Preservation by Prevention: Spring Maintenance

Gutter damaged by winter weather

Gutter damaged by winter weather

Spring has finally arrived in Washington after a long, cold, and unusually snowy winter. It’s not just the calendar that says so. Daffodils and tulips are sprouting in flower beds around the region, and the buds are just becoming apparent on trees. The first warm days of the year are a perfect excuse to spend a weekend outside inspecting the condition of your home and repairing damage wrought by harsh winter weather. We spent this last weekend doing just this type of assessment and beginning small repairs.

Gutters and Downspouts

One major area to check for damage after the fall and winter is your gutters and downspouts. Ice dams caused by winter snow may have loosened your gutters or even pulled them off of the eaves. The Trust has recently begun spring easement monitoring, and evidence of gutter damage caused by the mid-Atlantic’s winter blizzards has been widespread. Even if your gutters are still securely attached to the building, those that were not fully cleaned in the fall may be full of leaves and clogged, preventing them from transporting heavy spring rains from the roof to the ground.

Now is the time to get up on a ladder and check that the gutters are secure, clean, free of gaps between sections, and pitched properly toward the downspouts. Any deficiencies should be repaired quickly. The downspouts should also be checked to ensure that they are securely attached to the building, fully connected, and that they are expelling water in an appropriate location that drains away from the building. At our house, fallen leaves had totally clogged the exit pan, making it impossible for water to flow away from the house.

For more information on gutters and spouts, see Preservation by Prevention – Gutters and Downspouts.


A missing slate, as visible from the ground

A missing slate, as visible from the ground

It is a good idea to check the condition of your roof in the spring. This can be done from the ground, or from a ladder while you investigate the gutters. You should leave on-roof inspections to the professionals. Missing or broken slates and shingles that indicate a need for repairs will be visible from the ground on most pitched roofs, although problems with flashing around chimneys and other roof penetrations may only be seen from a ladder.

For more information on the care and repair of historic roofing, see the following National Park Service Preservation Briefs: general, wooden shingle, slate, and clay tile.


Porch eaves with deteriorated paint

Porch eaves with deteriorated paint

Spring is also a good time to check the exterior of your house for deteriorated paint. Chemicals and abrasive materials used to melt and provide traction on snow and ice in the winter may have abraded a painted porch floor. Leaky gutters may have caused peeling paint on the gutters themselves or a cornice or frieze below the gutters. Moisture penetration from snow or wind-driven rain may have destabilized paint on clapboards and other surfaces. If you find deficiencies in the exterior paint coat, they should be remedied as quickly as possible to protect the underlying historic materials. A good preparation job is critical to a lasting paint job. Loose and deteriorated paint should be removed by hand with scrapers followed by sanding prior to the application of new coats of paint. If you remove paint to a bare surface, an appropriate primer may be required. You should always use a moisture permeable paint consistent with the type of paint you are covering.

For more information on painting wooden surfaces, see the National Park Service Preservation Brief.


Winter moisture and freeze-thaw cycles can wreak havoc on historic masonry, as water penetrates cracks, freezes, and causes spalling. We have not had significant damage to our home’s brick walls or foundation, but the flagstone walkways and patio lost a lot of mortar this winter. If areas of mortar are damaged or missing, the joint should be dug out to sound mortar and then spot filled with a mortar of the same composition. If spalling of the masonry units themselves is severe, you should call in a mason with experience working on historic buildings for advice on the best course of repair.

For more information on the repair of historic masonry see Preservation by Prevention: Historic Masonry and the National Park Service Preservation Brief.


Spring is the perfect time to prune and trim the plants in your yard. Your foundation plantings, or those in the beds adjacent to your building, should be cut back sufficiently so that an air space is maintained between the building and the plant. This will help the building stay dry and also prevent damage to the exterior building materials from abrasion. Branches constantly rubbing against historic clapboards, for instance, can cause permanent damage to the historic materials.

The plants in your yard should also be checked for damage. In a neighbor’s yard, the severity of a spring rainstorm combined with ground destabilized by significant snowmelt caused a large oak to uproot and begin to topple. In that case, tree removal is necessary immediately to protect lives and property. Such significant work should only be undertaken by professionals. In our case, the damage was much less severe, but the extreme weight of winter snows caused a lot of broken and torn branches that needed to be cut back to prevent rot and infection. If you have historic plants in your yard that contribute to the significance of the property it is even more critical that they be tended properly to ensure that they will survive for future generations.

For more information on the preservation of historic landscapes, see the National Park Service Preservation Brief.

A small dose of spring maintenance will help ensure that your house is in good shape after a long winter and will allow you to rest easy as you enjoy your yard throughout the spring and summer.

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