Rebuilding history Restoration: Those who toil at the historic restoration of buildings employ various methods, but they share an enthusiasm for what is achieved.


At its most traditional, historic restoration of a home or building has meant stripping away decades of decoration and remodeling to bring back the building's original grandeur.

Uniontown contractor Tom Buzby has found a quarter-century of success using this method. To Buzby, restoring an old home is an art, and his work -- rooted in tried-and-true techniques -- follows the masters.

Dean Fitzgerald of Thurmont, on the other hand, prefers the challenge of making the new look old. Using an antique sawmill and hand tools that depend on the strength in a man's arm rather than voltage in the nearest fuse box, Fitzgerald renders new lumber in the old-fashioned manner until even people who were intimately familiar with a project can't tell the replacement wood from the original.

It is perhaps Deep Creek contractor Bill Thomas who gives his work with vintage materials the area's most up-to-date twist, however.

Thomas' company, Blue Sky Ventures, builds homes from modern plans using vintage techniques, materials and accessories. Close attention to both the details that give older homes their cozy appeal and the conveniences that today's homebuyer demands "allows us to deliver a home that has a modern skeleton with a true antique finish," Thomas said.

Though some would argue that the traditional restoration method is the most authentic, it appears that homeowners and homebuyers have more choices than ever if they're interested in incorporating a little history into their house.

Buzby, Fitzgerald and Thomas approach their work from different views, but they share a number of beliefs.

The first is a love for history and the opinion that progress does not always mean abandoning the past. Houses used to be smaller and more personable, and there's no reason the old styles won't fare just as well today, noted Thomas.

All three also believe that a contractor with a historic outlook will spend much time perfecting techniques that are fast being lost, scouring sales and restoration catalogs for antique materials and teaching employees how to properly bring the past into the present.

Fitzgerald, 31, said he depends heavily on books that are now out of print since the builders who perfected many of the methods he has taught himself died long before he was born.

Finally, the three offer the same advice for homeowners and homebuyers. Working with historic materials requires more precision and care than is usually involved with new construction. Patience is the key to a project's success, Buzby said.

Buzby, who began his career as a mason when he was just 17, started Buzby Restorations in one of Carroll County's most historic communities, Uniontown. Twenty-five years later, he has worked on nearly every dwelling in town along with numerous old houses, barns and outbuildings around Carroll, Baltimore and Frederick counties.

"It takes a special breed of people to do this," Buzby said, surveying his four-man crew as they worked at a historic inn-turned-residence outside Emmitsburg. Three were fastidiously repointing the mortar between the bricks; another glided green primer across the front entrance in preparation for a fresh coat of paint.

Restoration "is not like going in a house and hanging paneling and stuff. When you start tearing out, it's just dirty and filthy, and no matter how good you tape across a door, that dust will creep," Buzby said.

Preferring that his work be as authentic as possible, Buzby relies heavily on old lumber and bricks that he salvages from buildings people want removed from their property and purchases when old dwellings and estates are dismantled.

He also tries to stockpile old doors and other difficult-to-locate accessories in anticipation of a project's needs.

Adamant that his name appear only on work to which he can point with pride, Buzby refuses to cut corners.

"We find boards dated and signed by the guys that worked on the houses before us, so we sign, date and tack our business card onto our work, so maybe 100 years from now someone will find it and say 'Hey, Buzby did this.' "

Though Fitzgerald's approach is different, he also hopes that his work will last for a century or more.

Formally in business for just two years, Fitzgerald has led the renovation and restoration of a number of notable Frederick County landmarks, including two covered bridges and the John Hughes cabin at the National Shrine Grotto of Lourdes at Mount St. Mary's College in Emmitsburg.

Using photographs from the college archives and his own vision, Fitzgerald and a four-man crew spent five months reconstructing what had become the shrine's only eyesore.

Fitzgerald's crew managed to incorporate the few beams that had not been severely damaged by termites into the finished dwelling. And they met the college's security needs without returning ugly iron bars to the door and windows.

The one-room cabin is now a work of art in poplar and oak, held together in many places by the seamless beauty of old-fashioned wood joinery.

Explaining his work at the cabin, Fitzgerald broke into a shy grin when nearby visitors overheard that he was responsible for the renovation and came over to congratulate him.

"My satisfaction comes from knowing enough people care about it that it will be around long after I'm gone," he said.

Though he has worked with old lumber, Fitzgerald said one of the advantages of giving new wood an antique look is that it keeps project costs low. This, in turn, can put historic renovation within the reach of those who might not be able to afford it otherwise.

Fitzgerald encourages his clients to include modern conveniences in their homes -- giving them a historic flair if necessary.

"You might want your house to be built exactly the way that it was, but honestly in the days that log cabins were the house to live in, they were very uncomfortable -- quite drafty and cold." Insulation hidden under the chinking that is replaced between the logs is one example of a modern material that can make a big difference, he said.

Thomas, of Deep Creek in Garrett County, starts his projects with the premise that modern appliances and technology must be included and then uses old materials to camouflage them.

Disappointed by the homes built around Deep Creek Lake since BTC he moved there from Carroll County last year, Thomas is determined to steer Garrett County homebuyers away from what he calls the "train stations, mausoleums and Macy's stores with their high ceilings and copious amounts of glass" that predominate in the waterfront community.

Thomas has begun building more intimate homes that employ more efficient use of space. To prove his point, Thomas bought a piece of lakefront property with a "little old tired house" on it. Rather than tear down the house and construct something new, Thomas gave it a makeover so successful that "there were Realtors here for the open house who didn't even realize it was the same house," he said.

With two decades in the restoration and renovation business under his belt, Thomas has strong opinions about the quality of much of today's new residential building. In modern homes, design is dominated by curb appeal and "there's no sense of discovery."

"I like to build houses that are fun to discover," he said, "not where you're just blown away at the front door, and the rest of the house is a letdown."

Pub Date: 8/18/96

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad