NYC Renovation Chronicles

NYC Renovation Chronicles: Restore or rip out pre-war details?

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The Situation

You just bought a pre-war apartment or townhouse with great historic details and are about to embark on your first renovation project. But how should you proceed? Of your friends and neighbors who own similar homes, half have gutted everything and built a clean, modern look, while the other half have performed painstaking restorations to bring out each and every pre-war detail. What should you do?

The Deal

1. Cost: It is significantly cheaper to rip out details than to restore them. Removing painted wainscoting and sending it to the dump is a fraction of the cost of stripping the paint and refinishing the wood. That said, when undertaking a restoration project there are many degrees of quality and correlating price points.

When you are obtaining quotes from contractors for a restoration project, make sure you understand exactly what quality level of restoration they are proposing. Ask if they are willing to provide you with a free small sample of the restoration level they are proposing. If they are not willing to do this maybe you should seek a contractor who is more eager to earn your business

2. Experience: Whether you are restoring or ripping out details you want to hire a contractor who has experience renovating a historic home. Ask to see examples of their work and confirm that they are experienced and knowledgeable about working in a home that has plaster walls and wooden studs rather than the sheetrock and metal studs found in newer homes. We were recently hired to repair the woodwork in a 19th-century brownstone, where the previous contractor used a toxic paint stripper that damaged the mahogany paneling.

3. Value: As a rule, homes with pre-war details are worth more than homes without them, since there are fewer in the marketplace. If you like the pre-war charm but can’t afford to restore them to Smithsonian-level quality, you do not have to rip them out. Neatly painted woodwork can look beautiful if painted by a professional. When you sell or rent your home, know that there are buyers who will pay more for a home with details, even if it has not been restored to perfection.

4. Time: Restoring a home is usually much more time consuming than gutting it and starting from scratch. Restoring an ornate plaster ceiling with intricate moldings, for example, can take several weeks and even longer while ripping it out and installing a sheetrock ceiling can take a few days. If you are short on time, a restoration project may not be for you. We once took two months to strip ornate woodwork in the parlor floor of a townhouse even though we had several workers on site seven days a week.

5. Maintenance: If eliminating future maintenance is a concern then rip out the details. Regardless of the quality of the restoration, your plaster moldings will need patching and your wood will require another touch of Tung oil every couple of years. The materials used to build historic homes do not have the longevity of modern construction materials and need to be maintained to keep their appearance.

Remember, restoring pre-war details is costlier, more time consuming and requires more specialized labor than ripping them out. However, it can potentially give your home more value than a modern aesthetic.


Yoel Borgenicht is the president of King Rose Construction, specializing in high-quality commercial and residential renovations in the New York City metro area.  

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