A Camp Washington Restoration: To Strip or Not to Strip

Painted woodwork where ever the eyes may roam!

It happens more often than anyone likes to talk about. It can happen to any historic house. You enter the home and (click for sound effect)…The woodwork is painted. That’s what Adam Sanregret, Lead Agent of Cincinnati Historic Homes, saw when he first entered 3071 Sidney Avenue in historic Camp Washington, Cincinnati. The baseboards, molding, and trim around the doors, windows and transoms—everything—painted. Except for the woodesque-looking, red paint on the banister, it was all white.

No Stranger to Painted Woodwork…Or the Reverse!

Sidney’s staircase runs from the 1st to the 3rd floors. The red paint on the banister looks like wood–well, sort of!

The entry room in the last house Adam restored

Adam’s last home featured bird’s eye maple in the music room!

The butler’s pantry as Adam first saw it

Adam is no stranger to painted woodwork in historic homes. With over 15 years of experience as a Realtor, he has seen most everything on the spectrum (no pun intended!). Sidney Ave. is also his 6th historic home restoration project. His last home restoration project was an 1896 Queen Anne Victorian in the historic Rose Hill Subdivision of North Avondale.

Talk about woodwork opposites!

On the 1st floor of the Rose Hill house, each room had a different species of wood, including bird’s eye maple in the music room and another room with rosewood. Still, look inside any 100+ year old home and you can probably find some bit of painted wood.

In the Rose Hill house, someone had gotten to the butler’s pantry. Since the adjacent kitchen was a complete re-do—he went with a modern look there—Adam decided to strip and refinish the butler’s pantry. He felt that the added historic character gained from restoring the warm original woodwork was well worth his time and effort.

The finished butler’s pantry

Stripping and refinishing woodwork is pretty tedious. Adam doesn’t recall the precise number of hours he spent working on the butler’s pantry in his Rose Hill home. Maybe he just blocked it out? You will agree that the story ended very well!

Woodwork Painting Trends

If you’ve got your heart set on natural woodwork in your historic home but someone painted it before you came along, stop for a minute, and consider why it was painted in the first place…

H.H. Heinz made green ketchup from 2000-2006. Bottles of green ketchup can have a starting bid of $100 on eBay!

Like so many other things in life that are in vogue for a bit (do you remember Heinz’ green ketchup?), the popularity of painted woodwork has waxed and waned over time.

Herculaneum, located in modern-day Ercolano, Campania, Italy, and destroyed during an eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD


Up until the 1850s, woodwork was typically painted. Picture a serene 1830s Federal Style home. Do you see richly hued natural woodwork or crisp, painted accents? Why is that? Because the style was influenced by ancient Roman architecture, which became fashionable after the unearthing of Pompeii and Herculaneum? Yeah, that was when people thought the ancient Romans were into monochrome white marble and such, not colorful pigments.


Zoom forward to the late 19th century and its cornucopia of decorative Victorian styles: Second Empire, Romanesque Revival, Victorian Gothic, Queen Anne, Stick/Eastlake, Shingle, Renaissance Revival and Chateauesque.  Their interiors brimmed with ornate wooden mantlepieces, built-ins, doors and other woodwork of beautiful hardwoods such as walnut, maple, oak, rosewood, mahogany and chestnut. All unpainted. These delights were on display in the main levels of a home—in public or semi-public rooms—to show off good taste and wealth. “Lesser” woods, like pine and poplar, were often relegated to secondary spaces like basements and upper floor bedrooms. These were more often meant to be painted.

A typical Colonial Revival interior

3071 Sidney Avenue, Cincinnati, OH


By the early 20th century, the pendulum had swung. The exquisite style of the previous period had run its course, and simplicity was in the lead. The rustic and simple lines of the Arts and Crafts Movement clashed with the older high style remnants. Interior woodwork was less ornate, with simple mantles and plain milled works. True, Arts and Crafts homes may be known for rich oaks and dark woods in their dining rooms and parlors, but upstairs, white woodwork with a highly polished surface was in charge. The woodwork in bathrooms and kitchens was also painted—it was viewed as more sanitary! At the same time, the Colonial Revival movement took hold, marked by clean cut interiors and white painted woodwork.

Ebenezer Scrooge meets Jacob Marley’s ghost–that is really dark wall paneling!

Along with these early 20th century styles, new owners of older homes often painted their woodwork for a brighter interior (do you remember how dark Ebenezer Scrooge’s Victorian house was in A Christmas Carol?) And, once again, in the later part of the 20th century, homeowners stripped away old paint to uncover the beauty of the original wood. All part of the constant push and pull, to reinterpret and modernize an older home no matter what year you live in!

What About Sidney?

While it is true that the warm beauty of natural woodwork has no replacement, stripped and refinished wood is also never the same as its original condition. Turning back to Sidney Ave… was it meant to be painted?

Sidney’s kitchen as Adam first saw it

Built in 1885 as a multi-generational home, 3071 Sidney Ave. has three storeys and a full basement. A central staircase runs from the 1st to the 3rd floors. Although stylistically Second Empire, the interior woodwork isn’t particularly fancy. There are no built-ins while the wood trim is simple in both profile and design.

If the woodwork was not painted when the home was built, it’s a fair bet to say something got painted during the 1920s. Major renovations occurred at that time, no doubt to “spiffy up” the then 35-year-old place:

  • Indoor plumbing (sweet!)
  • Exterior facelift of asbestos-cement tiles (a newfangled product attractive for its durable and fireproof qualities)
  • Altered front porch (“dated” Victorian style was covered with more asbestos-cement tiles)
  • Modern 1920s kitchen–assumed concurrent with the new plumbing–with cool floor tiles

The banister, stripped of that old red paint

Just envision the home during the Roaring 20s. Do you think clean, crisp white paint would brighten up that new kitchen? Go nicely with those new floor tiles? We do!

From there, it’s easy to imagine a coat of paint brightening the home and welcoming it to early 20th century modernity. Remember, even today, painting ranks in the top five tips to freshen up your home (especially if you want to put it up for sale!).

To Strip or Not to Strip

Are you wondering what Adam decided to do with the woodwork at Sidney Ave?

This is Adam–busy stripping

Maybe the woodwork was not painted in 1885 but the trim and moldings are plain.

Partially redone first door

If Adam stripped the moldings—a big, messy job!—what if he uncovered a lesser grade wood, like pine or poplar? These woods can be fickle. They tend to absorb finishes unevenly and you end up with color variations. It looks nice and gives more visual character over the expanse of your wood floor but maybe it’s not so pleasing on your trim work.

Since Sidney’s woodwork was already painted, let’s just say that, aesthetically, it’s much easier to tie together the look of a home when the wood is painted. Are you thinking white or light gray trim with walls of painted in either cool or warm neutrals?…Oh, and let’s not forget that painted woodwork can really lighten up spaces too!

Finished front door

Finished staircase!

From the get-go, Adam’s goal for Sidney Ave. was to restore as much of its original features as possible while ushering the home into the 21st century. For the woodwork, he decided to repaint most of it, focusing his strip/refinish efforts on two features: the front door and the staircase. These are prominent aspects of most homes, making the effort worthwhile and adding a ton of extra historic warmth and character.

When you are doing a whole-home restoration, a lot of the time it’s the accumulation of these kinds of touches that will make the end result beautiful!

Stay tuned!

This is the 6th post in an ongoing series documenting Adam’s restoration project: an 1885 Second Empire home. We hope you are enjoying the journey! Stay tuned as we next explore more of Sidney Ave.’s history and the period finds uncovered during the restoration.

Up next:
A Camp Washington Restoration: Uncovering History