Credit: Tom Lambui; Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca; Debbie Egan-Chin

When Rob and Julie Hert moved into their historic Sea Cliff home in 1997, they had to wear earmuffs around the house.

“We didn't take off our winter clothes,” said Rob Hert, 57. “It was freezing.”

When Hert couldn't get the temperature above 50 degrees, he knew fundamental changes in their home were needed to survive the winter. But the couple had no idea how much work they'd be in for.

The house was built in 1898 and in need of insulation, a new heating system and windows to keep out the cold air.

“When you have an old house, it's all about necessity,” said Rob, a retired teacher. “So you figure it out as you go along, what you need.”

Owners of historic homes throughout Long Island have learned how to winterize their properties for the modern age — from larger-scale projects like adding insulation or radiant floor heating, to tricks such as covering up gaps along windows and doors. These homeowners are maintaining their storied sites (and the quirks that come with them), while also staying cozy in the cold months.

A shaking chandelier

Jennifer and Kevin Rotunno live in this historic home in...

Jennifer and Kevin Rotunno live in this historic home in Port Jefferson. Credit: Tom Lambui

Jennifer and Kevin Rotunno live in a historic home constructed by a shipbuilder. The Italianate Victorian sits atop a hill in Port Jefferson. From their third story, sweeping views of the harbor greet them below.

“Because we're at the top of the harbor here, all of the wind actually hits our house and our house moves and sways in the wind,” said Jennifer Rotunno, 52.

'When the wind is strong, our bed moves.'

— Jennifer Rotunno

The house was built by James E. Bayles and his wife, Rosalie, around 1873. Bayles and his father, James Madison Bayles, ran a shipyard in town. A dock from the time still remains there today.

The movement in the house is most noticeable around this time of year. “When the wind is strong, our bed moves,” Rotunno said. There's also a chandelier on the third floor that sways.

Rotunno and her husband moved here in 1999. She first saw the house while taking a drive through her native Port Jefferson one day with a friend. The grand belvedere is what first caught her eye.

“It took my breath away, seeing that,” said Rotunno, a girls clothing designer. “I said, 'I'm gonna live there one day.' That was my dream house. The next day, I took my husband to see it, and there was a 'for sale' sign there that wasn't there the day before.”

Over the years, the couple has renovated the house to ensure it'll stay warm in the winter, such as covering the windows against the wind coming in. But of course, they can't do much about the wind itself.

'It was jarring at first, when we first noticed it, but we've been here 25 years now, so we're used to it.'

— Jennifer Rotunno

“The house has been here for 150 years, and it was built by a shipbuilder,” Rotunno said. “So we feel safe. It was jarring at first, when we first noticed it, but we've been here 25 years now, so we're used to it.”

Because of how the house is positioned on the hill, other houses on the block don't experience the same movement, she said.

“Our neighbors across the street actually told us our house was a windbreaker for them,” Rotunno said with a laugh. “And that they were grateful for that.”

Living in a North Shore community comes with its own challenges during the winter months, said Robert Sinclair Jr., the AAA Northeast spokesman.

“Certain situations demand extra caution, and I'm talking about curves [in the road] and for those communities on the North Shore, hills,” he said. “If you're living on a hill, before the storm arrives, move your vehicle. Then you won't have to travel on a hill to leave your home.”

For those living on a hill, Sinclair mentioned homeowners can invest in heated driveways to assist in snow removal, utilizing the same kind of piping you'd need to heat a concrete floor. 

"Outside of that, shoveling the driveway and making sure you put down some snow melt prior to the arrival of snow can go a long way to help keeping the driveway clear," he said. "If you live in hilly area, you'll want to make sure you can at least get out of driveway."

Although the Rotunnos have a small driveway, they must stay vigilant when it snows and start shoveling before it freezes over.

“We've all been quite lucky with not too much snow in recent years,” Rotunno said. “We used to have a lot more snow. We just have to get it done early.”

Snow in the front hall

Lorraine Kelley lives in this historic home in Huntington.

Lorraine Kelley lives in this historic home in Huntington. Credit: Alejandra Villa Loarca

Every winter, Lorraine Kelley and her husband, Richard, bundle up and make some soup, while keeping the temperature of their historic home in the 60s. Richard Kelley grew up just south of Buffalo, so the cold doesn't bother him.

The couple has been living in their Huntington home for 34 years. As president of the Huntington Historical Society, Lorraine Kelley helps to preserve historic buildings in the area. Her own Victorian home was built about 1895, she estimated.

“The house has been very much preserved,” said Kelley, 72, a retired teacher. “It has pocket doors, woodwork that hasn't been painted and all original wood floors.”

'The metal [storm doors] we had weren't old, but they did have gaps and occasionally we'd get snow in the front hall.'

— Lorraine Kelley

It gets drafty during the colder months, she admitted — last year, they installed wooden storm doors on the front of the house.

“The metal ones we had weren't old, but they did have gaps and occasionally we'd get snow in the front hall,” she said. “But that doesn't bother us.”

Beyond that, the house has stood the test of time, save for some adjustments. For example, the couple switched from oil to gas heat 15 years ago to save money, and because Kelley preferred gas cooking. She also discovered that the house originally ran on coal heat.

“The house has no insulation and we have the original windows,” said Kelley.

Raf Lanza is president and CEO of Raf Development Corp., a construction firm based in Huntington Station. Lanza also restores historic homes on Long Island, taking on one project a year.

When adding insulation to a historic dwelling, there are a couple of different approaches a homeowner can take. The more expensive route involves foam insulation and the installation of an energy recovery ventilator (ERV), Lanza said. The device exchanges indoor and outdoor air, while also transferring temperature and humidity levels.

A house that was built in the 1800s was designed to breathe, and now new houses are designed not to breathe.

— Raf Lanza, president and CEO of Raf Development Corp. in Huntington Station

“A house that was built in the 1800s was designed to breathe, and now new houses are designed not to breathe,” Lanza said, regarding insulation.

To insulate a 2,000-square-foot house with fiberglass, it would cost about $7,500, while spray foam would cost approximately $16,500, Lanza said.

There is a smaller-scale way to insulate a historic home that may not break the bank, he added.

“I think if someone has a tight budget, they could go and take off all the plates on outlets and switches and insulate inside the wall in that location,” Lanza said. “It's an inexpensive way to at least fill some voids.”

As for other heating methods, Lanza said adding radiant heat under tile flooring is worthwhile, and costs between $15 and $20 per square foot.

“Radiant heat is very efficient,” he said. “And if you're getting heat loss in other places, it'll balance it out. We did a historic house in Huntington about two years ago and added radiant heat to the kitchen — wherever we put tile, we put radiant heat underneath it, and that helped tremendously.”

Lanza recommends that keepers of historic homes put aside extra funds to improve the insulation, especially if they have other projects already lined up.

“What I would say to someone who owns a historic home, if they were planning on doing an addition, a renovation, whatever their project might be, make an allowance of at least another 10% or 15% to do a better job with the insulation,” he said. “I think it'll be money well spent.”

Cliff living

Rob Kenney's 1890 Sea Cliff home has a functioning outhouse. At top, Kenney with his twins, Nicoletta, left, and Joanna. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Rob Kenney and his family are only the second occupants of their historic Sea Cliff home, he said. The earth-toned Victorian was built about 1890, and was vacant for 60 years before Kenney, his wife, Irene, and their 16-year-old twin daughters moved in. So, there was a lot to be done.

'It hadn't been touched in 50 or 60 years ... it looked like a haunted house. But I saw it as a diamond in the rough.'

— Rob Kenney

“It was really more of a rehab than a renovation,” said Kenney, 52. “We tried to save as much as we could: All the lighting, molding, plaster, even the floors.”

As far as winterizing the property, Kenney realized the urgency about 10 years ago, during a season that was so brutal that their pipes froze. They added spray foam insulation in their basement to keep out drafts, bought a new boiler and added radiant heat in the kitchen and bathroom under new flooring.

“We were keeping the heat on 75, and it was still freezing,” said Kenney, an e-commerce consultant. “So that's when I took a lot of these steps.”

Rob and Julie Hert have renovated their 1898 Sea Cliff Victorian since moving in, adding their own personal touches along the way — like the tile on this staircase. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

When the Herts moved to Sea Cliff, they started with little fixes, such as putting plastic on the inside of their windows to keep out cool air. Then they replaced the windows. The couple ended up gutting the first floor, adding a new heating system and along the way coming up with more tricks to stay warm.

The Herts' Sea Cliff home pictured in 1937. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

“The doors are so old that there are gaps on the bottom,” said Rob Hert. “So you have to insulate at the bottom and around the edges.”

The three-bedroom, two-bathroom house cost the couple $240,000 in 1997. Soon after moving in, they added blown-in insulation into the walls throughout their house, which totaled $2,500. “It was the best $2,500 we ever spent,” Hert said.

A solution Kenney came up with was to rent a thermal imaging camera about five years ago, to find the coldest parts of his walls and floors.

“We blew in insulation from the outside of the house,” he said. “So you don't have to damage the plaster walls inside. It's easier to drill holes from the outside, and stick the tube in.” Kenney removed and then put back the clapboard siding to get this done, looking back on the effort as “the best winterization I did.”

Since they first moved in, Kenney has gotten the hang of how to take care of his home in winter. He makes sure to shovel snow off his porch as quickly as possible, to avoid damaging the wood, and keeps an eye on any water coming through his slate roof. He only opens up his wood-burning fireplaces for a special occasion, like Christmas. Otherwise, they let in drafts, so they remain clogged shut, he said.

Looking back on the early days, “the house was like a time capsule,” Kenney said. “It hadn't been touched in 50 or 60 years, and with the original furnishings from 1890, it looked like a haunted house. But I saw it as a diamond in the rough.”

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