January 3, 2013
An 1828 Federal-style Beacon Hill row house returns to its former glory in a careful renovation that would surely make the original architect proud.
Text by Erin Marvin Photography by Bruce Buck Produced by Kyle Hoepner
They say history repeats itself, and architect Thaddeus Siemasko and interior designer Jean Verbridge intended just that when they undertook the extensive renovation of a historic Beacon Hill address. The elegantly understated 7,200-square-foot, five-story single-family home—one of the neighborhood’s few row houses never converted into a rooming house—occupies a prized corner lot overlooking the Public Garden. Famed American architect Asher Benjamin, whose redbrick Charles Street Meeting House sits just a few blocks away, designed the Federal-style building in 1828. Siesmasko and Verbridge, principals of their eponymous Beverly, Massachusetts–based firm, asked themselves, “What would Asher have done?” at every turn, using that mantra to drive many of the design decisions.
Strict regulations from the Beacon Hill Architectural Commission, down to the exact chemical composition of the poultice used to remove rust from the exterior, reinforced the need for historical preservation, as did the homeowner’s innate sense of stewardship. Exterior changes were largely kept to repainting windows, doors and trim and replacing broken roof plates; garage doors were added to the back of the house as a nod to modern convenience. “It was a very selective renovation,” says Verbridge. “Anything integral to the original house was left alone as much as we could. Changes were made in the ’50s that we looked at and either restored to earlier grandeur or updated to be modern and practical for today’s use.”
The inside underwent a more dramatic transformation, although the basic layout—formal rooms in front, utilitarian spaces in the back—is unchanged. The grand stairway was extended to the attic, and the back stair was redone to allow easier access to the basement. The design team refurbished skylights added in the 1960s and ’70s, making them watertight and more architecturally appropriate to the house.
An oddly proportioned fourth-floor attic became an open loft space that easily transitions into a guest room. Both an elevator and a staircase grant easy access to the lower levels. The floor below holds two bedrooms and bathrooms, ready for visits from the homeowner’s two twenty-something sons.
The master suite, tucked on the second level, is an intimate retreat. The serene bedroom is a cocoon of cashmere surrounded by cream-colored walls and accented with a lavender ceiling. A silk Fortuny light fixture suspended from the ceiling adds subtle warmth. Twin chairs cozy up to a stone fireplace that is original to the house. The detailed fretwork on the mantel, a signature of Asher Benjamin’s, carries through to other fireplaces in the house as well as the home’s exterior.
In the master bath, rock crystal sconces add sparkle to a space resplendent in white Carrara marble with black accents. A cavernous freestanding tub invites hours of soaking. Down the hall, in a study that offers superb views of the Public Garden, a purple lamp and lavender desk chair nod to the blooms outside. “In terms of ‘simple elegance,’ we could have almost invented the term,” Siemasko says by way of describing this floor devoted to privacy and comfort.
A similar vibe of inviting, accessible elegance reigns on the first floor, too. Most of the flooring throughout the house, including on this level, is original, stained a dark hue. Wool-and-silk rugs help define rooms and add cushiony softness. Though most have only a subtle pattern, if any, the rugs’ neutrality doesn’t diminish their ability to surprise. “They have a luster to them,” says Verbridge. “Depending on what direction you look at them, they change tone, color and sheen.”
When it came to lighting, the designer abandoned restraint: an abundance of crystal chandeliers and sconces glitter throughout the house, playing off the sheen of the walls and infusing the home with a warm glow every evening. In the living room, for instance, a multi-tiered crystal chandelier illuminates charcoal-gray lacquered walls that have some sparkle of their own. Silvery floor-to-ceiling drapes add a touch of lightness while grass-green accent pillows, an antique lamp and the garden views glimpsed through the tall windows punctuate the space with color. A baby Steinway piano takes pride of place and sees plenty of use from the musically inclined sons. The soft gray sofa and armchair, two taupe patent-leather ottomans and a Stephanie Odegard chair clad in tarnished silver pull up to a 1950s glass-and-metal coffee table. Verbridge calls the room, with its hints of sparkle and sheen and clever mix of contemporary and traditional furnishings, “a jewel box.”
A large opening connects the formal living room and dining room, making it an ideal space for entertaining. Hand-painted silver leaf bedecks the dining room walls—a throwback to the home’s Federal-style roots—and a lavender ceiling is an unexpected touch that adds intimacy. The antique table and modern-style chairs moved with the homeowner from her last residence; it was important to her that the furnishings not all be brand-new. “She wanted to bring along her own sense of history to the space,” explains Verbridge.
Casual dining takes place in the “flop room,” off the kitchen, where oxblood-red leather banquettes inspired by the Bristol Lounge at the Four Seasons Boston cozy up to a marble-topped table. A mix of textures, including woven-leather throw pillows and cowhide ottomans, adds warmth and a contemporary flair. It’s a favorite spot for the homeowner to relax, drink coffee and read the paper. “We didn’t want it to look fuddy-duddy,” says Verbridge. “Just because this is a historic house doesn’t mean it needs to be traditional.”
The same red is repeated on the paneled walls of the powder room off the entry foyer, where a grand chandelier makes a bold statement. Rather than a typical mirrored cabinet above the sink, Verbridge and Siemasko extended the mirror the entire height of the wall, opening up the small space and granting playful reflections from the crystals hanging above.
Every thoughtful retooling of interior space and cautious change to the exterior architecture has nudged this gorgeous grande dame into the present while paying homage to the home’s historic roots. Asher Benjamin, we think, would be proud.