12 Outstanding “Before & Afters” of Century-Old Buildings

Whether gussying up a once-gutted Victorian or retrofitting a rat-infested hayloft in a former carriage house, these renovations give centennial buildings a new lease on life.

There are as many approaches to remodeling as there are old buildings, but these 12 projects strike a balancing act best summed up by architect Johnny Chu of JC Architecture: "It’s about what has been conserved and what has been added to allow for modern life in this historical context."

A 19th-Century Schoolhouse in Brooklyn Becomes a Classy Apartment  

What started as an 1800s Brooklyn schoolhouse and the home of the Long Island Business College was converted into utilitarian lofts in the early 1980s. Then in 2015, Keren and Thomas Richter, co-founders of the design studio White Arrow, decided to remodel their unit and bring back the period details that had been lost along the way. The team designed Victorian millwork and dug around for tin tiles that would reflect the original. Salvaged and antique finds were juxtaposed with a modern assortment of furniture and accessories to complete the project. 

"There’s a nice tension that exists in this renovation," says the couple’s architect, Kevin Greenberg of Space Exploration. "The building has exquisite original architectural details, and we kept the delicacy of that at the front of our minds." 

Before: White Arrow added historic touches to the kitchen, specifying reclaimed North American chestnut flooring in a chevron pattern.

After: A kitchen island was added with bar stools from Sawkille and Bestlite Pendants from Gubi.

A Snazzy Addition Rejuvenates a Queen Anne Victorian in Pittsburgh  

When this 1899 Queen Anne Victorian was built in Pittsburgh, people had a different attitude towards kitchen design. The room, generally on the smaller side, was closed off from the rest of the house.

"We would have friends over, and we’d be like, ‘Okay, well, you guys enjoy yourselves, and we’re going to go into the kitchen for the next hour to clean up and get ready to serve,’" jokes Shawn Aversa, who lived here with his husband Jamie McAdams for seven years before opening the kitchen up. A rear addition, just shy of 400 square feet, with a soaring ceiling that peaks at 16 feet—and windows on every wall—transformed the pair’s previously dark and cramped cooking quarters. 

Before: Despite having large windows, the rear wall of the house did not admit much natural light. The couple removed this wall to connect the new rear addition.

After: The new addition features new terrazzo flooring, black Nero Marquina marble counters, and laminate cabinets. Shawn, who runs Von Walter + Funk, a lifestyle boutique and event creative company, made the pendant lights over the island.

A Time-Capsule Carriage House in San Francisco Is Gracefully Modernized  

"I almost think of it as cleaning an old painting: revealing the vivid color below the grime, but elevating the feeling of age," says architect Sky Lanigan of remodeling a century-old carriage house in San Francisco. To that end, Lanigan and Ian Read, both of the firm Medium Plenty, cleaned up the old Douglas fir floor and patched in new pieces for a collected effect, and rebuilt a rat-infested hayloft into a light-filled bedroom suite. 

Before: The original hayloft was more than a century old, and the team rebuilt it for the addition.

After: "We wanted the main suite windows to have a non-traditional relationship to the walls and contemporary detailing," Lanigan says. The new bedroom adds a fourth bedroom to the property, expanding it from 1,475 square feet to 2,045 square feet.

A Jumbled San Francisco Home Gets a Timeless Makeover  

Originally built in the 1870s and "remuddled" many times since, the floor plan for this San Francisco house needed a more thoughtful intervention. Previous changes had created unfortunate results, such as a sightline to the powder room toilet from the dining room table, and a backyard crowded with too many stairs and little-used platforms. 

Architect Malcolm Davis stepped in with a revised layout that segues effortlessly into a new backyard, thanks to sliding glass doors that meet at a corner in the kitchen. "Our biggest challenge was to create an indoor/outdoor living space where neither area was very big—but they could borrow square footage from each other," says Davis. 

Before: The original French doors were swapped for an L-shaped sliding glass door, which creates a stronger connection to the outdoors.

After: Board and batten paneling, painted in Benjamin Moore’s Nimbus, nods to the home’s history.

After: Fir-framed sliding glass doors match floating shelves made from the same wood. To create the open corner, Davis’s team buried a steel beam in the ceiling.

A Portland Victorian Goes Into Full Glam Mode  

The transformation of a 1885 Victorian home in Portland found inspiration from an unexpected place: "We started with some vintage, ’70s French silk scarves that we found online and later had made into pillows," says interior designer Jessica Helgerson. "They felt glamorous and gorgeous, like our client, and those drove the color palette for the project." 

Helgerson and the team proceeded to shine up the home’s historic attributes with shots of glamour here and there. "The existing details were so exquisite and the proportions so lovely we felt that we needed to proceed with caution with everything we did," says the firm. "The result is a space that does feel very modern and quite glamorous but with wonderful character and texture as the backdrop." 

Before: The wood-paneled dining room with its stately fireplace and built-in cabinetry were preserved as part of the requirements laid out by the Historic Review Board.

After: The grand Victorian millwork is offset by brassy, modern pieces like this custom-made table and a set of reupholstered vintage chairs. The Diamond Modo chandelier with 13 Globes is by Jason Miller for Rolf & Hill.

A Dilapidated Dormitory in Taipei Is Transformed Into a Lush Family Home  

When a Taiwanese couple with three young children decided to turn an abandoned dormitory in Taipei City into their new home, there was a saving grace to be found among the rotting window frames, disappeared floors, and failed sewage system: "Luckily, the roof was still intact, so there weren’t many water leaks and it was a doable project," says architect Johnny Chu, founder of Taipei- and Philadelphia-based JC Architecture. 

Chu proceeded to take a nuanced approach. "We didn’t want to come in and rip out the original elements," says Chu. "This building is about what has been conserved and what has been added to allow modern life in this historical context." 

Before: The open-plan kitchen/dining area and living room are located in a newer part of the building that was added in the 1950s and faces a courtyard. Instead of replacing the aged timber window frames with more contemporary windows, JC Architecture commissioned a Taiwanese craftsperson to restore them. During the restoration, it was discovered that the home was constructed from very rare Taiwanese hinoki timber. "You could only really find this timber 90 years ago," says Chu. "It’s very fragrant, and the whole home now gives off this light scent. We even took one of the old timber beams and used it to make the entrance door handle, so everyone who comes in will lightly touch this wood."

After: The renovation uses 70% recycled materials, both from the original building and other sources. The floors in the kitchen/dining area are made of marble slabs that were damaged during Taiwan’s last earthquake. This damaged marble was further broken down and mixed with concrete to create a terrazzo-like tile for the floors.

After: The marble dining table is supported by repurposed steel rods from the original structure of the building. "To keep the sense of history and cultural heritage, we didn’t want to use only new materials," says Chu. "There is a very interesting relationship between the marble and the steel rods, which is found throughout the home. This balance between old and new is what makes this project so interesting."

A Chicago Queen Anne Recovers From a Misguided 1960s Remodel  

Some homes are head-scratchers. Such was the case with this Queen Anne home in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago. Built in 1885, the home had suffered a gut job in the ’60s, wherein much of its period detail was stripped out and a massive spiral staircase installed through three floors, sacrificing a second-floor bedroom in the process. 

The home’s newest owners, a couple with three children, asked architect and interior designer Dane Rausch of Inhabit Interiors, who teamed up with architecture firm Booth Hansen, to instill a better balance of old and new. The team got to work, enhancing what was left of the historic elements with contemporary treatments. "The idea was that anything we brought in or added to the home, we would make it contemporary," says Rausch. 

Before: A massive spiral staircase spanned the entire height of the home, and cut through a bedroom on the second floor. The height, tight tread, and gaps between the balusters made the staircase unsafe to traverse.

After: The team installed a more appropriately scaled staircase so that the foyer is a proper entry point to the house. The radial ceiling trim accents a new chandelier.

A Hudson Valley Farmhouse Masterfully Blends Vintage and Modern

Walk through this 1860s farmhouse today, and you’d be hard-pressed to pinpoint what’s original and what’s been tweaked, so skillful is the work of Heide Hendricks and Rafe Churchill, who lead the firm Hendricks Churchill. Located on a seven-acre property in the Hudson Valley, the farmhouse needed updating, including two-and-a-half bathrooms, kitchen, mudroom, main bedroom suite, and all of the mechanical systems. Throughout the remodel, Hendricks and Churchill respect the home’s old bones while making it all the more suitable for modern life. 

Before: The working fireplace was maintained, as were the floors, which required intermittent patches using reclaimed wood.

After: The architects removed decorative wood beams and wood paneling, and raised the ceiling to reveal a bright, open space. The existing fireplace mantle was swapped out for Bolection molding, a minimal-yet-traditional profile that allows more space for wall art. Hendricks installed the sconces and Noguchi lantern above the clients' wood table and chairs.

Curving Glass Walls Give This Traditional Beijing Home an Otherworldly Appeal

ARCHSTUDIO’s goals for this rehab project of a traditional compound in Beijing are simply stated: "To renovate the old and insert the new." Under that direction, the firm first restored the seven buildings and three courtyards present, rescuing them from their overgrown and trash-filled state. Next, they installed a curvilinear, glass-enclosed veranda that connects everything together and wraps the site.

Before: The basic form of the seven traditional buildings was retained.

After: Now the courtyards are wrapped in a modern glass veranda. The room at the end of the courtyard is the dining room. A folding door enables it to be opened completely to the courtyard. This section of the home is considered the social wing with a tea room, dining room, living room, and kitchen wrapping its perimeter.

After: The "transparent veranda" allows natural light to penetrate the building’s interior and connects the living areas to the exterior courtyards.

A DIY Couple Tackle Their 1915 Craftsman in San Diego

If you like old houses, chances are you’ve come across The Gold Hive, the popular blog that Ashley Goldman created in 2015 to chronicle the purchase and years-long renovation of the "dirtiest" and "smelliest" 1915 Craftsman in San Diego. Goldman’s posts are always thoughtful meditations on balancing the historic structure with the needs for modern living, whether she’s sharing floor plan ideas, DIY tips for sealing marble countertops, or inspiring interiors from around the web.

Before: For the first three months, Ashley and husband Ross focused on making the house habitable by refinishing the floors, retexturing the walls, upgrading the electrical system, renovating the bathroom, refreshing the kitchen, replacing the HVAC, and doing lots of cleaning. Here, we see the office in its "before" state.

After: Now, the renovated home office includes DIY storage and a hand-painted, eight-color mural in the likeness of a 1600s etching that Goldman did herself—an endeavor that took over 100 hours.

After: The home office was renovated in seven weeks as part of the 2017 One Room Challenge, and was selected as one of two winners.

A 1912 Seattle Home Gets a Modern Refresh and a New Nursery

Creating livable space from an attic in an old house is a challenge, as this 1912 Seattle home proved to designer Casey Keasler of Casework. Keasler was asked to fit four distinct functions into the 550 square feet tucked under a pitched roofline, including a new primary bedroom, en-suite bathroom, closet, and nursery. The first solution was to craft clever custom storage. Double-duty elements—like an open bookcase that works as a room divider and a hallway that’s also a dressing room—further maximize the available space, while a medley of materials and color keep the tableau light, bright, and distinctly un-attic-like. 

Before: "The ceilings were low, and with the pitched roofline, most of the space wasn't usable. Incorporating all items from their program was difficult, as many items had to perform double duty," says Keasley.

After: "We brought in a deep blue-green, Benjamin Moore Miramichi paint, to add a richness to the space," says Keasler.

A Derelict Cottage and Dairy Stable Become a Sleek Family Compound

In order to connect an aged cottage and dairy stable into a unified family home in Melbourne, the firm Robson Rak Architects designed a sleek brick and glass infill building to bring them together. The facades of the old buildings were restored while the new building sits in comfortable contrast and contains a plethora of living spaces, including an internal courtyard, dramatic glass-enclosed stairwell, kitchen, and dining room, as well as a second-floor primary suite and rooftop terrace.    

Before: In order to preserve the structure of the old dairy stables, "an entirely new steel frame was engineered and inserted within the existing brick walls of the stables, and a new roof," says the firm.

After: Robson Rak designed an "infill" addition composed of pale-colored "Emperor" brick between the cottage and the stables.

After: The rehabilitated stables building now houses a family room, garage, and several bedrooms, and easily connects to the central courtyard.

After: Indoor/outdoor living becomes seamless thanks to an interior courtyard bordered by retractable glass doors. The same Savior Blue limestone flows from inside to outside.

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