It's About Time

It started almost two decades ago.

Eileen McDonagh, Bob Davoli, and their two sons had been living in a mid-19th-century Belmont farmhouse since the 1970s. McDonagh was a political science professor at Northeastern, positioned to become an expert on the Roe v. Wade decision. Davoli was a technology maverick about to sell his first client-server data management software company, Epoch Systems, for $141 million.

In those days, the couple sought land where they could briefly retreat from modern life. They found five wooded acres around a pond in Lincoln and treated it as their own private Walden—hiking the grounds, enjoying the flora and fauna, and occasionally considering building a home on the site.

But for this fiercely intellectual pair, the design of any house would become a significant artistic collaboration. “Bob and I have very different professional lives, so we don’t have a lot that we can share,” says McDonagh. “Instead of taking vacations, we decided to build a house.” While waiting for their lives to slow down, they pored over monographs of major American designers like Frank Gehry.

Then in 1998, after nearly a decade of empty-nesting, the couple decided the timing was just right. Their thorough architect search ended with Warren Schwartz, a founding principal at Boston’s Schwartz/Silver Architects, whose wife, violinist Sheila Fiekowsky, was one of the first women to join the Boston Symphony Orchestra. As amateur musicians (McDonagh plays piano; Davoli is a guitarist), the couple bonded with Schwartz over music, and were impressed by the architect/musician relationship.

Music became a theme for the design of the house. The astonishing 825-foot-long Corten steel fence that encloses half an acre, for example, was fashioned by Brookline pianist and landscape artist Mikyoung Kim, recommended to Davoli and McDonagh by Schwartz. “When I first met Bob, we ended up talking about music,” says Kim, “especially Bach, whose work is very modular, with a voice that gets layered and repeated—this became the creative directive behind the fence.”

During the eight years they took to design and build the house, Davoli and McDonagh relished working with their carefully chosen team. “Bob and I really enjoyed the process. We were after something that takes time and thought. All things artistic take that,” says McDonagh. They consulted with Calvin Tsao, of the award-winning New York architecture firm Tsao & McKown, to assist in selecting interior colors. A number of pieces, including McDonagh’s desk and Davoli’s office bookshelves, were custom designed by Nader Tehrani and Monica Ponce de Leon of Office dA. A board member of the ICA, Davoli bought several major art pieces and commissioned others specifically for the site. The couple also engaged fine art photographer Shellburne Thurber to document the house’s construction.

Their most challenging decisions were about how to get the 9,500-square-foot house to harmonize with the site. Schwartz says, “Bob and Eileen were very clear about what they wanted. The house had to fit into the landscape. It had to work with the contours of the site and impact the land as little as possible.”

According to Davoli, the intense process yielded an objet d’art that did just that. “All the colors of the house are earth tones,” he says with pride. “The steel is brownish reddish; the slate cladding matches the color of the trees; the bamboo floors, lilac bluestone, steel, and glass, even the concrete in the kitchen—all were chosen to blend into the landscape.” In fact, when project architect Michael Price presented renderings of the house to the town for approval, one of the selectmen said, “I want to know what color the place is really going to be because in the pictures, it looks like the bark on the trees.” Davoli says, “We laughed and said, ‘Well, that’s what it’s supposed to be.'”