Home Entertainment Magazine (Robb Report)
Date: May/June 2007
Photography by: Eric Roth
By: Louis Postel
A thorough knowledge of the past is just the start for a home on Boston’s famed Beacon Hill.
THE YOUNG COUPLE FOUND THE LOVELY WOMEN LYING IN DUST AND DEBRIS. Known in the architectural world as caryatids, the graceful and sculptural figures that were inspired by ancient Greek mythology double as columns for the neoclassical mantelpiece; the bas-relief entablatures sitting atop their heads present various classical mythology scenes. Only a trained eye would recognize their value at first blush.
Harvard-educated interior designer Heidi Pribell has such an eye. “Put that mantelpiece in your purchase-and-sale agreement right away,” she urged her young clients, who were ready to buy the townhouse that was built in the 1880s after the Great Boston Fire. The white Carrara marble fireplace mantel, a museum-quality piece of American history, turned out to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars – the price tag of a brand-new home.
A few years later, with the imminent birth of their third child on the horizon, Pribell’s clients purchased a larger townhouse on Boston’s historic, lamp-lit Beacon Hill. Standing in the shadows of Boston’s gold-domed state house, the townhouse, which most recently was home to the editorial offices of the famed Beacon Press, was a drab and dreary manuscript-littered warren of cubbies and cubicles. Not a single detail evoked memories of the Boston Brahmins and politicos who had lived there a century earlier.
To enliven the dreary surroundings of their new residence, the couple asked their interior designer to incorporate the rescued caryatids into the interior design of their new home “The caryatids set the tone for the whole project, “says Pribell, who restored the townhouse to its former glory while creating a fresh and vital design for her young clients.
But achieving “fresh and vital” on Beacon Hill is not always easy, she adds. “Appropriateness” is most often the word of choice that defines the interior design schemes of Boston’s historic residences. So for Pribell, a former antiques dealer who has extensive knowledge of earlier 19th-century life and fashion, neoclassical style was the catalyst. This knowledge enabled her to play with the design genre and avoid clichés. “With jewel-tone reds, golds, and blues like those that were the norm, we would have ended up with Marie Antoinette meets Mickey Mouse,” Pribell says. In addition to orchestrating the home’s interior design, Pribell oversaw the renovation of the interior architecture. She designed all five of the glamorous, light-filled stairwells; the regal crown moldings and windows casings; every ceiling medallion; and a new elevator decorated with Tunisian-made tiles that lend a Greco-Roman look to the space. She also gave the basement a full remodel. Now the space opens up to a lushly landscaped garden terrace that often in roofed with an elaborated party tent.
As one enters the home and passes the spiral staircase, it is the dining room – the back half of the home’s original parlor – that makes an immediate impact. To romance the client’s hometown roots, Pribell installed an illustrious mural that depicts Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River in the style of Thomas Eakin’s work. Light floods the room through the bay window, which overlooks another manicured garden. The diaphanous draperies that frame the lofty windows echo the flowing marble gowns of the aforementioned caryatids. “Most window treatments, with every crease perfectly tailored and pressed, are very stiff and uptight,” Pribell says. “It took a lot of craftsmanship to make these look as though we just tacked them up.” The pleated and ruffled taffeta draperies that Pribell designed for another nearby window are fashioned after the clothing worn by various subjects in a series of 19th-century portraits.
Pribell found the classic gondola-form dining chairs at the estate sale of Fred Hughes, Andy Warhol’s business partner. Upon seeing Pribell’s re-creation of the chairs, striped in bright yellow and light blue horsehair, it’s easy to envision Hughes, Warhol, and their groupies gossiping as they sip martinis before dinner. The blue-tufted sofas – late 19th century Turkish reproductions trimmed with handmade fringe – could easily cost the annual tuition of nearby private school.
Downstairs in the basement, now known as the “garden level,” the combined family dining room and media room show off the rescued marble mantelpiece. The mantle’s clean lines and scantily dressed caryatids are a nod to the accidental unearthing of Pompeii in the 1748. For Boston’s post-revolutionary elite, the neoclassical style that developed soon after represented a refreshing departure from the overbearing baroque styles of aristocratic Europe.
Pribell is a firm opponent of overstuffed upholstery and maintains that excessive stuffing is a design scam. Clients, she says, oftentimes believe “that all the puffiness is delivering a lot of luxury, but it’s not.” She also believes that her clients should live with the utmost in technology if they so desire. Pribell’s philosophy is evidenced in the media-cum-family dining room. Here, she selected child-friendly fabrics in the form of chenilles and corduroy-type weaves. The recessed niche, which looks like a fully paneled room but is really an assemblage of high-quality woodwork, is for toy storage; it represents a delightful contrast to the ambiance created by the formal fringed sofas upstairs.
The room is casual in scope, yet Provence-inspired and aglow in yellow, one of the wife’s favorite colors. The Edwardian-style chairs bearing a tree-of-life-patterned fabric connect the space with the lush garden beyond.
Pribell housed the media room’s audiovisual system in a custom-made cabinet fronted with chicken wire, a treatment that reappears in the toy storage area. It’s a country look that belies the town location and provides a deeper tie to the garden. “With all the electronics behind the cabinet windows,” Pribell says, “I thought a fabric covering alone would look too sloppy.” As a special touch, the speaker grilles are painted to match the room’s velvet geometric-pattered upholstery.
The audiovisual equipment is, in a sense, invisible, according to custom installer Steve Collotta of Creative System in Natick, Mass. The cabinetry is designed to allow the equipment to function at the highest to function at the highest level. Even the TV, a 50-inch Runco PL-50HDX, is designed so that when the set is in use it appears as a piece of art thanks to its custom frame. A Crestron two-way touchscreen allows the homeowners to control the audiovisual components here and throughout the home, including the media room’s 7.1-channel surround-sound system.
In a world of $800 jeans and other luxury baubles, true grandeur is not passé. Such a philosophy is evidenced throughout this home. The atmosphere is rich and sumptuous, and the technology is elite and accessible. And it’s all presented in the homeowner’s own terms in a very modern way. That is what Pribell’s genius delivers. For a list of interiors resources, visit hemagazibe.com.
A BEACON HILL MEDIA ROOM
For Steve Collotta, president of Creative System in Natick, Mass, the biggest challenge presented by this installation was the wiring. “This being an older brownstone, the walls are very thin,” he says, “and running wires was very difficult in there because of the brick.” Compounding the difficulty of this task was the sheer amount of wiring and cable that runs from the top of the brownstone to the bottom: The owners wanted a centralized whole-house entertainment system with nearly all of the audio electronics located in the basement. The goal was to keep the technology as invisible as possible, even in the home’s main media room.
Collotta found Snell Acoustics’ AMC 700 In-wall Monitor to be the perfect center speaker for that room’s surround-sound system. “What we like best about Snell’s in walls – all its speakers, actually – is that there’s no lower midrange honk, so dialogue sounds rich and authentic,” he says. “They can also play very loudly.” But for the front left and right channels, Collotta eschewed in-walls in favor of Snell ICS 1000 In-Cabinet LCR speakers, placed in a cabinet and covered with acoustical fabric. “We wanted to get a bit more mid-bass response out of the front main speakers,” he explains. “In-walls have gotten so much better over the years, but we wanted to cross the main speakers over at a lower frequency to blend with the subwoofers, and we felt we could do that better with a box speaker.”
The subwoofers in question are a pair Velodyne SPL-1200s, which were chosen as much for size as for performance. “We built those into the front wall underneath the high-pass speakers, not only to keep them out of sight, but also to position them as far away from the listener as possible,” Collotta says. “So we needed something small but also powerful.”
Rounding out the room’s eclectic assortment of speakers is a pair of Sonance Virtuoso 831DR in ceiling speakers in the rear of the room. Taken as a whole, it’s undoubtedly an audio system that defies conventional wisdom – mixing brands from front to back and mixing speaker types across the front. However, Collotta says the room’s Integra DTR-9.1 1U2 receiver tied the system together beautifully, and provided the timing and crossover controls he needed to make the disparate speakers work as a cohesive whole.
This installation deftly demonstrate that every system doesn’t have to be a million-dollar affair; it simply has to meet the needs of the owner. “We do whatever it takes to make the client happy,” Collotta says. “If a $20,000 system will make them happy, that’ what we give them. And if it’s going to take a million –dollar system to do the trick, we certainly won’t complain.” For a full equipment list, please visit our website at hemagazine.com.
– Dennis Burger