Project Spotlight: Historic restoration spans the generations

A contractor-client relationship that began in 2007 leads to a updating of a historic home in a whole-house renovation by S.D. Lohr that links 19th-century charm and 21st-century comfort.

April 13, 2011

At a trade show in the 1990s, Tina Lohr heard that running a “thank you for your business” ad in a local magazine is a good way to generate leads.
Lohr, who with husband Steve Lohr owns S.D. Lohr, a remodeling, framing, and custom home building company in Waldorf, Md., gave it a try. She bought a $700 ad in the local lifestyle magazine, thanking the owners of a 1980s house S.D. Lohr had remodeled. The magazine included an article about the project and S.D. Lohr.
Nothing happened.
Until 12 years later. That’s when Elizabeth Helm pulled out the old magazine article, which she’d saved with the intention of eventually calling S.D. Lohr to work on her family’s historic Charles County farmhouse in La Plata, Md.  
“I never talked to anyone else about remodeling” after that first phone conversation, says Helm. “I was so impressed with Tina.”
The client-contractor “partnership” began in 2007 with tuck-pointing and installation of a new gutter and drainage system to correct a moisture problem, and blossomed into a $707,600 renovation and addition to a treasured property.

New spaces
Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the brick farmhouse has been in the Helm family for six generations. Architect Ron Litten, R. L. Litten & Associates, La Plata, Md., whom Lohr contracted to design the project, says the house’s main section dates to 1865, but the original building is even older. Additions and modifications were made between 1910 and 1960.
Fourth-generation owners Elizabeth and Kennedy Helm live in Kentucky, but visit the farm periodically and hope to retire there. Since Elizabeth inherited the house from her uncle in the 1980s, the Helms had ensured that the house received daily attention by having renters and even offices of a neighboring community college occupy it. But when the house showed signs of inevitable deterioration, Helm realized it was time to renovate the house where she spent happy summers as a child, so that she and Kennedy could move there, and so future generations of her family could experience it as well.
By then, Litten says, “It needed a great deal of attention to bring it back” to its 19th-century shine. The 3,900-square-foot house was “tired,” says Lohr. Helm asked Lohr to refresh the existing structure, explore what could be done to rein in high energy bills, and remodel the first floor to incorporate a master bedroom and bath suite, a large family room and back porch, and an updated kitchen with direct access to the living and dining area.
The enlarged family room and attached porch form a new structure linked to a 1910, wood-framed addition with first-floor dining room and bedrooms above. During construction, Lohr investigated cracks in the dining room ceiling and found that the dining room bay had no header. The outside wall sagged under the load it carried.
“When the house was bricked up” years ago, says Lohr, “the mason even compensated for the sag with a lentil made from a section of railroad track.” S. D. Lohr corrected the problem by carefully inserting a large steel beam to support the floor framing overhead.
The biggest challenge of the project, says Lohr, was to remove both walls supporting the second floor and devise a new support system. It had to be done in order to combine existing and new first-floor space into the new, 551-square-foot family room. Crews inserted an independent “steel skeleton” to carry the second floor, creating a clear span to frame in the addition. “We used needle pinning to insert the steel skeleton under the second floor walls and preserve the existing brick veneer,” adds Lohr.
The brickwork on the addition complements that brickwork, from brick size and color to mortar color. A decorative medallion in the new porch pediment matches those on the front porch. Rooflines match as well.

Renewed spaces
Creating the 510-square-foot master bedroom and bath called for rearranging the floor plan and adding onto the side of the house. Lohr equipped the bath with a luxurious tub, shower, and twin lav, using traditional-look products and finishes in keeping with the character of the house. Bathrooms remodeled and deftly inserted elsewhere in the house (one, for instance, in place of an out-of-the-way linen closet) also feature traditional and reproduction fixtures, fittings, and finishes, while adding showers the old house lacked.
Evidence of quirky construction from past years continued to emerge throughout the house. When preparing to update the 1910 second-floor bathroom, Lohr discovered that its waste lines ran outside the house and merged with the gutter system, which drained into the septic system. Mixing roof water and waste lines strained the septic system.
“We corrected that,” says Lohr, “by connecting the bathroom’s waste lines with the house’s main waste removal lines.
“The kitchen had a huge sag in the floor,” says Lohr, “and only a single light/fan combo, turned on with a remote. It was awful.”
Crews found that the floor joists were over-spanned. Exacerbating the problem was that an unsupported wall between kitchen and pantry was functioning as a load-bearing wall for the attic.
“We gutted the floor down to the dirt,” Lohr says, “and added new footers and beams that reduce the spans. In the attic, we found that the walls were pushed out because collar ties had been removed in the past. We reconnected walls using collar ties to relieve the stress.” New wiring brought the kitchen’s electrical capacity into the 21st century.
The chimney in the kitchen had crumbled beyond repair. Lohr replaced it with a direct vent system, helping to free room for a large island, generous counter and storage space, and inconspicuous modern appliances such as a gas range, wine cooler and ice maker. Brick veneer serves as both a backsplash and an echo of the old chimney. The wood countertop reuses barn boards from a racehorse stall.
Corner china cabinets homemade by Helm’s uncle years ago flanked the chimney in the old dining room. One had to be removed to make a doorway between dining and family room — and open views from the 1865 house to the new family room. Lohr re-installed it across the room, where it not only complements its twin but also hides a duct chase and makes space to run wiring for a dining room light switch. (The switch had been down the hall before.)
S. D. Lohr relined the chimney so that all four fireplaces in the house could be used safely, but the milled slate fireplace hearths in the 19th-century parlor and living room were damaged. Lohr was able to repair them, and selected an artist to repaint them with a marbleized finish. No longer needed in its original location, the
dining room mantel was installed in the master bedroom. Steve Lohr uncovered a large, antique mantel in one of the outbuildings on the property; repaired and stained to match surrounding trim and bookcases, it now forms a focal point of the family room.

Energy update
Before starting construction on the house, Lohr conducted a blower door test. It showed significant air leakage. Repairing some windows, installing other vintage-look insulated windows, and closing the crawlspace with foam insulation tightened the envelope; it also eliminated condensation that had invited mold formation around the windows. In a bold juncture of new and old, Lohr replaced the old oil-burning furnace and a clutter of exterior HVAC units with a geothermal heating and cooling system buried under a cornfield. Monthly heating bills have dropped from $1,200 to $200.
When incorporating new electrical, plumbing and HVAC elements, Lohr positioned them where they could be accessed without dismantling historical details of the house.
“We know we are not going to be the last to work on this house” as the years go by, explains Lohr.
Nor will Elizabeth and Kennedy Helm be the last to enjoy it. The new family room gives the house the informal, family gathering place it needed, says Helm, while the sensitive renovation protects the house’s historical integrity.

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