Dramatic by Design

December 22, 2021

Back Bay residence undergoes a top-to-bottom transformation with the help of savvy professionals.

Text by Clinton Smith     Photography by Douglas Friedman

About a decade ago, Henry and Savannah Helgeson hired Boston interior designer Nicole Hogarty to renovate the kitchen of their Back Bay brownstone, which at the time was a multifamily residence; the Helgesons occupied the top two floors. Fast forward a few years and Hogarty is called upon to revisit and reimagine the possibilities of the house after the downstairs neighbors decamped for the suburbs and the Helgesons snatched up the unit, deciding to convert the building back to its original single-family use. “From young families to empty nesters, we are finding our clients want the energy of the city while maintaining the comforts of a suburban lifestyle,” says Hogarty. “We spend a great deal of time during the design phase anticipating the daily routine of our clients.”

Such was the case with the Helgesons. Although Hogarty had worked with them before, their tastes and priorities had shifted since that initial kitchen renovation. “They wanted to set the tone that this is not your typical brownstone,” says Hogarty. “They wanted it to feel a little European, a little modern, a little West Coast.” But before aesthetic considerations were made, there were other requirements to be resolved, including making room for a ground-floor attached garage, incorporating a new wood-burning fireplace, integrating an elevator, and creating space for the sculptural, elliptical staircase that would become the home’s pièce de résistance. Throughout the process, Charles J. Capone, the homeowner’s representative, served as a critical conduit and liaison among the various project partners and collaborators to facilitate both major and minute decisions during construction.

For Payne | Collins Design and JW Construction, the firms involved in the architectural renovation, the demolition of the interior revealed the necessity to reframe the floors to ensure all spaces aligned perfectly. At one point, the house was a total blank canvas. “When you walked in the building from the basement, you could look up, and it was just the fire walls on each side all the way through up to the roof,” says builder Jon Wardwell of JW Construction.

The result was a completely new interior with everything level and plumb, much as when it was originally built. Time and again, the team at Payne | Collins, which specializes in sensitive Back Bay and Beacon Hill town house renovations, has found that many of these older brownstones have been remodeled so many times over the years that the overall structural integrity has been significantly compromised and replacing the skeleton is the best way to ensure the building remains viable for the next hundreds of years. As an added benefit, in doing so, they were able to seamlessly integrate many important twenty-first-century amenities into the nineteenth-century shell, including the latest building, safety, and energy code requirements. A completely new wood-burning fireplace is just one of the engineering and building feats.

“Not only did we have to bring everything up to code but also work around a pretty complex heating and cooling system, although you wouldn’t know when looking at the fireplace,” says Wardwell. “You would think it was an original feature of the house.”

The home’s primary gathering spaces—the living and dining rooms and kitchen—reside on the second level as an open-concept floor plan. However, for the couple, creating spaces that were comfortable for their two young children as well as the friends, family, and colleagues who gather here in large groups was paramount. “We make a lot of fires and so, especially at this time of year, we’re kind of gravitating toward the second floor,” says Savannah Helgeson.

Throughout the house, materials, including wood, stone, metal, and leather, are given pride of place through grand gestures, like the Patagonia granite flooring in the entry, to the most subtle details, such as the leather-wrapped, hand-stitched interior door hardware. The palette of soft, soothing hues reveals itself throughout in sumptuous fabrics and upholstery, luxurious carpets, and eye-catching textural wallcoverings. “I personally just kind of gravitate toward neutral colors,” Helgeson says. “Henry likes a little more color, so we tried to find artwork that allowed us to add in some pops of color to satisfy both needs.”

Another important consideration was that every space be utilized—nothing is superfluous. Private quarters occupy the floors above and include a full-floor primary suite, the children’s and guest rooms, and a new copper-clad headhouse and rooftop entertaining area with sweeping views of the Boston skyline.

For Hogarty, the success of this project can be attributed not only to the creative and technical collaborators involved but also the homeowners’ dedication to—and passion for—the process. “Henry and Savannah are such strong communicators,” says Hogarty. “They’re not shy. They come to the table with ideas. They know what works for their family, they know what works for them aesthetically. And then they trust you and step back. So, it’s this beautiful relationship where they’re very clear. It’s always an ongoing conversation.”

Indeed, that dialogue continues, as Hogarty has gone on to collaborate with the Helgesons on a vacation home on Nantucket.  Who knows what’s next?

Project Team
Interior architecture and design: Nicole Hogarty, Nicole Hogarty Designs
Renovation architecture: Payne | Collins Design
Renovation builder: Jon Wardwell, JW Construction
Landscape design: Perennial Gardens