On The Market: 531 Massachusetts Avenue

The modernist take on Victorian restoration.



AS YOU HEAD SOUTH ON Massachusetts Avenue toward Boston Medical Center, you might notice the block between Tremont and Shawmut where the townhouses are set farther back from the road. This is Chester Square, once the South End’s largest garden square, and home to some of the grandest Victorians in the city. Neglected for more than a century, these residences – after a flurry of high-end restorations – are hot again.

The townhouse at 531 Massachusetts Avenue is our favorite renovation in the neighborhood. Like most of its Chester Square counterparts, this former rooming house was in tragic condition when two architects bought it in 2003. The hard-core modernists had planned to gut the place and turn it into a minimalist statement. But once they peeled back the drywall and drop ceilings, they were so seduced by fragments of original ornamental plaster that they ended up spending $70,000 to restore the moldings and ceiling medallions alone.

Rather than slavishly returning the property to 1858 style, they went out of their way to rehab only the choicest bits, like the cut-glass front doors and built-in cabinetry. Everything else got a contemporary finish, resulting in a perfect amalgam of old and new: Thick crown molding frames a silvery Florence Broadhurst wallpaper; a neoclassical niche floats above a glossy black floor.

This is especially true in the all-white eat-in kitchen (originally the dining room), where traditional wall cabinetry would have junked up the room’s elliptical shape. Instead, the architects installed two marble-topped islands to hold appliances and provide storage space. A dining table for six fits in between, while an enormous ceiling medallion – a 3-foot-wide creamy plaster rendering of wisteria vines – hangs above. In the same room, the owners have restored the two built-in secretaries. Their glass doors and foldout desks frame the original marble fireplace, and their dark wood warms the snowy palette.

The garden-level living quarters, meanwhile, are as informal as the upstairs is formal. This makes sense. In the 19th century, Boston basements were for kitchens and servants. Now, a generous space doubles as a family room and office; it features copious bookshelves and a wet bar, and opens via French doors to the private brick patio. Two comfortably scaled bedrooms lack closets of their own, but an adjacent hallway is equipped with 15 feet of European closets that easily hold shoes, sweaters, and coats for a family of four. And finally, the master bath, with its white marble mosaics, is a study in modern restraint.

The city of Boston recently restored Chester Square’s streetscape, making the property even more appealing. Now there are well-tended trees, a garden path, and decorative fountains. It’s not Beacon Hill – the neighborhood is still rough around the edges – but at $764 per square foot, this home is a grand space priced within reach for the urban pioneer.