When purchasing a century home, look up and check all ceilings for stains. Stains can indicate faulty roofing in need of replacement or repair, leaks from plumbing and/or radiator heating pipes. Ask your realtor to investigate and have your home inspector determine if these stains are of significance, or if the problem has been corrected.
Look for ceiling cracks. Cracks in the plaster of older houses may signal disaster or simply reflect the wrinkles of age. Some cracks in plaster houses are really of little concern. These include the cracks in wood lath ceilings. A very serious crack, which generally means foundation trouble is one which runs along the ceiling and then down a wall. Cracks like this usually occur all at once and are accompanied by some floor sagging or sloping. They should be investigated by your home inspector.
A fabulous feature of most century homes is the grand ceiling height, (excluding Craftsman architecture, where ceilings tended to be lower, but many made up for that showcasing fabulous exposed timbers). Keep in mind that the further you progress up in a century home, the ceilings usually become lower leaving the third floor with the lowest ceiling (this floor was usually reserved for servants). Typically the main floor showcased the craftsmanship of plastered ceilings. Decorative plaster was expensive and usually confined to principle rooms. Many plaster ceilings were embellished with hand modelled plaster in classical motifs, sometimes with ornate painting.
So what happened to many of these beautiful crafted ceilings over the years?……the addition of modern amenities such as electricity, heating, plumbing, etc. caused concealment. Many beautiful ceilings started to drop to conceal electrical cables, plumbing, pipes and duct work. Skilled craftsmen were able to add these amenities without compromising the architectural integrity, but many century homes became victims of inexperienced D.I.Y.’ers or inexperienced contractors in the years to come.
I cannot tell you how many century homes I have viewed with “dreaded” ceilings. When showing homes to clients, #1 on the worst of ceilings list is the dreaded “popcorn” ceiling. Also known as ‘cottage cheese’ or ‘stucco’; it was an easy fix to conceal imperfections. This ceiling surface always receives a reaction of horror. “Popcorn ceilings” became popular in the 1950’s up to the 1980’s. With a life span of 30 years….far too many of these ceilings still exist. Unfortunately, some of the early formulations contained white asbestos fibres. Popcorn ceilings can be removed, although the process is messy. Popcorn texturing can be removed by spraying it with water to soften it, then scraping the material off with a large scraping trowel or putty knife. If the texturing was applied before the ban on asbestos, removal should only be done by a licensed professional, or after testing a sample by a qualified laboratory, who can determine asbestos content.
Segway … to a current used ceiling texture the “California Ceiling”. Although this ceiling texture is popular with new home construction, it is a mottled texture (primarily used to conceal imperfections from drywall contractors). The finish/texture is less intense than popcorn, similar to the texture of an orange peel. In my opinion….not “century home” friendly.
#2 on the dreaded list of ceilings is the dropped, suspended, acoustical tile, or T-bar ceiling. Originally intended to be used for acoustical/soundproofing purposes, it became very popular in the 1960’s+. It was inexpensive, easy to install and easy to conceal piping, wiring and duct work. Very popular in basements, but eventually (and unfortunately), made its way upstairs. Much easier to remove than the popcorn ceiling.
When thinking of amazing ceiling treasures/transformations, I have to mention Puddicombe House in New Hamburg, Ontario. Several years ago, while living in Stratford, Ontario (home of beautiful century homes!), my daughter and I ventured out in the winter to Waterloo. When leaving Waterloo to return home to Stratford, a major snow storm was in the works. On Hwy 8 we were stopped by road blocks in New Hamburg, there was no way of going home. Driving around New Hamburg, hoping to find some accommodation, we found a gorgeous B&B. Feeling a little desperate, (the owners were in the middle of hosting a Christmas party), luckily they were able to accommodate us. What a beautiful place….totally renovated by Lyle and Karen Cressman. http://www.puddicombehouse.com (click on ‘Revising The Past: New Hamburg; under Newsletter & Reviews, to see the amazing reveal!)
Circa 1868, the Puddicombe House was extensively restored in 2006 to accommodate a full service restaurant, spa and hair salon, as well as a bed and breakfast. The house features impressive Italianate architecture and rich décor. It has 12 foot ceilings with plaster cornice molding and painted detail. In the morning I did have a chance to learn a little about their extensive renovations, all impressive, but most of all…..once they removed the drop ceilings, the ornate plastered and painted ceilings were beyond words!!
You never know what is under the dropped ceilings in a century home!
California Stucco Ceiling
Puddicombe House B & B
Original Victorian Plaster Painted Ceiling