Before & After: Continental Shift

Make no mistake: Bill Rubenstein is not an East Coaster. Sure, he may have attended Yale and Harvard Law School, then spent a decade litigating discrimination cases in New York—but California, he insists, is his spiritual home. He grew to love the Golden State and its modern architecture while teaching at UCLA from 1997 to 2007. But when Harvard came knocking with a tempting job offer, Rubenstein reconsidered the coast he’d left behind. As he browsed Cambridge real estate listings online, an intriguing Federal-style, six-bedroom brick home popped up. “I figured if I was going to be at Harvard, I might as well really be at Harvard—geographically and aesthetically,” he says. One day later, he made an offer, and with the swipe of a pen, the avowed Californian became a Cantabrigian once again. To bring in a West Coast sensibility while maintaining the home’s historical integrity, he asked Richard Curl of LDa Architects to brighten the rooms and create a fluid indoor-outdoor connection.

Formerly a dark, single-story foyer, the new 18 1/2-foot-high entryway is filled with light. Curl knocked out the ceiling, removed the second-floor bathroom above, and took out the doors to the adjoining first-floor dining room. While the second-floor landing once faced the bathroom wall, it now it looks out over the double-height foyer to a 6 1/2-by-5-foot-tall window with views of the front yard. To maintain the home’s historic feel, Curl preserved both the foyer’s original 1895 wood floors and its symmetrical layout, with a formal dining room to one side and a living room to the other.

The original space was diminished by a hulking laundry unit, a servants’ staircase, and an enormous low-hanging stove hood—which were the first things to go. Michael Humphries of Michael Humphries Woodworking in Warwick then built white-oak cabinets with flush doors and stainless steel pulls to create sufficient storage with a streamlined look. The millwork and Carrara marble countertops are illuminated by halogen ceiling lights and a George Nelson bubble lamp. The most dramatic (and Californian) change, Curl and Rubenstein agree, was blowing out the kitchen’s back wall and replacing it with a 14-by-8-foot-tall window.

Rubenstein wanted to open the three-bedroom third floor into an airy master suite, connecting a bedroom, bathroom, fitness studio, and walk-in closet via interior windows and doorways. He also replaced one of the home’s eight fireplaces with a kitchenette and wet bar. A group of closets adjacent to the bedroom was transformed into a 10-by-11 master bath. The cut-out window above the Wetstyle tub was inspired by Rubenstein’s frequent travels—”I really like the open layout of spa hotels”—and approved by Curl. “There’s less solidness now,” the architect says. “You don’t feel trapped anymore.”

Curl converted the old second-floor master bedroom into a library where Rubenstein teaches law school seminars and keeps his book collection. He also extended the built-in bookshelves to the window and added a Gascogne blue limestone hearth from Interior Stone in Waltham to the fireplace.