A Boston Home Gets a Refined Renovation

A nineteenth-century home takes on a new air of quiet sophistication that matches its owners’ modern sensibilities and showcases their collection of contemporary art.

Text by Megan FulweilerPhotography by Laura MossProduced by Kyle Hoepner

Gorgeous nineteenth-century houses line up elbow to elbow in this tony part of Boston. Trees grown thick in the waist dot small manicured lawns, and hydrangeas wave around stone foundations that have heard the rumble of horse-drawn wagons. This three-story beauty tucked behind a tidy picket fence exudes the stateliness so characteristic of its neighborhood.

Project supervisor Dan McLaughlin of S+H Construction has witnessed two full-throttle transformations of the house. Five years ago, he spearheaded—in accordance with the constraints of the historic district—a meticulous update of the building inside and out. The house was gutted “down to its bones,” McLaughlin says, and reassembled for a couple who favored elaborate details and lush wallcoverings.

This time around, he and his team were called back for a different approach. New owners were looking for an edited aesthetic to fit their refined style. “They were after longer sight lines, clean geometries, and beautiful materials,” McLaughlin says. Creating an environment to showcase their art collection was also a priority.

While, at the project’s start, the rooms were opulent, today’s ambience is as pared down and elegant as a well-concocted martini. Even the garden has switched gears, incorporating, as landscape architect Matthew Cunningham explains, “contemporary elements that echo the interiors.”

Architect Adolfo Perez and interior designer Manuel de Santaren were recruited to turn the house around. It was a new collaboration for the pair, but one that proved so successful they might well join forces again in the future. Perez is known for his skill at blending contemporary features with quality craftsmanship. And de Santaren is recognized for his knowledge of art as well as his design abilities. He co-chairs the Guggenheim Museum’s Photography Council and is president of the board of the Cisneros Fontanals Arts Foundation, headquartered in Miami.

Perez and de Santaren launched a series of life-enhancing maneuvers, including demolishing walls to expand the kitchen, reorganizing the master suite, and rehabbing the baths. Busy articulations and wallcoverings were removed, but many of the handsome moldings and door casings were maintained. “It was necessary to preserve those so that the house didn’t scream modern,” Perez explains.

Indeed, a smooth choreography of old and new such as this leaves no room for anything jarring. The recessed lighting designed by Perez lends prominence to specific artworks without drawing attention to itself. The steel doors that have been added to the foyer look perfectly at home. And minus loud colors and fabrics, the rooms feel timeless and serene. To better create what de Santaren refers to as a “blank canvas” for art, walls throughout the public areas are creamy white—a striking contrast to the freshly stained dark floors and staircase.

Not just a house where art predominates, however, de Santaren has made each room artful. The contents of the living room, for example, read like the catalog for a noteworthy exhibit. One sitting area holds Leleu chairs from the 1930s and an Eric Schmitt cocktail table. At the room’s opposite end, where Perez has framed the hearth in Crema Luna marble, sit chairs by Jean-Michel Frank, an eighteenth-century Chinese scholar’s table, and twin Ico Parisi cabinets. The accessories hail from Axel Vervoordt in Belgium. And the rug? “It’s the most prominent piece,” says de Santaren. Designed by Paris-based artist Miguel Cisterna, it was inspired by the undulating pattern of pebbles in a Japanese garden.

The seductive library across the hall was completely restructured and given a fresh focus. In addition to beefing up the moldings, Perez added a series of built-ins and swept away an existing fireplace to provide a niche for a riveting light sculpture by Anish Kapoor. When the sculpture requires a change of bulbs, the bookcases Perez cleverly devised to sit on castors swivel to allow entry from the back. The art is the room’s centerpiece, but the luminous woodwork—fumed eucalyptus rather than mahogany—maintains what de Santaren calls “a sense of classicism.”

Not to be outdone, the dining room sports a six-arm chandelier by Achille Salvagni. The leather upholstered chairs are from J. Robert Scott, while the slick table and sumptuous rug are de Santaren’s designs. The woven wool and silk sheer curtain fabric—pale as porcelain—is from Muse Bespoke.

Even the kitchen’s smart rebirth suits the understated program. “I love beautiful, but function is also key,” says Perez. To that end, he fitted the cerused oak cabinets with recessed pulls to enhance their practicality. The Imperial Danby stone countertops and counter-to-ceiling backsplash are as long-lasting as they are handsome.

The owners take morning coffee at the generous island (above which de Santaren has mounted light fixtures wrapped in black leather) or ferry their cups into the adjacent breakfast area. Once a plant-filled conservatory as Victorian as a valentine, the nook has been recast. Belgian limestone replaces yesterday’s Portuguese floor tiles, and gone is the mahogany woodwork. Instead, de Santaren clad the oasis in a paint color he devised and calls Dutch River Mud. The quiet hue makes a fine partner for leaded transoms (original to the house) as well as an iconic Ingo Maurer light fixture floating above a custom table ringed with vintage Arne Jacobsen chairs.

The private spaces are as intriguing as the public rooms. For the master suite, Perez designed a free-standing wall to separate the couple’s sleeping quarters from their dressing room with its dyed Japanese Iroko veneers and bath. The smart division amplifies the room’s serene mood, as does the enveloping, pearly-colored bed and sumptuous silk/cashmere carpet. De Santaren pulled his soothing palette of gray, taupe, and sea-green tones from the striking Namibia White stone backing the couple’s tub. “The slabs are book-matched so the pattern is unbroken,” Perez points out.

In the end, no matter where you look, Perez and de Santaren’s sophisticated synchronization never falters. From kitchen passageway to moody powder room, the two are consistently in step. The result is a glorious house that not only underscores the owners’ impeccable taste, but also pays homage to good design.
Project Team
Architecture: Adolfo Perez
Interior design: Manuel de Santaren
Builder: S+H Construction
Landscape architecture: Matthew Cunningham

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