Modern Living in Antique Houses

In my last post, I wrote about the Salem Witch House and two replica houses, one of which is for sale. The Witch House dates to the mid-1600’s. The replica houses are both much newer, but they retained the look of the ancient beams and flooring, lower ceilings and brick fireplaces. With today’s decor being somewhat lighter and brighter, it begs, the question – how does one decorate for modern living in antique houses?

33 Tarragon Dr Sandwich MA Salem Witch House replica exterior front


33 Tarragon Dr Sandwich MA Salem Witch House replica entry

Salem Witch House replica in Sandwich, MA. For sale!

197 Wheeler Road Hollis NH Jeff Morton Photography House exterior


Salem Witch House replica in Hollis, NH.

While we certainly don’t want to feel like we’re living in a house museum, it’s always illustrative to see how it was done, in the time the houses were built and lived in.

Met Museum of Art Room from the Hart House, Ipswich, Massachusetts Date- 1680
Met Museum of Art Room from the Hart House, Ipswich, Massachusetts Date- 1680


Met Wentworth House Date- 1695–1700 Geography- Made in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, United States
Met Wentworth House Date- 1695–1700 Geography- Made in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, United States


MFA 1704 Brown-Pearl Hall, structural frame, about 1704. Oak, pine
MFA 1704 Brown-Pearl Hall, structural frame, about 1704. Oak, pine

Tapestries, heavily carved casegoods, trestle tables and canopy beds. Check, check and check. There actually aren’t too many remaining examples of 17th century furniture. Lots from the 18th century, but not as much from the 17th. Most furniture used in New England by the colonists was actually made locally. The designs were obviously inspired by the Jacobean styles in Europe, particularly England and the Netherlands. But, the cost of importing furniture makers was not as prohibitive as the furniture itself. Plus, we had a lot of trees – so pine, oak and other local trees were put to use. Textile and glass were imported – which explains the sparse use of each.

Several years ago, I did some work in a house in my town of Duxbury, MA which dates to the mid-1600’s. It’s one of the oldest houses in town. This space – which is the EL off the back of the house – was in need of a refresh. As a disclaimer – this dates back 15 years or so – before I styled and photographed spaces. In other words, it’s a terrible photo. The wood beams were so old they were petrified. Just hanging the chandelier was a major accomplishment! The room got a lot of direct sunlight and my client wanted to be able to close shades to keep the heat out – without turning an already dark room into a dungeon. There was no central AC, so heat resistance was really important. I installed simple solar shades in the windows which could disappear when rolled up, but when down would still let in some light. And they provided privacy in the evenings, as the house was on a busy street. (pic below). I added a cute valance treatment on wrought iron rods which hid the roller shade cassettes. Wrought iron rods, lighting and tables felt at home in this old space. Kills me I didn’t get better photos with some better staging! Oh well.

Linda Merrill design antique sitting room Duxbury 02332

This is the house below. As you can see – the sun just beats right into the EL off the back.

Linda Merrill 218 Elm St Duxbury MA 02332 Antique el

So, for fun, I decided to “create” a room modeled after the Witch House antique and replicas and come up with a slightly more modern decor while honoring the past. This is the blank “room”.

Witch house empty room 1

I did a kitchen (again, disclaimer – this was a quick mockup – so don’t judge the kitchen design too closely!). I think painted, more modern cabinetry with simple Shaker doors freshen up the space, along with modern appliances and mix of brass and metal accents. The hanging pendant is reminiscent of candeliers of old and the trestle table is historically accurate to the era, yet so popular today. Comfortable seating is of utmost importance.

Linda Merrill Modern Living in Antique Houses Kitchen Decorating

I created a bedroom space which features a canopy bed with drapery, but in a modern wrought iron. The trunk at the foot of the bed is an 18th C antique which feels like it fits right in. I think that it’s important to honor the past by using some antique pieces where it’s easy – such as trunks and chests. But sleeping and sitting? Modern all the way.

Linda Merrill Modern Living in Antique Houses Bedroom decorated bed wall

A cute plaid rug and a blue, yellow and white color palette is fresh and coastal in feel and would certainly brighten up these dark wood rooms.

Linda Merrill Modern Living in Antique Houses Bedroom decorated window wall

And a little sitting area with bobbin chairs covered in a cute yellow buffalo check. Nothing is too precious and it’s defiantly not old and musty feeling, I think.

Linda Merrill Modern Living in Antique Houses Bedroom decorated fireplace wall

Last year I wrote about this charming stone cottage in Northumberland, England that I think really does such a beautiful job keeping things light and airy.

Tudor stone cottage bastle photography Brent Darby dining room charming stone cottage

Note the use of the carved wood sideboard on the left as a nod to the past with the upholstered Parsons chairs at the table for modern comfort.

Tudor stone cottage bastle photography Brent Darby twin bedroom charming stone cottage


So, I do believe it’s possible to update an antique home (real or replica) so that it feels fresh and modern, but doesn’t hide or ignore the historical story being told. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how to update an antique house?

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10 thoughts on “Modern Living in Antique Houses”

  1. I stumbled on your blog and like your ideas. My home is a 1911 Craftsman in San Diego with a wrap-around porch. I’ve inherited large antiques from my great grandmother, that belonged to HER grandmother, and the house goes great with those! Large dark items are sideboard, dining table and chairs, upright piano, and there are also dark built-in bookcases on one wall (all other wood was painted white before my time). Due to these these furnisings, the dark walnut floors and wrap-around porch, it does seem overly dark inside It’s a blessing in summer, since we don’t have central AC, but I am trying to think of ways to brighten it up and still honoring our family history and that of the house itself.

  2. Following. I just bought an old (1855) French style farm house in Castroville, Texas. Known as “Little Alsace,” Castroville was settled by a group of French farmers led by Henri Castro, a French banker who obtained a land grand from Sam Houston in exchange for populating it with farmers. Nothing is square or plum and not much can be changed because it has a Historic Marker. It’s hard to find things that fit and function; and, of course, prices are going up daily. The house is 157 and I’m 80, so it’s my swansong project.

  3. Love to see old homes updated. I need to go back and read your Salem witch house one, as I’m from that area.

    I really like your mockup renderings with the contemporary home decor options.

    Great post and beautiful selections. Love the plaid rug! 🙂

    • Thanks Janet! The French cottage – swoon! I also just connected with the owner of The Bastle on Instagram. That’s the Northumberland cottage property – which is also killer!


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