Vinyl siding on a wooden Victorian? It sounds like sacrilege to an old house lover. But when it's done right, and in period colors, well, it just might be an award-winner.
Mary Anne and Andy Ruskin were named runners-up in the small residential category ($50,000 and under) of the Renovation Inspiration Contest, which is sponsored by Dollar Bank. But there is so much more to admire here than just the siding and trim on their 1863 Stick-style house in Bridgewater, Beaver County.
When judges from the Post-Gazette, Design Center and Construction Junction stopped by to see the exterior, they discovered it was only the latest in a series of renovations the couple had tackled since Mr. Ruskin retired 10 years ago. Nearly every space in the house has been improved, and they have done much of the work themselves.
"We did one room at a time after our three kids were grown," Mrs. Ruskin said. "They say, 'It would have been nice if it looked like this when we were home!' "
The Ruskins updated the kitchen, expanded the adjacent laundry room and added a full bath next to it. The front parlor -- the one with the Victorian coffin niche for laying out family members -- is now a cozy sage green TV room with crisp white trim and gas logs in the fireplace. Its ornate slate mantel still has its original faux marble paint effect.
In the living room, Mr. Ruskin built a bookcase to match one on the other side of the fireplace, and Baird Brothers Sawmill in Canfield, Ohio, provided window trim that's a near-perfect match for original woodwork. All windows, including the arched ones, have been replaced with custom-made JELD-WEN and ReliaBilt double-panes.
On the kitchen's sunny yellow walls, Mrs. Ruskin hand-painted Irish sayings, and when Mr. Ruskin found space left over in a microwave cabinet over the stove, he filled it with sliding spice racks.
Another clever touch: Mrs. Ruskin saved the carved top of her grandmother's old upright piano and placed it over the living room fireplace as a focal point.
Family photos are everywhere, which seems appropriate because Mrs. Ruskin and her six brothers and sisters grew up in the house. Her parents bought it in 1960 after it had been vacant for several years. It had no working kitchen or bathroom, so her father, Richard Nichols, made them himself. To make the house habitable for his large family and mother-in-law, the bricklayer ripped out pocket doors and transoms over the bedroom doors and carved out a laundry room from the covered back porch. And the siding? He left the white aluminum siding intact and boxed in the front porch posts. It was pretty typical 1960s-'70s remodeling, but enough of the old house remained that the Ruskins decided to buy it 38 years ago.
"We wanted to buy a fixer-upper," Mrs. Ruskin said. "We said, 'Let's buy the fixer-upper we know rather the one we don't know.' We were only going to live here five years anyway."
For the first 20 years or so, they focused on upkeep and raising their children. Mr. Ruskin had a 37-year career as an equipment operator for PennDOT. But he was always a woodworker, and retirement allowed him to get to many of the projects on his to-do list. Whenever he opened a wall, he put in cellulose or rock wool insulation -- and one other thing.
"Every time we did anything, we put in time capsules" so that the next owners would know a little bit about the previous owners, he said.
His father-in-law, who died in 1990, inadvertently left behind a few clues for him, too. The couple initially planned to just paint the house last year. But then they heard the cost -- at least $5,000 -- and painters' opinion that it wouldn't last very long due to the house's poor condition. So they began to look into AZEK and HardieBoard trim and Mastic Quest double Dutch lap siding. They found they could approximate the profiles of the narrow Victorian siding -- even the intricate timbering that characterizes the Stick style. Although the stickwork had been removed long ago, its pattern and dimensions were visible as a ghostly outline in some places.
They could bring the house back to its appearance in a 1930s photo given to them by the grandson of a man who once lived there. But it wouldn't be cheap -- more than $38,000, including installation by Mike Gagne of Gagne Home Improvements. And what colors should it be?
The Ruskins tried many combinations before settling on a four-color scheme -- light green, dark green, cream and bright red for the Stick details. Although not as pretty as the Painted Ladies on the West Coast, it was a favorite among Victorian homeowners in the Northeast.
Just as installation started, the Ruskins received one more nod of approval from this old house. When contractors removed a section of old rotted siding, they discovered the house's new colors were very similar to the old ones. It made their day.
"I was glad," Mrs. Ruskin said. "A lot of things told us that this was the right thing to do."
Kevin Kirkland: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1978.