It took Solomon+Bauer
Architects to wake up
This 9,000-square-foot French beauty in Chestnut Hill.
By LAURA J. MACKAY
Photographs by Bruce Martin
The house— very French in temperament as well as design –had spoken. There would be no blue hallway, among other things. “I wanted to have a blue hallway,” recalls the owner. “I saw a picture in a magazine, and I thought. This is just what I want. So we worked toward that, but it just didn’t happen. The hall didn’t want to be blue.” Divining just what the house wanted and then realizing it became the central task in the restoration of an 1928 reproduction. Norman manor tucked away on a countrylike road winding through historic Chestnut Hill. And what it wanted was to be itself, that is, to be as French as possible.
Fortunately, a team of dedicated people had their ears pressed to the walls. Architect Don Giambastiani and interior designer Susan Erickson of Solomon+Bauer Architects Inc. came to the project with years of experience renovating historically significant residences. They also came with their usual and equally experienced contractor, Bill McCarran of McCarran Construction. And their client, a one-timer resident of Paris and a former art conservator, contributed her own finely tuned historical sensibility.
The home’s exterior, with warm stucco and steep hip roofs of slate, readily identifies its cultural allegiance. But over the years the interior had fallen prey to questionable decorating trends. “When we found the house it was very Californiaized, for lack of a better term,” Erickson says. Consequently, the undertaking became a process of “stripping” back and finding out what things should look like.” And strip they did: the mauve paint from the walls of the front hall and the gray wall-to-wall carpet (“Mon Dieu”) from its dark-oak-floors.
Then the yellow paint covering the dining room and the glossy baby-blue of the garden room. Finally, the white paint smothering the distinguished balustrade and ceiling beams in the entry as well as the elaborate coffered ceiling and cast-concrete fireplace in the living room. Workers labored three weeks to strip the living room ceiling alone. “If I had known what it was going to require to get all that white paint off, I might have rethought,” the owner says. But the painstaking work yielded some real treasures. The wrought-iron garden-room chandelier – painted white, of course –is a unique piece embellished with gilded leaves and a bouquet of exquisitely hand-painted porcelain flowers, everyone different.
When it was time to start adding back to the house, its aged grandeur dictated every move. The design team, occasionally consulting with the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, scrounged antique stores all over New England to furnish the residence. Among the finds: a handful of Oriental rugs in various stages of wear; the towering church candlesticks that serve as living-room lamps; gilded pressed-metal palmettes that top the windows of the dining and garden rooms; a chandelier whose curvy arms live again as the sconces in the entry and living room; gilded mirrors whose surfaces ripple with history, including the massive piece worthy of Versailles that surveys the central hall from hallway up the stair.
Anything new was made to look old: Walls are the colors of stucco and parchment; free-standing dining room cabinets are notched into the chair rail to pass as original built-ins; the mottled garden-room walls, pattered with oak vines, suggest mossy ruins. In one of many meticulous details one would never consciously notice, the freshly stripped balustrade is touched here and there with flat gold paint to simulate wear. Such potentially intrusive modernizations as recessed lighting, air-conditioning vents, and sound systems are camouflaged or hidden altogether. And televisions, computers and fax machines occupy the somewhat mono contemporary third floor, where two home offices flank a family room in what was a little used attic space.
Preserving and creating the patina of age was particularly challenging in the kitchen. Workers completely gutted the space and replaced several weight-bearing walls with steels beams, concealing their functional nature by creating a coffered effect with additional beams. New bead-board ceilings were finished by repeatedly applying and wiping off dark stain, so the grooves appear to bear the dust of several generations. The floor was removed to the joists and restructured to bear the weight of a new limestone floor, whose stones were ground at the edges to look worn. New Marble counters were honed to a soft finish rather than polished to a high gloss.
Having listened very closely to the house, the design team went on to pursue finer points of the French lifestyle that apparently escaped the original architect. “The whole house was set up in a very American way,” explains the owner. “Somehow French people have a very different relationship with the outside. Their houses open up to the outdoors in an easy way. This house had a lot of French doors with little iron balconies outside them. The real point of French doors in France is to be able to open them and go outside. “So the kitchen was opened to the walled courtyard-previously accessible only through a small door in the garden room—with a set of French doors and limestone steps, and the living room was opened to a stone terrace with three new sets of arched French doors.
The client’s family owns two other homes, but she says, “This is the house that’s most comfortable to be in. It doesn’t nag at me. It’s very enveloping.”
LAURA J. MACKAY is a freelance writer and a contributing editor for DESIGN TIMES. Louis Postel, Editor in Chief.
(Volume 8, Number 4, p87)