By Lisa Johnson Mandell
Think certain old, crumbling homes are beyond repair? Brent Hull begs to differ. —vaults, doors, windows, columns, even cabooses—to restore to their original glory.
At first glance, many of these projects look hopeless, but by the end, they’re better than new. How does he do it?
Curious to learn a few of his secrets, we chatted with him about what to look for when buying historic homes, how to revive them, and why (surprise!) he lives in an ugly house himself.
Q: What’s your background, and how did you get into the restoration business?
A: I went to the North Bennet Street School in Boston—an old-world trade school started in the late 1800s that’s morphed over the years into this kind of high-end trade school. They teach violin making and furniture making and book binding, and also have a two-year program of historic preservation. It was a combination of studying architecture as well as historic restoration projects. One of the first things we did was get some old, disused tools such as handplanes working again. If you’re going to work on a house from the early 1800s, you need to know how to use hand tools to repair things from that period. It was an incredible education.
Q: What’s the biggest mistake people make when restoring a house?
A: The biggest one, especially in an old house, is going in there and ripping out everything and trying to make it look new, while ignoring the historical narrative. It’s unfortunate that on a lot of these flipping shows they go in and tear out everything of historic interest and put new products in there.
Q: What’s your objection to new features?
A: Everything dates itself. There isn’t anything new we can put into a house that isn’t going to look dated 10 years from now. Smoked mirrors, conversation pits, faux finished walls, crackle finish on paint, so many of these things have come and gone. They’re all dated. Whereas if you restore original materials and styles, it becomes more timeless; they don’t look as dated. That will add long-term value and save people a lot of money down the line. I would encourage people to keep the things that are architecturally interesting on these old houses. That includes windows, hardware, tile, mantels, stairs, moldings, cabinetry—all those built-ins that are part of the natural charm of the era.
Q: How old does a house have to be before it’s considered historic?
A: The National Trust for Historic Preservation considers anything over 50 years old as historic. So that would put you up into the late 1960s. But I think most houses that have true architectural interest were built before 1940—so that’s a pre-World War II focus. After that time, houses changed a great deal and no longer had the same kind of interest and charm that they did beforehand. The idea of the tract house, the McMansion, things like that didn’t really happen before the 1940s.
Q: What era of architecture do you think is the worst?
A: The low point in American residential design is about the 1970s, early 1980s—the rise of the McMansion. In the last 20 years, architecture in America has become a little more interesting, but it takes a while to turn a ship around.
Q: Is a home ever beyond repair?
A: I’ve gone into some old houses that are great on the outside, but all the charming things have been taken out of them, and for me, those types aren’t worth the time and expense. I’m more attracted to a house that needs work and has never been touched than a house that has been updated. Sometimes it costs more to put all those charming things back in.
Q: What’s your own house like?
A: I’m from Dallas, my wife’s from Fort Worth. We’ve lived in a number of great old houses. Then we started having kids, and they started growing up.They needed a place to ride their bikes out front and go to good schools, so we ended up finding a real quiet neighborhood of ugly houses that were built in the 1960s. So unfortunately, I live in a pretty ugly house, but it functions well for our family. Maybe some day we’ll end up in that great architectural gem, but right now we live in a house that’s very practical but it’s not very beautiful.
Q: Do you find that historic houses are often not in the best neighborhoods?
A: That’s a big part of it. The neighborhoods that were real popular in the 1920s might not be in great school districts today, or just aren’t very kid-friendly.
Q: What’s your favorite restoration project you’ve ever done?
A: Some of our most interesting restoration projects weren’t that big, but were very fulfilling. For instance, we’re working on the Texas state Capitol right now, restoring the windows. There are a number of museum houses and historic houses in this area that we’ve worked on. I like working on significant houses that are important to the region.
Q: What’s the most important thing to consider when buying a historic home?
A: There’s a real narrative to these houses, and understanding that narrative will really make you sensitive to what the house needs. There’s a history to these houses that is unique and speaks to what people were thinking about, enjoying, and how they lived. Understanding that keeps you from walking into a house and thinking, “Oh my gosh, we’ve got to tear all this stuff out.” If you actually understand why those things are there, it gives you a deeper appreciation of them and makes you a better buyer.