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Membership has its privileges

An antique home comes with plenty of history -- but seldom with an owner's manual. Here's where a call to Sally Zimmerman can help.

An architectural historian and preservation expert, Zimmerman runs the Historic Homeowner program for the organization Historic New England. The program offers members detailed, ongoing advice on the care of their old or historic homes. 

"It's like having your own personal This Old House," Zimmerman said in a recent interview at Historic New England's offices in the circa-1793 Lyman Estate mansion in Waltham, Mass. 

Historic New England [], formerly the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, describes itself as the oldest, largest, and most comprehensive regional heritage organization in the nation. 

Founded in 1910 to preserve and present the cultural and architectural heritage of New England, the organization today cares for 36 house museums around the region, and counts some 20,000 members. A year's membership costs $35 for an individual or $45 for a family. 

Stepping up to Historic Homeowner membership costs $200 a year. Some 180 members currently are enrolled. For someone who has just purchased an antique home, or has a project in mind for the one he or she already has, it's a smart investment, Zimmerman says. 

"When you consider the cost of painting, the $200 membership to get advice on period-appropriate paint colors is short money," she said. "It's really valuable when people are just purchasing an old house and don't have a strong sense of what it is they've got. 

"They'll send me digital images of their property and say, 'I need to replace the wall sconces, where do I find one that's right for this period of house?' Or, 'I need to refinish my floors, how do I do that?' A big one is energy upgrades: after the cold winter, we had a lot of people calling with questions about how to insulate an old house safely.

"I give them as much background information as I can on the house," she said. "We can assess the history of alterations to the building. I use online research tools to look up ownership information, to look up genealogy, to figure out the sequence in the history of the property that might be associated with particular physical changes."

Historic homeowners are "basically stewards of a property that's come down to them," Zimmerman said. "My own goal is that people understand and appreciate the old house they have for what it is. 

"That's my bottom line: I want them to appreciate, understand and be happy with what they have."

Her service includes advice on insulation and on making an older house more energy-efficient; on selecting period-appropriate colors in paints, finishes and wallpapers; and on specialty contractors in their area. When questions arise, she says, she's a phone call away.

She recalled consulting on a grand Queen Anne Victorian in Newton entirely over the telephone. "I walked them through the house over the phone," she said. "It was like landing a plane."

Another Newton homeowner planning a project sent in pictures of her kitchen. Zimmerman determined the home was a kit house sold by Sears Roebuck in the early 20th century, and was able to track down the model number -- along with lots of period detail on Sears kitchens -- in the old Sears catalogue.

The feedback she most often receives from homeowners: "I had no idea I was going to find out so much about my house." The architectural historian with a degree in preservation studies from Boston University says unlocking mysteries and telling stories are the job's appeal. 

"Absolutely," she said. "You just don't know where the question is going to take you. I always look for early owners, for historic maps, for census information, for genealogy. I really, really want people to learn to love their house."

In the case of a home in Waltham, she was able to locate the original owner through an 1897 Boston city directory, in which there was an ad for his business as an importer and dealer of singing canaries, talking parrots and other pets.

She recalled the owner of a house dating to the 1840s asking if the home always had a mail slot in the door. "I said, 'No, absolutely not, because mail wasn't delivered to your house in that time.'" The question, she said, is this: "What does your house tell you about who it is?" 

Beyond historical accuracy, she said, there are dollars-and-cents reasons for maintaining an old home in vintage condition.

"I firmly believe there is a bottom-line value for people in painting their houses appropriately, because it really improves the saleability," Zimmerman said. "In today's market, brand-new houses are at the top of the heap. To the extent an old house has curb appeal, it's going to be a more viable product in the market."

She offered several tips for enhancing an old house's curb appeal:

Avoid bright white in house paint. Use off-white instead. "The really bright white is a product of the early 20th century," she said. "They didn't have those really brilliant titanium white pigments before the 1920s, so the really crazy bright white is not historically accurate."

Don't put a white storm door on your house. Paint your garage doors to match your other doors.

Put on a good-quality storm window. "The Harvey Tru-Channel is probably the best for energy saving," she said. "It's a heavy-duty storm, and comes in black, the right color for a 19th-century period home."

Use the sash lock on windows. "It's not just meant to keep people from breaking into your house," she said. "It's meant to keep the sashes together so they're not as drafty."

And especially: "Clean your gutters! 

"They clog up and you've got rot, and then if you don't clean them out in the fall you've got ice dams," she said. "If you're going to do one thing on your house on a regular basis, clean your gutters."

For more information on the Historic Homeowner program or to take out a membership, visit Historic New England on the web:
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Sally Zimmerman of the Historic Homeowner program helped determine period-appropriate colors for the Chetstone Mansion, a circa-1873 Victorian Gothic home in New Haven, Conn., renovated and put on the market by photographer Ian Christmann. The house's website: (Photo by Ian Christmann)