A Renovated Condo in Boston’s South End
November 16, 2017
An imaginative design plan is carried out with exquisite attention to the details, turning a featureless Boston condominium into a sophisticated stunner.
Text by Bob Curley Photography by Eric Roth Produced by Kyle Hoepner
The ambitious renovation of this Boston condo in a former school building fittingly uses a book-filled study as its “core curriculum,” but the glass-walled design of the central space is anything but stuffy.
The Penmark building, in Boston’s South End neighborhood, once home to the Boston College High School, was converted to condominiums about a decade ago. Two side-by-side units were purchased by a couple who wanted to move back into the city after raising a family in suburban Andover, Massachusetts.
On the plus side, the units were blessed with dramatic floor-to-ceiling windows. On the minus side, two units meant a lot of duplication (such as two kitchens and two separate HVAC systems). Also in the minus column: an uninspired design. “It was a sheetrock box,” says Boston-based architect Josh Slater.
Soon enough it was an empty sheetrock box, with everything but the eighteen-foot windows removed to create a clean template for Slater, interior designer Greg Wilson, and Woodmeister Master Builders.
Guidance from the client was voluminous—the wife “had this amazing clip file like I’ve never seen before,” recalls Wilson, and it was she who had the idea to create a centrally located study—but the professionals still had plenty of room for creativity. “It was a true collaboration requiring a lot of problem-solving and critical thinking, but we also had some poetic freedom from the client,” says Woodmeister’s Sean Reynolds.
Only one of the original doors to the condo was retained, and it opens to a dramatic scene. The eye is drawn to the majestic living room window, a view enhanced by progressively taller ceilings from the foyer to the living room and to the window well itself, which extends up to the second floor.
No less eye-catching is a fireplace, mantel, and shelves clad in unfinished, hot-rolled steel, an arresting example of the owners’ love of “materiality”—-letting each element of the design stand on its own without adornment. Built by Woodmeister on Slater’s specifications, the structured boxes of the mantel are “a really amazing combination of textures, volume, height, and depth,” says Wilson. “I conceived it as a 3-D composition,” Slater explains. “It’s functional art.”
The cypress panels on the opposite wall are similarly unfinished, save for a treatment using the ancient Japanese Shou-Sugi-Ban method, which brings out the charcoaled grain of the wood. The wall opens to reveal storage space and a peek into the study and kitchen, a voyeuristic reveal that’s a tease of what’s to come just around the corner—the focal point of the home: a delightful study lined with cypress bookshelves on two sides and glass walls on the others.
The staircase to the second floor separates the study from the kitchen. Rather than trying to disguise the steps, Slater’s design integrates them into the room with a matching set of box shelves, a touch that blurs the boundaries between rooms. The study, which Slater aptly describes as “a little jewel box,” appears quite open, but is surprisingly cozy and quiet, with a tête-à-tête couch in the middle for curling up with a book or a friend.
Behind a discreet door in the corner of the room is a small work station with a desk and shelves painted in bright orange gloss—a rare burst of color and sheen in the owner’s favorite hue, which is also found in pillows, a stair runner, and a few other accents throughout the home. “It’s meant to be its own little moment,” says Wilson of the workspace. Taken in harmony with the use of natural wood and glass in the study, it reflects a design ethos that’s “definitely modern, but with soft edges,” he explains.
The glass walls of the study help retain a sense of openness throughout the home despite a relatively limited space (the condo’s two floors total about 2,500 square feet). Yet that can be changed at will with the force of a single finger to swing shut an eight-by-seven-foot steel and glass door between the study hallway and the living room, exquisitely balanced on a pivot hinge. Total acoustic privacy—so the noise from the TV in the living room doesn’t filter into the rest of the dwelling—is achieved without blocking any of the light flowing from the living room windows.
Given the home’s largely transparent boundaries, the kitchen design, by Donna Venegas and Meaghan Moynahan of Venegas and Company, is necessarily harmonious with the study and the living room: wood grain on the island and metallic paint on the cabinets echo finishes used elsewhere, but with just enough variation that they don’t seem repetitious. The standalone freezer and refrigerator are hidden behind cabinetry, and countertop clutter also disappears behind a swing-up door.
“Josh asked us to design a highly functioning kitchen that doesn’t appear ‘kitcheny,’ ” says Venegas. “We’re often asked to do this. The more kitchens we design, the clearer it becomes that a kitchen is really a living room with appliances.”
As with the fireplace in the living room, the white bronze cabinet pulls retain their natural patina. The copious millwork common in many kitchens is absent; there are no cabinets at all around the range, and backsplashes are placed only where practically necessary.
A constellation of individually blown glass pendant lamps hangs over a walnut dinner table, designed by Slater and Wilson, set before another of the home’s dramatic windows.
Up the floating staircase, the master bedroom likewise peers through the arched top of one of the external windows, this time sequestered behind a half-frosted glass wall with panes that can be opened for ventilation or shut to stop noise floating up from the floor below. A compact but stylish master bath is highlighted by raised black hexagonal tiles in the shower—a tactile delight that also plays well with the light.
By turns playful, industrial, Nordic, and even rustic, the home’s design elements work because they are integrated with a light touch and accented by small but significant flourishes that help unify the disparate rooms. “A lot of the details are deliberately quiet,” says Wilson.
Beneath that subtlety, however, lies an exquisite and complex plan. “From wood to steel to concrete and glass, it touched on all of our skill sets to execute this truly unique design,” Reynolds says. “A lot of brain power went into it.”