Staying in Character

Too often, renovations of historic homes result in spaces with interesting bones hidden behind the generic trappings of new construction. Sure, the sleekly redesigned rooms are nice—but they lack the charm rightfully earned by a house that’s weathered a century or more.

Too often, renovations of historic homes result in spaces with interesting bones hidden behind the generic trappings of new construction. Sure, the sleekly redesigned rooms are nice—but they lack the charm rightfully earned by a house that’s weathered a century or more.

Architect Joseph Kennard didn’t want this to happen to the circa early-1800s townhouse he recently renovated in Beacon Hill. Neither did his clients.

“Their goal was to update the house with a lot of respect for its [origins],” says Kennard, owner of a Boston-based architecture firm of the same name. That meant much more than choosing era-appropriate paint colors: “They really accepted the age of the building and the quirkiness of the home.”

Something Peculiar

THE STAIRCASE WAS A CENTRAL feature of the house, which has 3,000 square feet spread over six floors. Although it was perfectly safe, it “had an incredible kilter to it that came from years of settling,” says Kennard. But the home¬owners wouldn’t even consider ripping out such a vital part of the original structure. “Because they did things like allowing the staircase to remain, now the place has an aesthetic that looks like it has matured and progressed over time.”

Structural changes were about both looking back in time and adding contemporary conveniences. “We cleaned up a lot of the ill-
conceived modifications that had been added over the years,” says Kennard, who worked with a team from F.H. Perry-Builder in Hopkinton. That included opening up several half-round eyebrow windows in the stairwell—they’d been bricked over, allowing no natural light to come in, even though this home is in a rare and enviable (in Beacon Hill) corner position with three exposures. “Now there’s light on every level,” Kennard says.

The kitchen, too, needed quite a bit of love. “It was planned poorly, and it didn’t fit in with the rest of the house,” says Kennard. Working closely with the home¬owners—they did the decorating themselves—he created a floor plan around two of the owners’ favorite pieces: an early-American antique display case and an antique Asian credenza. He then installed new parquet floors, reclaimed-walnut shelving, custom cherry cabinetry and white marble countertops, and painted a wall with black chalkboard paint. New appliances—an Aga range, an LG refrigerator and a Thermador microwave—blend with the eclectic feel of the room, as does a white porcelain farmhouse sink from Herbeau. “I really like modern appliances, but not a modern look,” the owner says. “This is such a functional kitchen, but it doesn’t just look like a kitchen—it looks like a room you could live in.”

There’s a kitchenette on the garden level, and it also blends new and old to gracious effect. The space the owners formerly called “ugly” now has weaved linoleum flooring, painted wood cabinetry, reclaimed-walnut countertops, an antique slate sink and a raw steel sink stand. It’s a kitchen that gets used frequently, especially when the weather is warm and the owners—and their children and grandchildren, who stay comfortably and privately in the garden-level guest suite—enjoy the newly bricked (in a lovely herringbone pattern), lushly planted and user-friendly patio area. Kennard added a custom cedar storage shed that the owners use to store their barbecue grill and their bicycles.


ON THE FIRST FLOOR, KENNARD created a new arched opening—echoing the home’s historic lines—between the kitchen and the dining room, which had been separate, closed-off rooms. “This helped the space flow together, and share light and views from the front of the building to the back,” Kennard says. Other than that, there weren’t many changes to the living spaces, which are comfortable and inviting, thanks to the owner’s decorating style and keen eye for detail, and not at all imposing the way severely reconstructed rooms can be.

The second floor houses a large his-and-hers study with two fireplaces where the owners can work separately—their desks are at opposite ends of the room—and still be together. There’s also a powder room on the second floor, where, in another example of the don’t-need-to-change-everything philosophy, the owner kept the elephant wallpaper that was already there because she loves it.

On the sunny third floor, two welcoming guest rooms (one in cheery yellow, another in blue and green) await visitors. The bathroom on this floor was a labor of love for the owner. Unable to decide how to decorate around the hard-to-match dark green marble, she finally fell in love with the salmon-tinted pages of the Financial Times. She saved the travel and fashion articles for more than six months before Gerard Wiggins, a decorative artist from Boston, decou¬paged them all over the bathroom walls. “This took some time,” she says. “It’s not easy to find fun pages in the Financial Times.”


THE MASTER SUITE OCCUPIES THE fourth floor. Its most notable element is the footed tub—right in the bedroom. “In the olden days there were always baths in the bedrooms,” says the home¬owner, who adores relaxing in her tub in the evening before bed, and watching the activity on the street below. Supporting the tub was a challenge that required structural reworking—“The floor had to be completely rebuilt underneath,” Kennard says—but the windows around it afford the perfect view: A bather can see down, but no one can see in.

The view gets even better on top of this home, where Kennard removed the aging roof deck and replaced it with a mahogany one that offers sweeping views of the city and the Charles River.

Despite the charming outcome of the redesign, things didn’t always run smoothly: “We had to go before the Beacon Hill Architectural Commission three or four times,” says Kennard, who faced opposition to the eyebrow windows and even the front doorway. “At first they rejected the style [bifold shutter doors with a glass transom above] and color [green] of the doors we wanted to do,” Kennard says. “But we went back and argued our case, and showed them that there was a precedent for this door style on the street.” They won the argument, and now plan to finish the project this year—creating a doorway that, like the rest of the renovation, is a faithful tribute to the history of the house and its unique character.