Victorian floors in the front parlor: Unraveling the mystery of original use

The Victorian floors in the Roff Home have been a mystery, especially the front parlor’s baffling combination of plain plank flooring and ornate trim. My restoration of the flooring and my own use of the room helped the mystery be unraveled.

Others look at pictures of the flooring and have the same doubts I did. Here’s a comment I just received on my post about my decision-making dilemma of how to refinish the front parlor flooring in this Victorian home:

It sounds as though the border was not part of the original flooring and was added on later over top to enhance the existing floor, but believe whoever did this failed miserably. The border, although somewhat nice, doesn’t go with the original floor. I would consider getting rid of it altogether and just concentrate on restoring the plank floor to its original state.

(Here’s another post on the completion of the front parlor flooring.)

I thought that the reader’s question was important enough to warrant a full post. The questions really are: What was the original purpose of the border and the plank flooring? And was the border an addition?

At one point a few months ago I was of the same opinion as the poster. My hunch was that the plank flooring was the original flooring of the home and that the border was a later addition. For a time I had considered ripping up the flooring throughout the house to leave the planks exposed everywhere, based on the assumption that it was the original state and design of the home.

Over time I came to view this as false. I now believe that the plank flooring was never meant to be seen and that the front parlor border and the hardwood flooring throughout most of the rest of the house was installed during initial construction.

Here are my reasons why I think that the plank flooring in the front parlor was not meant to be seen:

  • The plank flooring is an extremely soft wood and is prone to damage. In fact, it is so soft that what otherwise would be considered normal use will damage the wood. Since the refurbishment of the planks, even the slightest sliding of a chair while someone is sitting in it or shoes with sharp edges (such as high heels) have proven sufficient to damage the plank flooring. These actions don’t just scratch the finish over the wood, they actually push down into the wood, causing indentations. It’s like pressing your hand into a firm foam: when you release your hand your handprint remains.
  • The plank flooring is not particularly attractive. The wood, when refinished, is uneven in tone, with uneven grain and inconsistent coloring. From a distance the wood looks acceptable, but when I get up close on the wood, it does not strike me as something that matches the quality of the rest of the design of the home.
  • The installation of the plank flooring lacks finesse. The planks are not installed as tongue-in-groove, but rather are laid out with about 1/8-inch spacings between each plank. This allows dirt to accumulate between the planks. It also points to a lack of workmanship if indeed the planks were meant to be seen by the public.
  • The planks looked like they were originally painted a very dark gray color, which would not match the surrounding border and would not be particularly attractive for a Victorian parlor.
  • Aesthetically, the plank flooring does not match the style of the home or the style of the Roff family. The Roff Home was the first brick home of its kind in this town, and I believe that the Roffs were trying to make a statement through its construction. Beyond that, they were original thinkers for this area, making a name for themselves as Spiritualists in a prominently non-Spiritualist community. Furthermore, they were from the town’s professional class, and the house was meant to be a reflection of their urbane and enlightened character, rather than a reflection of the surrounding farming area. The plank flooring makes the home look like a farmhouse, while the border reflects a more cultured, monied aesthetic. The border matches their style and character, while the plank flooring does not.

I believe the border in the front parlor is original to the home: 

  • Damage-resistant hardwoods: The border is made of two hardwoods that are very difficult to scratch.
  • The border is attractive: The woods making up the border are very attractive, with intricate, swirling graining and deep, rich hues.
  • The woods of the border are naturally beautiful: The border requires no stain. A polyurethane finish was enough to bring out its original character.
  • The border is in tune with the design and style of the house: Aesthetically, the border is in better alignment with the house than the plank flooring.
  • Grommets in the plank flooring suggest that a rug or other floor covering used to stretch across the planks. These grommets are spaced evenly along the edge and in the corners between the planks and the border. I’ve read online that oil clothes or rugs could be attached or stretched across floors to cover plain floorboards underneath. Here’s an article supposing just that.
  • The border runs flush with the flooring and tile throughout the first floor. The border in the front parlor sits 0n top of the plank flooring, and this border then extends as a hardwood floor into the rear parlor and the dining room. Based on test sanding and finishing of the hardwoods in both of these rooms, the woods in these floors match the woods used in the border in the front parlor. If the border  in the front parlor were an addition, then that would mean that the hardwood floors in these additional rooms were also an addition. However, the hardwood floors run flush into the tile for the fireplace in the rear parlor. That would seem to suggest that the tile around the fireplace — or even the fireplace itself — were an addition. If the front parlor border is an addition, then many other interior elements would have to be chalked to being additions as well. At some point this begins to seem improbable.
  • The wooden baseboard in each room suggests that the hardwood floors are original. Attached to the bottom of the baseboard in each room is a piece of quarter-round that blends the baseboard into the flooring. When the quarter-round is removed, the baseboard can be seen to sit above the hardwood flooring, rather than on top of the plank flooring. I would think that if the plank flooring were the original flooring for the home, then the baseboard would sit flush or nearly flush on top of the plank flooring. However, the baseboard frequently floats above the hardwood flooring, leaving a vertical space approximately the height of the hardwood floors. I would think that removing the baseboard throughout the house to move it up about 1/4″ to make room for hardwood floors would be an expensive and laborious exercise. If the hardwood floors were an addition, it would have been simpler to run the hardwood up to the baseboard and then place the quarter-round. However, it looks like just the opposite occurred: it looks like the planks were laid, then the hardwood floors were laid over the planks, and then the baseboard was placed just above the planks.

Regarding the poster’s suggestion to rip the flooring out and start over, I have considered this at times as well. If this were just an old home, then I would be apt to agree. However, the home has a history attached to it, and if I were to rip up the flooring, then I would be ripping up the same boards that Lurancy Vennum, the Roff family, as well as Katharine Clifton and Judge Raymond once walked on. I would begin taking out the original character of the home in trade for some updated vision of what the first Victorian Italianate home in this county had been. I want to be careful not to recreate something that wasn’t, but rather to substantially restore what had been.

Another consideration with the restoration of the home is the context of the construction. This home was the first brick home of its kind in this area. In 1868, everything else in the town was a woodframe home, a cabin, or a ramshackle hovel. This home was considered an advancement for its time, but within a few years more ornate homes with greater detail were being built here in the area. If I were to remove the original features of the home to install upgrades, I would be untrue to the original style of the home and the context in which the home was designed and built.

There are certain things that I will never know. For example, I will probably never know what the original interior design of the home was, because no photos remain and the gut renovation in 1940 eliminated all wallpaper except for a couple of shreds, eliminated any evidence of original light fixtures and heating elements, and eliminated all evidence of any treatment to the ceilings (tin? plaster casts? crown moulding?). These things I’ll never know. 

So when it comes to interior design, I’m sure I’ll take some liberties. (Besides, have there ever been two people in the history of the world who have ever agreed on which wallpaper to choose for a home? I might as well just choose something I like.) Yet when it comes to more solid, unchanging elements, such as the flooring and woodwork throughout the home, I would like to remain as true as possible to the original.

Likewise, on the exterior, I’m trying to recreate what the home looked like when it was first built in 1868, peeling back layers of renovation that have obscured the simple elegance and beauty of the original design. I believe these actions will be most true to the home’s original character and will best bring out its original style.

For the front parlor, my own innovation — if I can take the liberty to call it that — was to try to find a way to treat the plank flooring so that all of the wood could be exposed without needing to cover the planks. But unless I post a guard to monitor everyone’s behavior in that room, that plank flooring is so soft that it will eventually get damaged. (Indeed, it already is getting damaged.) And this will lead me back to what people originally did with that floor, which was to cover the planks with a rug and forget that the planks exist.

4 comments to Victorian floors in the front parlor: Unraveling the mystery of original use

  • Debbie

    Everything you said makes sense to me and I know nothing about restoring old houses.

  • Tom

    The two types of wood is common. The soft wood was to have a rug over it Ornamental usually. Some houses had the more expensive hardwood all over them. The family had more money. Alot of the time the dinning room would have the hardwood all over. So you normally would cover the pine boards and let the hardwood show.

  • Katie

    I’m working to restore my house, a much newer Craftsman style home from the 1920’s. I do not have the same hardwood borders, but we do have the same kind of “plank” flooring that you mentioned. Ours is very beautiful, but an also an extremely soft fir that scratches VERY easily. We also have the same issue with gaps between the boards, dust collects there and blows around the house..and anything that is spilled on the floor will also drip through into the basement below. We learned that when we tried to refinish and polyurethaned the laundry.

    I think it’s possible that this was the original floor. It’s possible that the standards of living (and flooring) have changed so dramatically that their inadequacy and simplicity seems strange now. It’s not often that you can find a home with these original features, so they seem very foreign. It’s possible that in 1868, your floors were very modern and expensive compared to, say, dirt floors. :)

  • JG

    I also have hardwood borders (although flush to the plank flooring) with softwood planks in a Victorian in central Illinois. As another poster mentioned, this was done as carpet generally covered most of the floor in living room and parlors, leaving the hardwood borders uncovered. (Your raised borders are interesting because the rugs would have been flush with the hardwood borders.) In the main living room of my house, the plank flooring is an irregular shape—a square with an extra square tacked onto a corner—which requires a specially made carpet to cover the softwood.

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