Outside Influence

Some houses are made unique by their inhabitants. Some are altered to be that way, renovated over the years to add details (alcoves, new rooms or furnishings) you won’t find anywhere else. But the Handa family home—a sprawling Lexington mansion built in 1919 to emulate a Tuscan villa—was singular the very moment it was built, and has only become more so thanks to its current owners.


Some houses are made unique by their inhabitants. Some are altered to be that way, renovated over the years to add details (alcoves, new rooms or furnishings) you won’t find anywhere else. But the Handa family home—a sprawling Lexington mansion built in 1919 to emulate a Tuscan villa—was singular the very moment it was built, and has only become more so thanks to its current owners.

“The house has always been evolving for us—a work in progress,” says Nilma Handa, who bought the home with her husband, Raman, 10 years ago. “When we bought it, we knew it was very special, and wanted to make restorations and to preserve the history of it.”

The house was inspired by the travels of its original owners, Nellie Littlehale Umbstaetter, a watercolorist, and Hermann Dudley Murphy, a sculptor and Harvard professor. While vacationing in Italy, the couple fell in love with a home in Florence. When they returned stateside, they had that very house replicated in Lexington.

“It was such a rare kind of home,” says Nidhi, Raman and Nilma’s 27-year-old daughter, who lived in the house for years with her parents before moving to a condo in the Back Bay. “Until very recently, it was the only property in town that was classified as a mansion. Plus, can you imagine how exotic an Italian piazza must have looked in the Lexington woods in 1919?”

Indeed, it was the kind of European-inspired undertaking that another well-traveled bon vivant of that era, Isabella Stewart Gardner, would have appreciated—and one barely less grand than her Fenway mansion. Sitting on two and a half acres of manicured grounds that the Handas have landscaped tirelessly over the years, the three-floor stucco building now looks very much like it must have in its first heyday. What’s more, with its wide lawn and elaborate gardens, it’s also a setting perfect for entertaining—a charge that the family is more than happy to take up.

The Great Outdoors
“When I first saw this home, the character of the house itself was overwhelming,” says Raman. “But it was the charm of the gardens that won me over. Besides the vast landscaping potential, the little nooks and hidden private outdoor areas are what appeal to me most.”

And it’s the perfect place to invite everyone to celebrate, Nidhi points out—from extended family to business associates. (The family works as well as plays together; the Handas own and operate the Boston-area Alpha Omega Jewelers stores.)

The family hosts two large parties every year, in late summer and early fall. “Everything is so wonderful in the gardens then,” Nilma says. “So many things are blooming, and the light is perfect.” Walking across the grounds, it’s easy to see her point: Wide ledges of peonies lead up to dramatic birdbaths; giant rhododendrons anchor the side lawn, and trellises lean over rare Japanese maples that are as old as the house.

“[The parties are] best with about 200 people to fill the yard,” Nilma says. “Otherwise the lawn seems a bit empty.” For smaller gatherings, they use the front of the house, where a sunken lawn, set between tall hedges facing the street and bushes separating the area from the house, is perfect for intimate gatherings. “We put out a long table and torches,” says Nidhi. “It’s the ideal size.” It also has the advantage of location—right next to an underground wine cellar.

Restoration of the grounds has been the biggest labor of love for the family. “When we bought the house, it was covered in vines that the previous owners had let die,” Nidhi says. (The house has changed hands four times since it was built.) “We uncovered the whole house, and are regrowing all the vines. But it’s obviously a long process.”

The fruits of that effort have started to appear all around the house. Wine grapes hang from the sturdy trellis covering the stone patio at one side entrance. A long stone staircase, a hidden gem, sits high on a hill in the green woods surrounding the property. The circular alcove, anchored by an iron bench, is the highest point in the town and offers a view of the Boston lights in the evening. “It’s where the wife who built the house would come to paint,” Nidhi says. “And where Ulysses S. Grant used to come to watch the parades. In the fall, when all the leaves are down, you can see the city perfectly.”

Grant hasn’t been the only distinguished visitor. Designated a protected property by the town of Lexington, the grounds surrounding the house were, until recently, home to the only bald eagle in Massachusetts (it went on to have eaglets before decamping). The home’s formal front entrance belies the fact that you might catch a glimpse of flocks of wild turkeys that sometimes roam about. The formal facade is anchored by a typical Italian courtyard—complete with restored Italian bas-reliefs that belonged to the original owners—next to flower-filled window boxes around a serene courtyard of grass. “Everything we could keep original, we did,” Nidhi says. “It was really important to keep the integrity of the house.”

Sunny Side Up
“This is the room we spend a lot of time time in,” Nidhi says, setting drinks down for lunch on the table in a sunny corner loggia (a roofed, open gallery typical of 17th-century architecture in Italy). Like all the rooms in the seven-bedroom house, it’s of modest size—just big enough to comfortably fit a dining table for six, plus several serving tables and a wine rack. “All the rooms are built according to how the sun moves around the house, so they were kept small,” she says. “You’re supposed to move to a different room throughout the day, to best appreciate it.”

The Art of Living
When that sunlight does hit each room individually, it plays up the elaborate walnut paneling, stone tiling and hand-stenciling—all original and revived thanks to a series of restoration projects over the years.

The family has never used a professional designer to decorate the house, instead relying on their own preferences for a blend of traditional mahogany antiques and modern technologies. Case in point: the entertainment room, with its high-definition, flat-screen TV and state-of-the-art sound system, mixed with original woodwork and deep bookshelves. Above the (also original) marble fireplace mantel sits a vibrant painting of a woman, created by a family member-cum-artist.

“We love art here, and have lots of artist friends,” Nidhi says, pointing to one of the family’s favorite works—a 3-D wooden piece depicting a cello and table, by a London artist (and friend). “It’s great to walk from room to room and be surrounded by things made by people you’re close to.”

It’s clear that as much as the Handas love entertaining, some of the most memorable times in the house occur during intimate hours spent with family. Back in the loggia, the family settles in for a quiet lunch overlooking all of their hard work in the backyard gardens. “The light is best here in the afternoon,” says Nilma, “when it gets bright, but not too much so, and you can really appreciate everything around you.”

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