Better Than the Original

Thanks to a thoughtful renovation, a Victorian home goes from drab to delightful.

THE LOCATION? PERFECT. THE SIZE? Just right. But the condition of this 100-year-old Cambridge home? “It was a wreck,” says architect Lisa Cunningham, coprincipal of Warner + Cunningham Architects. “After years of neglect preceded by misguided renovations and additions, all the rooms were totally chopped up. The back stairs were so steep they were dangerous; there was a cinderblock carport that was literally falling off the house; and the kitchen’s backsplash was made of cork coasters!”

[sidebar]The home was in such bad shape that upon seeing it, the owner’s mother wept. “It was such a dump,” the mother says. “And it smelled! My daughter kept saying, ‘Wait, just wait.’ But I thought it would never happen.”

Fortunately, when Cunningham and her husband and partner, George Warner, examined the house’s lovely exterior, original main staircase, and grand, nearly 11-foot ceilings, they saw plenty worth saving. If they could rescue the elements that gave the house its antique character and “surgically excise” the problems (like that back staircase, for starters), they’d be able to rebuild the house to what it should have been while making it livable, contemporary, and more energy-efficient.

Their clients, a professional couple with a toddler, agreed with the architects’ assessment. “We wanted to keep the feeling of a Victorian,” says one of the owners, “but we also wanted something modern.”

Warner and Cunningham began by salvaging as much as possible, including the brass hardware, the doors, and many of the century-old windows. They treated the original hardwood floors with water-based polyurethane on the first level, and a natural Swedish oil, for a matte look, on the second. Additions — like a limestone fireplace in the living room (with a completely reconstructed chimney) and herringbone floorboards in the foyer — were carefully chosen for their textural details. They also introduced period extras, such as reading nooks with window seats, built-in bookcases, and pocket doors.