fireplace and its hearth. Fireplaces were central to the North American bungalow conception, and in this house fireplaces in the living and dining rooms had once been the main source of heat. The conundrum was thus how to renew the fireplace without transforming it into something it was never intended to be. Some principal rooms, bathrooms and kitchens especially, have been modified fundamentally over the years. Kitchens, for example, have evolved from being mostly unadorned work rooms where the job of food preparation was carried out using movable apparatus, to today coming with built-in cupboards, continuous counter-tops, and other special presentation features that make it a more consciously social world; yet, one that still accommodates - if now far more grandly - the workaday labour of food preparation. 



1921 kitchen: a spare workspace with a hoosier cabinet, table and stool, range and sink

Today there is every incentive to substitute modern components for authentic materials, often resulting in additional muddying of residual period feeling. Fashions do change over time, ditto technologies, and as a result some rooms tend to be remodelled increasingly frequently. Sometimes this process is insensitive to the original look to an extreme degree. Kitchens may be redone as often as every thirty or forty years, after which subsequent renovations are invited to compound what began as simple errors of fashion. And, we humans seem to want to be resetting some clock or other to zero, in whatever choices we happen to be making. Often we simply chase after novelty. 


Our home's latest kitchen remake, as shown in the photos below, attempted a rescue from the compounding impacts of earlier modifications (one from the fifties that wasn't an affront, perhaps carried out by the Savages themselves; and a second from the late 70s or early 80s that was much more discordant). For example, the 80s updating removed a pair of the original low cupboards and archway that defined a small galley kitchen off an eating area, which accommodated both the sink and a fridge (arguably making for too much activity on a single counter). The 80s remake displaced this arrangement with bulky new painted cupboards that made no attempt to fit in, adding a new counter and cupboards jutting from the west wall with a hideous brown counter top, and some stark white linoleum flooring thrown in for good measure. This remake turned its back on previous designs in favour of current fashions, including then-trendy avocado and harvest-gold appliances. Nothing more than change for its own sake, this gained little in overall cupboard space and no new separation of cooking activities (sink and stove were now made to crowd the same counter space occupied formerly by the sink and fridge). Why the sink wasn't at least removed to the new counter top, where it would

1951 pantry plan: low cupboards, archway intact

have rationalized cooking operations better by greater separation, remains a mystery. Old was in this instance simply displaced by new - and not a well-thought-through version of new either. And then quite quickly, fashions moved on and this ensemble felt severely dated. At least that's how it seemed to me upon arrival: poor taste from the outset, now aging badly. The entire shemozzel called out for integration into a much more coherent whole. 


A subtle built-in look goes a long way to fit new cupboards into the existing format

Fortunately, we were able to distill a few design-rules from close scrutiny of the remains of the original format, which helped us reintegrate the space. We elected to go back to the original high baseboards and low quarter-round mouldings that were characteristic throughout the rest of the house. We also replaced the cumbersome 80s cupboards with a more pleasing (because more stepped) configuration, made of markedly better materials. We opted to show off the solid wood construction by finishing these cabinets in clear stain, which dramatized the wood. We also wanted to give them a built-in look, in order that they jibe with the bones of the house. To achieve this, we extended the band running beneath the panelled ceiling along the top of the cupboards (see photo above). To us, this design-approach helped achieve a more convincing blend of old and new. The photos above and below depict the kitchen's new mixture of features: original ceiling treatments in freshened colours combined with new marmoleum tile flooring in a quasi-retro pattern; original double-hung sash windows and wood trims now mated with restored baseboards (along with the original
Cupboards framed consistently
ceiling panels, this ensemble of elements established a vital continuity with the past). A new central island feature replaced the old awkwardly projecting counter, with its unfinished vertical wood facade and ugly brown counter top. We took advantage of the spatial gain the new island conferred to sequester sink and stove in separate counters, while simultaneously gaining added space for a dishwasher, storage cupboards, and a two-sided overhang for bar stools so that meals could be consumed there. The three of us now eat in the kitchen unless entertaining, in which case we add in the dining room space. Also, we introduced three banks of recessed pot lighting, along with shielded lights under the principal cupboards for night effects. The banks of pot lights are individually switched, optimizing versatility.

A blend of old and new ingredients in our 2005 rendition of the kitchen


To return to the living room: in bungalow idiom, convention has it that this is typically the most masculine of all the principal rooms. Often furnished with darkened wood wainscots, beamed ceilings and built-in bookshelves (after the image of a male hunting-lodge) it also included a prominent stone or brick fireplace capped by a thick wooden mantel plank. Far from being threatening however, this ensemble was intended to serve as a cozy retreat from the more demanding world of the downtown office. It was a place where family and friends would gather of an evening (in winter, around a crackling fire) to share stories from daily life.



Integrating new features consistent with an older program is restoration's goal

As it happened, this living room had been decoratively mugged a number of times after the long Savage tenure. These assaults mostly involved tacky substitutions of ultra-modern finishes for the more-convincing original materials, so could often be addressed with cosmetic surface treatments. For example, stark-white ceiling panels between the flat-black wooden beams could simply be repainted to an off-white biased subtly towards yellow. And the equally intrusive stark-white wallpaper suffocating original Douglas fir panels sitting beneath the frieze band would turn out to be dry-strippable. And even the mis-sized mirror rudely inserted in place of the earlier built-in mirror could be rectified by remaking the original (given access to skill, knowledge and knot-free old growth, all of which we had through Vern Krahn's masterful agency). To my eye, all these hapless mistakes of decor merely diluted the design-consistency of the original artifact. We were fortunate that so much of it could be set right so straightforwardly, even if this did sometimes involve some sleight of hand. For example, once stripped, the wallpaper had evidently left a visible residue on the wooden panels. But our painter (Mike Abernethy of Double A Painting) suggested we deal with this by using a mixture of paint and coarse sand, which he felt would give the effect of authentic plastering. Plaster bands were a common living room treatment back in the bungalow era, so we agreed to try this out. The subterfuge worked so well that we thoroughly embraced the new look! By this point we had addressed sufficient errors to notice remediation's corrective effect on perceptions of the whole: each restored component palpably strengthened the period feeling of the room. Once these problems were en route to resolution, I felt free to engage with the vexing question of how best to approach the brick fireplace surround.



Lawson Wood frieze, honeycombed leaded glass, plaster panel, dark-stained wood

Restoring the ensemble of fireplace components to again serve as the focal point of the living room was a tremendously challenging undertaking. There were, after all, some serious issues of deterioration to address. The fireplaces -  heavily relied on for heat for some four decades - only came into the relaxed use more typical of California-style bungalows with the installation of powerful Wesix electric wall heaters in the early fifties. Subsequent owners would have continued the more celebratory use of fire this enabled (as have we during our time here) because a fire burning in the grate has a mesmerizing effect on social gatherings. When I acquired the house, the firebox floor was crumbling after seventy-five years of burning - so much so I was hesitant to even have a fire. Also, some of the surrounding inner bricks had loosened from long-exposure to intense heat. And somehow too a few of the hearth tiles had also come free, and a number of these were either chipped or broken.



This four-bar Wesix wall heater made reliance on fires for heat unnecessary

The job of renewing the fireplace really began when heritage carpenter Vern Krahn - busy healing the abused wooden features around the fireplace - recommended seasoned bricklayer Udo Heineman as someone who could sort the firebox floor and its surround. I trusted Vern totally by this point, so I immediately ran with his suggestion. And in short order, Udo remade the floors of the fireboxes compatibly using new heat-proof bricks, then carefully conserved, and skilfully reset, the original curved bricks that give the inner fireplace its fitted look (these bricks are no longer available commercially, so I was anxious to see them reused in order to conserve the founding look). The picture below shows the dining room fireplace after Udo rebuilt it (it shares a chimney stack with the living room fireplace). Note the fitted look obtained via reuse of the original interior bricks.
New firebox floor, inner bricks carefully re-mortared


Once the firebox issue was in hand, another big problem loomed: at some point the brick surround had been painted over a first time, in what I discerned (from chipping paint off the bricks) had been a somewhat-compatible buff tone. I speculated that this first painting may have been triggered by some surface spalling of bricks around the mouth of the fireplace, attributable to the intense heat. The bricks comprising the surround, however pretty originally, showed poor interior composition and inferior firing through their pattern of wear, which over time tended to make the outer surface inherently unstable. I would also wager that a downstream owner made the regrettable decision to bury the aging buff-colour under an unsubtle undercoat-white (visually akin to the icing on an angel-food cake, as in the photo below). I invested considerable effort in attempting to clean this paint-mess from the surface of the bricks, thinking I might possibly regain a semblance of the original finish. But the bricks weren't having it (the interior of the brick being of entirely different composition from its outer skin) and eventually I realized that my approach just wasn't going to fly. So, I made the fateful choice to instead patch any bands of mortar disintegrated by heat, then fully repaint the surround in a colour more consistent with the scheme now evolving in the living room (yellow/gold and off-whites toned to yellow, which we thought showed well against the flat-black of stained old-growth fir). This decision made, I was free to focus squarely on the challenge of restoring the original tiled hearth, which as a project needed to happen before any painting of the brick surround.


Angel-food-cake-icing coating the surround, hearth-tiles being carefully loosened

Job one was loosening the tiles still gripped by the original mortar, taking care to avoid further damage. Once loosened, it was apparent the tiles needed thorough cleaning. I decided to soak them for a few days in a bucket of water laced with TSP (tri-sodium phosphate, a grease-cutting cleaning agent that removes residual grime, smoke and soot). Next I removed all softened mortar and any remaining stains with a gentle abrasive (fine steel wool) coupled with an under-the-sink, non-abrasive cleaner. 


After soaking tiles in TSP, cleaning residual stains with fine steel wool


My next challenge was replacing all the broken tiles (about ten percent of the total) with accurate reproductions. It took a long time to find a colour match, plus a workable thickness for the replacement tiles (they don't need to be exactly the same depth as the originals, but they should be close). Then it proved as challenging getting these replacements cut to exact size. Complicating matters, I also needed a handful of partial tiles to fit under the base course of the fireplace surround (note the recess beneath the foot of the brick surround, photo below) a feature that gives the hearth a built-in appearance (the built-in look is central to the entire bungalow idiom - literally one of the principal ways of achieving the period-look).

Built-ins are central to bungalow idiom: things should feel fitted to their surroundings

Next came a job that I found really ugly at the time: chipping out sufficient old mortar for a new bed to hold the reset tiles firmly. The old mortar bed was by this point tough and brittle, which caused it to fracture into chips while releasing clouds of fine dust that settled on everything (photo below). I took to masking up with a respirator in order to keep this noxious stuff out of my lungs!


Not fun: chipping old mortar out to a depth sufficient to secure new tiles properly

Ugly job finally done, now it's on to the work of re-tiling the hearth compatibly

After investing serious sweat equity in excavating old mortar, I was finally positioned to begin resetting tile on a fresh bed. The finesse here would be that back in the bungalow era, hearth tiles were placed almost touching each other, with only a hairline width of mortar separating them (this is why cutting to precise dimensions was so important, which proved elusive in modern times). The close-fitting of tiles formed a key part of the period-look, so I was anxious to capture it for finished effect (a wooden moulding along three sides of the hearth also predisposed the outcome!). But getting the setting right complicated all of my tile placements (the wide grout lines in today's tiling style serves to forgive most minor errors of placement). 



Cleaned up with TSP and elbow grease, the tiles can finally be reset as they were

The narrowness of the grout lines is obvious from the photo below. However, it would also turn out that I had not set the tiles uniformly level (when you only rarely tile, you are somewhat unprepared for the flow of choices in real-time, so the finickier aspects tend to suffer as a result). On the other hand, minor flaws in setting probably don't leap to the eye of anyone other than the person who carried out the job!



The thin grout lines between the tiles make the job of setting much more finicky

Immediately after grouting the tiles in, excess grout not yet sponged off

Above, the mortar lines are now grouted-in but the excess is not yet sponged off. Getting a grout/tile colour match is essential to the finished look, because a precise match was a given back in the day. Matching tile and grout proved nowhere near as difficult as getting the replacement tiles cut to exact dimensions! Also key was allowing for the slightly greater thickness of my replacement tiles when setting them in the new bed of mortar. Like I said, ultimately it's all about the flow of choices in real time.


This brick surface is inherently unstable, showing signs of smoke-scorching to boot


Once the hearth tiles had been restored, I could return to the issue of the brick surround. What was the appropriate course of remediation here? The picture above shows the result of my attempts to strip paint off so as to regain a semblance of original brick, resulting in an abused-brick-look that didn't withstand scrutiny. It also reinforced a suspicion I had that there may have been a causal rationale for the original painting of the surround (looking closely at the bricks above the firebox in the photo above, they do seem to have sustained considerable smoke damage). Personally, I have never been comfortable with the abused-brick look on display in some heritage buildings (especially those where the paint has been removed with chemicals, resulting in severe abrading of the original finish). So in the end, I opted to paint the surround again. Note (photo above) the patch lines where the original mortar had deteriorated due to heat effects, necessitating in-filling of these bands. Finding a filler that adheres to the dry surfaces of brick and mortar is tricky, as both of these media quickly draw moisture from whatever compound one uses.


A single coat of paint over the previously stripped bricks occasions improvement

Having chosen a colour for the fireplace surround in consultation with my design-partner Susan, I began painting the stripped sections of brick in what we felt was a more compatible colour (photo above). I immediately felt pleased with the results, and was keen to see the impact of a full coat.


A full coat of paint reveals that the fireplace is intentionally anthropomorphic

A full coat of paint clearly revealed that the fireplace had been contrived to have facial features - which is to say, it was consciously designed to resemble (however abstractly) a recognizable face. In fact, this face is so apparent that once you actually see it, you know it can only have been intentional. Perhaps it is a distant reference to an ancient spirit thought to inhabit hearths inside houses (say Vesta, for example, the traditional Roman hearth goddess, who also happened to be the champion of domestic architecture?). So perchance architect Hubert Savage embedded some sort of trope in his home's living room fireplace.


"Vesta is the same as the earth; both have the perennial fire: the Earth and the sacred Fire are both symbolic of home." Ovid, Fasti


Smiling now the paint is finally going up, feeling fully engaged in healing action


I drew intense satisfaction from disappearing that blunt white coat of paint completely (blank white greets the eye as if the object has been undercoated, but awaits a finishing coat that simply never comes) the more so as this act served to refresh the appearance of a defining feature of the room. It is painstaking work to attempt this sort of rescue - work best approached unhurriedly (say, on Sunday afternoons, during the winter months, with copious glasses of good beer to grease any skid that needs it). The photo below shows me finishing up the second full coat of new paint.



Sunday afternoons, in winter, with copious craft beers: an ideal work situation


Fireplace and mantle are once more an integrated whole, especially now that mirror, bookshelves, firebox floor, hearth and fireplace surround are all either restored or renewed. To my eye, the resulting ensemble keeps faith with the original character and feeling of the room that Hubert Savage designed back in 1913, while accommodating necessary elements of change (painted brick surround, replacement tiles on the hearth, restored built-in mirror, adapted plaster panels under the frieze band, modern entertainments, and so on). The creamy colour adorning the brick fireplace now certainly has, to us at least, a warmer and cozier effect than the strident undercoat-white. A funny thing about the whole white-painting business is that, as a rule, while white has little to say colour-wise, it nevertheless calls attention to itself relentlessly!


To my eye at least, once again an integrated whole


I hope this essay encourages those who care about heritage to try and establish a better balance between old and new in their own homes. As William Morris noted, echoing his mentor John Ruskin, it is far better to maintain buildings as one goes, by anticipating their needs and intervening promptly as needed, than it is to ignore and neglect them for years on end, only to have to find a way of rescuing and restoring them. Timely, discerning intervention is the best response. So good luck to you with all of your projects! And remember, always look to establish a balance between what's old and new.


Books for Looks:

The best source of insight into the North American bungalow and its embedded values remains Robert Winter, The California Bungalow.

The Bungalow: The Production of a Global Culture, by A.D. King is a totally informative global history of the bungalow building form, the first universal architecture. 

Homeplace: The Making of the Canadian Dwelling over Three Centuries, by Peter Ennals and Deryck W. Holdsworth is also a very good read, with a chapter on bungalows in Vancouver and Victoria.

The evolution of the kitchen environment is covered in any number of articles, including:,, and


This article first appeared in my California Bungalow blog, in February of 2011. This was before I landed on the idea of a blog - Century Bungalow - to celebrate the Savage bungalow's persistence for one hundred years. The essay has been completely rewritten and edited for current times, and is now being published in Century Bungalow. Cheers all!

Any comments will reach me at