30 June 2016

Surveying Interior Wood Casings to Distinguish Original from Alteration

There are several methods for distinguishing original construction inside your home from later alterations and additions. You can look for source documents, such as permits, photos, or drawings as evidence of your home in a previous condition. You can look at floor plans of typical homes of the time period and try to determine if your house's layout ever fit that arrangement or something similar, and interviewing former occupants may be the most helpful. Additionally, you can examine the existing physical details, such as interior wood trim. A stark, or even subtle, but noticable, divergence from the overall trim detail scheme in a house (or portions of a house) can hint of a detail or a wall that was constructed later than the original. Although distinctions can be discerned from any type of trim (such as baseboards, wainscoting, or crown moldings), this article will focus on looking at casings.

Why Casings and What Exactly Are They?

Interior casings are a type of wood trim that serve the primary purpose of finishing the gap between a wall's finish (i.e. drywall, plaster, or wood paneling) and a door or window's frame. Casings also are used to frame "cased openings"-- a wall opening with no door in it.
This image shows how the casing trim covers over the gap between the wall finish and the wood frame of the opening. Image via Fine Home Building.
The interior trim is an opportunity to inject character through either intricate or simple detail, and its use throughout history has served as a method of associating the interiors with an overall architectural style or movement. Casings can incorporate details to your heart's content, such as keystones, plinth blocks, corner blocks, entablatures, and are often formed with molding profiles of varying depth and detail.

Classical detailing in this cased opening. Photo credit: Mark Lohman, via This Old House.
Door casings with a fluted profile and rosette corner blocks. Photo credit: Shannon Malone via Houzz.
Now, why do I focus on casings? I contend that they simply are less likely to have been modified or added over the course of history in an older home than other types of interior trim. As opposed to baseboards and crown moldings, casings are generally at eye level and more easily in the field of vision, meaning it was near impossible for the builder of the original home to avoid giving significant thought to their appearance. Sure, they may have been painted over 10 times, but once in place there generally isn't much of a reason to change the casings out unless one goes out of their way to change the character of their home's interior. Baseboards, on the other hand, might hold more impetus for change if flooring is upgraded or changed. Crown moldings, wainscoting, and chair or picture rails generally are treatments provided on a per-room basis and could have been added at any time. The casings are elements most likely to have been given consistent thought upon original construction and to have stayed that way.

When examining the casing trim throughout a house, remember the word consistent, as this does not mean that all casings are treated equally by the builder. A higher level of detail and ornament may have been provided in more public rooms, with simple detailing in bedrooms or on the second level of the house. The same could be said for size-- larger rooms or openings might have consistently been given larger-scaled trim to remain in proportion. Again, we're looking for changes in consistency-- if you see a prominent room that has casings with a fancy frieze and entablature over top of most openings, but one wall has a door with corner blocks, someone may have added that wall at some point or punched a new door into an existing wall.

A Case In Point

Our 1920's bungalow has always been a modest home. It has never included incredibly rich architectural details, such as what you might find in a true craftsman home, but nonetheless it is not without its character. Most of the casings in my home are flat stock on the jambs (sides) but have a 6" tall entablature crowning the top of the opening. They look like this:


It is remarkably consistent, except where it isn't. Look at the picture below of what you see when you walk in through the front door of the house:


The opening to the right of the photo has just flat stock trim all the way around, with no additional detail whatsoever. It looks like this up-close:


Is this a less-important opening? No, not really-- it is a smaller opening, and it does lead into the "back-of-house" bedroom areas of the house, but most of the casings in those bedrooms have the more detailed entablature. The answer is that the opening with the flat trim was added several decades later, I believe in the 1950's or 60's. In the close-up view you can see two more openings beyond-- one with the more detailed trim (on the left) and one with the flat stock trim around the door (to the right). That opening with the detailed entablature was originally the entrance into the front bedroom from the hallway. Take a look from the bedroom side of these partitions:


Through the current bedroom door, you can see the casing of the original door opening just visible beyond. That entire bump-out in the entrance corner of the bedroom is a later addition, not original (you can see what I believe to be the original layout of the house here)-- the closet door to the right has our tell-tale entablature detail, but the current bedroom door opening has the flat stock. Again, look for breaks from the consistency in your house-- if the original builder had wished to make a distinction between less-important openings with the flat stock trim, that closet door would be more likely to lack the detail than the actual bedroom door.

Aside from the fact that I have documentation and other clues of previous alterations to the house, the flat wood casings are a dead giveaway throughout the house that they are not original. In truth, the casings with the added detail are so consistently similar to each other, and the flat trim is so consistently inconsistent with that overall theme, that I believe all of the flat trim was installed by the Cantlin family, who were the home's only owners from 1932 to 2001. I have full confidence that if it has flat trim, then either it's a wall that is not part of the house's original layout, or a new door or opening was made in an original wall. This is a theory that plays out when I compare the locations of various trim styles with the evolution of the floor plan of my house.

Here are some further examples throughout the house:

Casings in the original portion of the house all exhibit that entablature detail, unless the wall itself was later modified.
All of the casings within the 1940's addition are flat stock.
Even in the original bedrooms, we have entablatures at the window casings.
But no detail was added to the window and door casings in the 1940's addition.
Yet, one more trim style exists, and that is at both bathrooms. Here, we see standard-issue casing trim that you'll find at any big-box home improvement store. This was installed by the owners prior to me.

Entrance to the bathroom on the left, with a basic casing profile from the home improvement store.
This is not to downgrade its status-- on the contrary, the majority of the updates post-2001 work quite nicely for this modest home. It's what most people today would use. However, the difference from the other trim clearly marks its timeline in the house. On a side note, one question this leaves me with is whether the window in our second, more public, bathroom is in a window opening that was always there or whether the window opening was added (the window itself is a modern double-pane replacement).


If you'll notice, it has the same Home Depot window casing. Perhaps the original, more detailed (and entablatured) casing was ripped out, either when the original kitchen was converted to a bathroom in the 1950's or when new owners modernized within the last 15 years. The other possibility is that the casing trim never existed and that a new window was created during that bathroom conversion-- something to investigate further if I ever get to the point of replacing our exterior asbestos siding.

Hopefully now you are able to look for both the consistencies and differences in the trim of your house. Although the contrast between the two main trim styles in my house are more obvious, even a more thoughtful renovation job done in the past can show subtle inconsistencies that can clue you into non-original alterations. Put your mind into that of the original builder, and think about what he would have done...

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