Asheville Fixer Uppers: Hidden Gems in Historic Real Estate

jack thomson preservation society asheville buncombe county

Jack Thomson is the executive director at the Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County. PSABC helps protect historic architecture, including homes in the Asheville market.

Something wonderful might be lurking under that carpet in the 1900s bungalow you just bought.

One of the many pleasures of buying a historic home in Asheville is living in a piece of history. You’re often the second, third, or fourth owner of an incredible monument to the past, which means you likely aren’t the first person to renovate. Those renovations may appear unsightly at first—old carpeting and siding that dates the house, and not in a good way.

Don’t curse those previous owners, though. They may have done you a massive favor in preserving the most incredible features of your home.

Fashion is Cyclical, and So Are Housing Trends

You never know what’s going to come back around again. Who would’ve thought bell bottoms were going to make a comeback? Architectural trends work the same way, but keeping up with the latest trend is a bit of a commitment when you’re dealing with a house you’ve invested significant amounts of money in.

When new trends came around—like the aforementioned vinyl siding and shag carpeting—people generally didn’t tear their houses apart to remodel. “Almost always,” Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County Executive Director Jack Thomson says, “properties that have stood the test of time will have some layers that have been applied to them.”

Thomson says rehabilitating an old house is often akin to peeling back layers on an onion. Often times, you’ll find a treasure that speaks to the authentic nature of the house in this “discovery” phase of a rehabilitation project. if you peek under the carpet in a 1900s bungalow there’s a good chance you’ll find the original hardwood floors. That carpet does a massive favor for you, the new owner—if those floors had been exposed for 100+ years, they would have seen some serious wear and tear. Fortunately, the previous owners added a layer that fit to their style while preserving the original character of the house.

The History of Home Preservation in Asheville

Asheville is in a unique position for the area. While Thomson says nearby big cities like Atlanta and Charlotte are constantly reinventing themselves, there is something about Asheville that makes people here embrace the past. That means we have a massive housing stock dating back to the late 1800s. Many of those homes remain preserved in time, while others have gone through significant changes.

Thomson says many of these developments happened in the post-War era, when the massive American manufacturing machine created by World War II was used to create new conveniences in the civilian sector. Asbestos tile siding became popular in the 50s, followed by aluminum in the 60s and 70s and vinyl in the 80s. At the same time, wall-to-wall carpeting became popular as well. The reason behind this? Convenience, a notion that low to no maintenance home fixtures were a good thing.

The mid-century American family went through a serious “keeping up with the Joneses” phase. When the neighbors put up siding, it wasn’t long before everyone on the block followed suit. Most of these renovations were made on a budget, so they weren’t aggressive changes. Those shag carpets were laid down over the original hardwood, and vinyl went over original wood siding. Thomson says more often than not that original siding is good to go another 100 years with a quick coat of paint.

Restoring Homes for the Next Generation

Uncovering these hidden gems might put a question in your head: how do I renovate while still preserving the original character of the home? That’s the greatest challenge facing any fixer upper owner, especially considering how some of the charms of historic homes often come into conflict with modern conveniences. Lots of hallways, closets, and rooms can create dead zones for WiFi routers, a headache that makes deciding between renovating and rehabbing a hard decision to make.

There is something to help you make those tough decisions, though. Thomson points to the “Ten Commandments” of preservation: The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation. These standards aren’t codified in laws and nobody will force you to adhere to them, but they provide a good framework if you’re rehabilitating a house, whether it was built 150 years ago or 5 years ago.

If you’re considering a dramatic remodel in a historic building, Thomson suggests considering a few factors: one, ask if something will stand the test of time or if it is a fad. Two, consider that the average American family only spends 2.7 years in a home, so you may be making permanent changes that affect many people after you. Thomson emphasizes that change isn’t a bad thing, but also that some things come back into style in unpredictable ways. He says, “we see millennials buy ranch houses all day long and they fall in love with their lavender bathroom sink and their avocado stove.”

Home Rehabilitation Challenges

Of course, some areas of the house necessitate change, namely the bathroom and kitchen. “Those areas have to be so functional, so utilitarian,” Thomson says, that the old ways aren’t necessarily the best. He points to the Victorian era, where they were still figuring out how to get those rooms to work in a house. Modern conveniences are certainly preferable over an old, inefficient plumbing system.

Another trouble spot for home rehabbers is the windows. “The windows are like the eyes of the house. It’s like looking into the soul of the house,” Thomson says. Unfortunately, those eyes can also be drafty and waste a ton of energy. In some instances, past owners have essentially welded windows shut with layers upon layers of paint. It’s tempting to rip those out and get the latest and greatest, but Thompson says to resist the urge.

“The level of detail you lose with replacement windows is pretty stunning,” he says. Replacement windows often result in wasting some perfectly good original material and drastically change the appearance of a home, often times not for the better. Fortunately, Asheville is a city of skilled craftspeople who can help you get the best of both worlds. Thompson says many original window treatments can be updated with storm panes and reach the same levels of energy efficiency as modern windows—all it takes is a little work.

Always Look for Preserved Treasures

Asheville presents untold opportunities for preservation-minded homebuyers. Whether you want to keep things as-is or get your hands dirty with a fixer upper, you have plenty of options around town. From Montford to Grove Park and beyond, Asheville has many neighborhoods full of homes showcasing classic architectural movements of the 20thcentury.

The long history of those homes means there are many, many things waiting to be rediscovered. There’s a good chance all it takes to restore a home to its original glory is tearing up some carpet and tearing down some siding. While these trends helped past owners feel at home, many new homeowners have another goal in mind: showcasing a house’s original nature.

There’s a great reward in fixing up a home and restoring it to its original glory. Not only is there pride in watching your beloved home transform into something beautiful, but it is also a contribution to the larger mission of preserving Asheville’s marvelous history. If you’re looking to make Asheville your new home, there’s not much of a better way to do it than by restoring one of its many treasured historic homes. This is a community that truly values reflection on the past, and Thomson says, “embracing history as represented through architecture positions newcomers to be a bona fide part of the community that much quicker.”

Preservation Society of Asheville Buncombe County
This article was written in partnership with the Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County. If you’d like to learn more about their preservation efforts and how you can get involved, visit their website to contact them today.

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