Expert Home Advice | February 2017

Expert home advice from Historic New England, the largest heritage organization in the country.

By Yankee Magazine

Feb 04 2017


What is the best way to remove wallpaper in a historic house?Josh T., Littleton, NH

If you’ve made the decision to remove wallpaper from historic plaster walls, there are a number of things to consider. First, there may be multiple layers of wallpaper beneath the layer you seek to remove that reveal an evolution of decorative styles during the history of your home. Depending on the age of your house, early papers or other decorative treatments may survive that you would not want to destroy. If you are curious about your wallpaper, there are organizations, including Historic New England, with wallpaper collections and online reference material on the history of wallpaper.

After protecting your floors with a drop cloth, attempt to dry strip as much of the wallpaper as possible before using a scoring tool or 20-grit sandpaper to create holes in the remaining paper that will allow moisture to enter and soften the glue. From here, you have a number of options to help you scrape off the remaining wallpaper using a scraper or putty knife. Depending on how stubborn your wallpaper is, you could begin with a 50/50 solution of hot water and vinegar before moving on to apply a wallpaper stripper or renting a wallpaper steamer. After removing the wallpaper, clear the remaining glue with a wet sponge and then allow to dry for 24 to 48 hours before starting any plaster repairs and painting.

Dylan Peacock, Preservation Services Manager

How do I preserve existing grain painting on baseboards?Michael F., Hartford, CT

The practice of painting common or less expensive wood to look more exotic was used frequently starting in the 18th century and continuing through the 1920s. On baseboards, these delicate finishes are potentially extra vulnerable. Depending on whether it’s in a high-traffic area, the baseboard may be subject to the dirt and water we routinely track in on our feet and the general abrasion from people, pets, or furniture. When it comes to preserving decorative painting, less is often more. One of the simplest ways to preserve the grain-painted surfaces in your home is to limit the amount they are touched, bumped, and rubbed. Move furniture away from the walls and ask family members to treat them carefully. It’s best to clean with nothing more than a dry, soft cloth, in case the protective varnish layer has been chipped away, exposing areas of the decorative paint below. Before you take any more aggressive action, you should consult an experienced paint conservator.

Carissa Demore, Supervising Preservation Services Manager

My friend bought a house built around 1820. I’d love to give her some period appropriate house numbers to put on the front of her home. What style of house number would have been on her house when it was built?Jane B., Amherst, MA

House numbers weren’t really needed on houses until home mail delivery service became common, which didn’t begin to happen until the 1860s. (Previously, you went to the post office to pick up your mail, or paid to have it delivered.) When Congress instituted “free city delivery service” in 1863, only 49 large Northern cities had such service. Smaller cities became eligible for free city delivery service by 1887, but local postmasters pushed for paved roads, named streets, street lighting, and numbered houses to assist mail carriers in getting mail to the correct address. So before 1887, a house might or might not have had a number.

Now that all houses must be numbered however, it can be hard to find an appropriate period number for a 150 or 200-year-old home. The standard shiny brass hardware store number is certainly acceptable, but locating a number more evocative of the 19th century is tricky. Specialty hardware suppliers offer sleek sans serif stainless steel numbers for contemporary and modernist houses, rustic iron Mission-style numbers for bungalows and Arts and Crafts style houses, and blue and white ceramic Art Nouveau number tiles for lovers of all things French.

But what’s right for the old house that didn’t get its numbers until decades after it was first built? A simple black iron or dark rubbed bronze number, not too large (about 4” should be the maximum), but in a serif font without italics, is probably a good choice. Several online hardware retailers provide a selection including Historic House Parts and Van Dyke’s Restorers. And if your old house still has an early set of house numbers, by all means, keep them as a relic of the days when house numbers were something new and different!

Sally Zimmerman, Senior Preservation Services Manager

When I look at the historic color charts in the paint store, there are so many colors to choose from. How do I know which colors are right for my 1832 Greek Revival house? Jenn F., Barrington, RI

While the number of color choices, historic or otherwise, are dizzying today, that wasn’t always the case. In fact, before the 1960s, the “custom” colors selection from major paint companies often consisted of 10 or 15 shades blended from combinations of standard colors. If you go back another century, before the 1860s, paint colors, either for exterior or interior, were even more limited and used a few basic pigments, sold in dry form and mixed on-site by the painter. So, for pre-Civil War houses, like your Greek Revival, look to these basics when choosing colors for your kitchen, bedrooms, or parlor: variations on ochres, tans, grays, sages, and a few blues and reds, were typical.

In a kitchen with surviving wainscoting, try an off-white in a matte finish for plaster walls, with a yellowish ochre or putty in a gloss for the woodwork. A muted gray-green or blue-green on the window and door casings in a bedroom, with a lighter neutral on the walls works. Formal rooms often showcased stronger colors, deep crimsons being very popular for dining rooms, with grays, golds, and stronger greens in parlors. In these formal rooms, door and window casings were often grain-painted, but a rich ivory on the trim would also be suitable.

Sally Zimmerman, Senior Preservation Services Manager

Got a question about an old house you need answered? Submit your questions to Historic New England at:

Historic New England is the oldest, largest, and most comprehensive regional heritage organization in the nation. Historic New England shares the region’s history through vast collections, publications, programs, museum properties, archives, and stories that document more than 400 years of life in New England. For more information visit: