Our Favorite Books About Historic Renovation

Our Favorite Books About Historic Renovation

If you’re looking to renovate your historic home, there’s no better way to get inspired than by reading a story about someone else’s restoration adventure. From the city streets of Detroit to the peaceful backcountry of South Carolina, there are always historic homes in need of visionary restoration. These page turners are sure to get you excited about your next renovation project.

The places we live have a peculiar way of capturing our imaginations and warming our hearts. There is a history in every house that has been made into a home, and the stories embedded in the walls give a kind of character to the structure itself. This feeling of story and memory is felt even more strongly in old historic homes. There’s nothing like stepping through the doorway of a building that was constructed centuries ago. It invites you to contribute your own history to its walls, and to write your own story into its foundation. 

In this list, I’ve compiled my favorite books on historic renovation. They range from personal memoirs to historical accounts, but they all feature a particular work of architecture, and the group of visionaries who saw value in that old structure. I hope you enjoy this list of incredible reads!

Detroit Hustle by Amy Haimerl

Anyone who has moved to a new city or state knows what it’s like to rediscover what ‘home’ means in that new place. Rediscovering this sense of home is even more challenging if your new house is a major fixer-upper. 

In this personal memoir, Amy Haimerl tells her story of moving from a New York City apartment to a 1914 Georgian Revival home in Detroit that’s barely standing. 

To escape their exorbitant New York rent of $3,500 a month, the couple chooses to move to Motor City where real estate is incredibly cheap. Although they initially stay for the low price (their house was only $35,000), they learn to love their new home through renovation of the house itself, and the formation of new friendships along the way. In the early pages of chapter one, Amy describes their first impressions of the old place: 

“We are inexplicably smitten. We can already imagine our lives inside these walls, despite the peeling Pepto-Bismol pink paint, sagging ceilings, mold speckled surfaces, and sunroom that is shedding its stucco and letting the wind and rain inside.” 

As Amy and her husband understand from the beginning of the story, there is something special about an old house, even if it’s nothing to look at. This read is sure to capture the imagination of anyone with a heart for historic restoration. 

Restoring Williamsburg by George Humphrey Yetter and Carl R. Lounsbury

Every historic restoration enthusiast knows about colonial Williamsburg and the monumental preservation efforts surrounding it. The town of Williamsburg was founded as the capital of the Virginia colony in 1699. Over the years it became a thriving center of culture and learning, partially due to the proximity of William and Mary College. Although it eventually lost its status as the capital of the state, it remains one of the most famous cities in Virginia, a fame which is largely due to the preservation of the city’s colonial atmosphere and architecture. 

In Restoring Williamsburg, the reader gets a delightfully visual presentation of the city’s history. While the text on each page is chock full of information and anecdotes related to the restoration process, the large photographs speak volumes more about this landmark achievement in American historic preservation. Beginning with the work of Dr. William A.R. Goodwin, who convinced John D. Rockefeller to invest millions of dollars in the restoration project, the book takes you back through the history of Williamsburg, relying heavily on incredible before and after pictures of the city’s most famous locales. For more visual readers who love beautifully restored historic sites, this work is a must have. 

All the Way Home: Building a Family in a Falling-Down House by David Giffels 

This book by David Giffels is a delightful stream of consciousness that places the reader inside the mind of a young husband trying to navigate the responsibilities of fatherhood. 

For anyone who loves DIY home improvements, this book is perfect for you. It opens up in the aisles of a hardware store, with David hard at work looking for a hinge in order to complete his newest project. While it is primarily a personal memoir, the historic restoration aspect of the book focuses on a dilapidated Dutch Colonial mansion with an exterior of peeling orange paint. 

On the surface, the young couple’s reason for picking this old house is very simple: they need an extra bedroom for their newest little one. But for David, the young father, the purchase of the old structure is so much more. He is searching for new projects that will yield new adventures. As many of you DIY experts know, there is a certain innate satisfaction in rebuilding part of your own home with your own hands. It makes you feel more connected to the life and history of the place where you live and gives you a special fondness for even the smallest details of your house. David Giffels perfectly captures this sentiment in his story and will make even the most hesitant homeowner consider doing home renovations themselves. This is a must read especially for young parents. 

Saving Monticello: The Levy Family’s Epic Quest to Rescue the House that Jefferson Built by Marc Leepson

For all you American history buffs, this work is a fantastic addition to your bookshelf. The Neo-classical Monticello was Thomas Jefferson’s dream home, a project which he called his “essay on architecture.” It features an exterior modeled after the symmetrical sensibilities of Greek architecture and an interior decorated with exquisite woodworking and priceless artwork. Jefferson’s architectural masterpiece has become an American icon which has been featured on the back of the nickel for many years. 

But, Monticello has not always had this legendary status as a historic monument. When Jefferson died in 1826, it was put up for sale to pay off his family’s debts. No one bought it for years. After a long stint on the market during which the mansion reached the brink of physical ruin, it was purchased by James Barclay, a druggist from Charlottesville, and subsequently a Naval Lieutenant named Uriah Levy. These two families were the first to see the historic value of Jefferson’s estate, and they poured time and money into the revitalization of the founder’s mansion. This story follows the lives and efforts of some of the nation’s first historic preservationists and will be appreciated by anyone with a soft spot for historic American architecture.

On A Street Called Easy, In a Cottage Called Joye by George White Smith and Steven Naifeh

In this hilarious memoir, Smith and Naifeh, two Pulitzer prize winning authors, recount their experience renovating the Joye Cottage in Aiken, South Carolina. The cottage was originally created by William C. Whitney, an American politician, and was part of a sprawling estate full of Gilded Age grandeur in architecture. Like so many old American estates, the family was forced to sell the property when they fell on hard times, and the cottage remained unoccupied for many years. 

When Smith and Naifeh bought the cottage, it had fallen into disarray due to neglect and the passage of time. They had their work cut out for them. Over the next 25 years, the two authors had the historic landmark remodeled and restored, bringing it back to its former glory and adding several new rooms and improvements entirely their own. Even through the diagnosis of Mr. Smith with an aggressive brain tumor, the couple pressed on in their efforts to beautify their historic house and make it their home. Their restoration journey was full of ups and downs, and this memoir captures all the hilarity and difficulty that comes with large historic restoration projects. 

Wherever your restoration project takes you, I hope these reads will give you a deeper love of what it means to own and restore a historic home. There is something distinctly valuable about what is old. You can’t manufacture or put a price on it; the value only comes with the passing of time. 

As these titles taught me, the places where we live and the care we put into them shape who we are and what we value. Even if the plaster is chipping off and the ceiling is caving in, home is home, and that is a beautiful thing.