The Light Within
Applying a modern architectural vernacular to a traditional brownstone in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood is, in a word, Illuminating.
The classic facade of this nineteenth-century Back Bay brownstone belies the scene within. A climb up three flights of the building’s common stairwell leads to the fourth floor—and bottom level—of a young businessman’s home. Crossing the apartment threshold is like stepping into another world. “You’re in the darkest, middlest, lowest part of the apartment,” says Brad Walker, a principal at Ruhl Walker Architects, “but then you’re flooded with light, unexpectedly, in the middle of this building.”
The light washes down through a new atrium that soars three stories to the roof. Walker, who led the team in charge of the renovation and interior design, used the atrium to solve a challenge inherent to the classic brownstone: a long, front-to-back footprint that results in windowless middle rooms.
Now the apartment’s front door opens into a bright dining room. “You have this wide open space front to back and this wide open space top to bottom,” says Walker. “It suddenly feels very large compared with what you’ve come from.”
The owner, a single man in his early thirties, gave Walker and his team remarkable flexibility to create a home that suits him. He does a lot of entertaining—everything from small dinners to “big, boisterous parties,” some of which Walker has had the pleasure of attending—so creating a floor plan that maximized circulation was important. The owner’s preference for clean lines and simple materials directed the interior design, which Ruhl Walker also took on. “It was a special opportunity for us to do 90 percent of the interiors work in addition to the architecture,” says architect and project manager Keith Case. “It was a unique opportunity to enact a complete idea.”
Settling on the atrium as the apartment’s defining feature helped dictate room layout and traffic flow; every spot in the apartment is oriented toward the new column of light. On the bottom level, the entry and dining area sit at the atrium’s base, flanked by the living room at the front of the building and the kitchen at the back. On the second level, a transparent footbridge spans the atrium from the master suite at the front to the guest suite at the back. The top level holds a study at the front and a media room at the back. A final set of stairs leads to a furnished roof deck.
The abundance of light also dictated surfaces, particularly the three-story wall in the atrium, which wears a gray stone tile that glints with flecks of mica. “I wanted to make something of all the light by giving it something to land on,” says Walker. “You don’t necessarily understand the light until you have something for it to reflect off of.”
The team took every opportunity to create places for the light to reflect. Even the third-level staircase “floats,” letting light hit the wall all the way down.
The showcase tile wall stands out because other surfaces are calmer. The design team outfitted the home with white walls and red oak flooring with a gray finish, then used mid-tone wood veneers, textural cerused finishes, and lacquer for cabinetry and custom pieces.
With all the modern additions to the home, Walker had to figure out how to handle historic district-approved windows, which are new but look just like the old windows and occupy their original openings. “In the living room, I felt like two little windows at the end of the room would be too insignificant for the scale of that space,” says Walker. So, in a technique he used throughout the house, he recessed the windows into a black-painted shadowbox that reads as one large unit instead of two smaller ones.
Recessing the windows required pulling the exterior walls forward six inches, giving him the opportunity to hide the low-profile radiator system and mechanical privacy shades.
Scale was also an issue with the living-room fireplace—a tiny, brick firebox that couldn’t be dramatically altered, because it houses the chimney for the lower floors. Making it seem more important took some sleight of hand. First, the team visually expanded the firebox by containing it in a big slot lined with black granite with a flat finish. Then they surrounded the firebox with gray marble and extended a cleanly detailed, built-out fireplace wall above.
Ruhl Walker designer Paul Commito took the lead on furniture and accessories selection. “We didn’t want to add a lot of bright things to lighten up the space, because we really didn’t need to. The overall goal was a crisp, muted, masculine palette,” says Commito, suitable for the contemporary space, but hardly devoid of warmth thanks to pieces like the live-edge, black-walnut dining table. “Everything architectural is kind of minimalist and gray and white and black,” says Walker in reference to the table. “I wanted something that felt livelier and less machined.”
To further ramp up the warmth, Commito surrounded the table with orange-hued leather chairs that have a unique three-leg design. “When everything is parked in place, it’s a clean line,” he says.
When the palette is neutral, texture takes on a greater importance, as it does here. “I always worry a little bit that in a modern, clean-lined interior, people feel like they’re in their office,” says Walker, who tries to use texture in a restrained manner. In the living room, the shag rug looks gray, but is actually a combination of silver, white, and gray, giving it a more dimensional effect. That room’s metal basket has rust on it; the two metal stools are topped with wool felt.
Organic shapes—such as a free-form coatrack and Easter Island head in the entryway—also add warmth. “We felt like we needed to lighten things up a little bit,” says Walker.
The overall effect is one of volume and light, but with a welcoming and human touch. Says project manager Case: “You open up this door, and you feel like it’s a calming breath. It feels like you’ve really escaped from the city.”
Architectural and interior design: Ruhl Walker Architects
Builder: M. Holland & Sons Construction
May 28, 2020
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