This Old House Brings a 19th century home into the 21st century
Originally a Cape Ann summer home, this beautiful example of shingle-style architecture gets a modern makeover while still retaining its New England charm.
After 41 years, the crew at This Old House is still going strong. This season features the renovation of a large shingle-style home in Manchester By the Sea, Mass., one of the four cities located on Cape Ann. The home was built in 1941, and other than an addition and a garage, which were added in the 1970s, the home remained largely unchanged. Shingle-style homes can be identified by their asymmetrical and rambling facades, gambrel roofs, large porches, and of course, shingle cladding. Shingle-style architecture was born in the North East in the 1880s and some of the very first and best examples can still be found on Cape Ann.
Carefully Considered Modernization
The new homeowners, John, Molly, and their daughter Caroline, made the move into this spacious house from an apartment in Boston about 30 miles away. The relatively short commute, stronger connection to nature, and the ability to comfortably host friends and family were the incentives that inspired the move. But before making any big decisions on exactly how to improve their new home, they spent almost a year’s worth of weekends living in it, getting familiar with it, and discovering how they might want to use the spaces moving forward.
Tobin Shulman, principal architect at SV Design, describes the approach to the remodeling process, “The plan from the very beginning was to update the house, make it more comfortable and energy efficient, and to customize it to fit the lifestyle of the new owners. Most importantly, the goal was to preserve the original soul of the home. The homeowners wanted a somewhat traditional aesthetic, but like everyone else, they are living a contemporary life in today’s world, so the architecture of the home had to both respect the original traditional architecture but also function for a modern family.”
The Stone Age Meets High Tech
In addition to the fishing industry, Cape Ann is known for its granite. Cape Ann granite was first excavated in the late 1700s. Eventually, more than 60 quarries were scattered around the Cape. Cape Ann granite was used to construct iconic buildings such as the Boston Custom House and Philadelphia City Hall and local cobblestone pavers were used on streets as far away as San Francisco and Paris.
On this project, a large area of granite needed to be removed to make way for the new mudroom and garage. This required a large excavator equipped with a hydraulic breaker hammer. When this house was built, granite busting equipment was not readily available, so many builders simply worked around the existing contours of the granite, locally referred to as “the ledge.” In the basement you can still see the original granite ledge that the foundation was built on. While working around granite can be a challenge, it would be hard to find a more stable foundation on which to build a house than 425,000-million-year-old granite.
While the granite was not removed from the basement, all the existing mechanical equipment was. This house was built as a summer home with only the chimneys to keep it warm. Now, the house is warmed with radiant heat and divided into micro zones. Every room is equipped with its own thermostat, so comfort levels can be personalized anywhere in the entire house. And as usual, the This Old House mechanical and plumbing contractors composed the piping and ducting into a veritable work of art.
More Than Cosmetic
In addition to a complete overhaul of the mechanical systems and the addition of a new garage, there were substantial structural changes, including first floor additions and the reconfiguring of the bedroom layouts on the second floor.
“We restructured the interior of the home pretty significantly,” Shulman said. “We brought the kitchen into the center of the living space a little more, and we incorporated the original screen porch as full finished living space into the home.”
Even the third floor underwent significant changes. The homeowners wanted to open this third-floor playroom with a vaulted ceiling. This required serious engineering but resulted in a light and airy space, and the blue trim and Marvin® windows provide a lively contrast.
Formal Dining Room
Because entertaining friends and family was one of the primary motivations for buying the home, the homeowners opted to create a formal dining room. The room features a custom-built walnut table, a tray ceiling highlighted by a Venetian plaster finish, and floor-to-ceiling Specialty Shape windows that flood the space in light.
“The design of the windows is absolutely critical to the architecture of the home,” Shulman explained. “It is the design element where you can most see the balance between traditional architecture and modern technology. We were able to open up the view to the outside, bring the light into the home, and capture that for the homeowners. And the windows themselves have the energy efficiency and technology to make the spaces they’re in comfortable.”
A Touch of Warmth
The office on the second floor was built with nature in mind. The wood floor, waterfall desk, wood stained windows, and matching wood-capped window seat storage area all come together to create a warm and comfortable space that blends perfectly with the calming scenery outdoors.
“This is a really beautiful, wooded site and we definitely wanted to capture those beautiful natural elements,” said Shelby Littlefield, interior designer at SV Design.
Easy Access to Outdoor Spaces
Because the warm summer weather only lasts about four months in Massachusetts, Shelby wanted to make it as easy as possible for the homeowners to spend as much of that precious time outdoors.
“We have provided several doors throughout the home that connect to the outside, whether it's through the front porch, the back deck, or the upper master deck,” Littlefield said.
This is a big house with a lot of rooms. It was important to utilize bright surfaces and strategic fenestration to bring in as much natural light into every space as possible. The combination of the Marvin Ultimate Awning window and white subway tile make this full bath off the mudroom simply glow.
“I think it's pretty well established that sunlight is critical for human beings,” Shulman said. “People need the sun to help them feel good and enjoy their daily lives, so the ability to bring that into the interior of the home does a lot for the owner.”
Connecting Indoor Spaces with the Outdoors
Shelby and Tobin took advantage of the natural attributes of the house to strengthen connections with the outdoors wherever they could.
“We have good ceiling height in many of the rooms, so we definitely wanted to take advantage of that and also to make the views a little more special and more inviting,” Littlefield said. “For this space we dropped the windows all the way to the floor. The taller windows definitely allow more light. They capture the views, and the soft arch provides an elegant transition from outside to the inside.”
“The homeowners really wanted to feel like they were outdoors even when they were in the house,” Shulman added, “so it was important for the windows to be large enough to bring that view in so that even when they were sitting in their dining room or in the breakfast nook they could feel like they were out up in the branches of the trees.”
Preserving the Past
The structure of this home underwent significant alterations, but many of the elements that were removed entirely had been added in the 1970s renovation, like the garage and the metal spiral staircase in the kitchen. What was added, was carefully designed to preserve the 19th century, shingle style character, and several of the original prominent features were restored to their formal glory like the large pocket doors, the staircase, and these beautiful leaded glass windows.
Embracing the Quirky
Now here’s an unconventional plumbing feature that was likely not available in 1891: The water that fills this beautiful soaking tub flows down from a faucet installed in the ceiling. While there were non-quirky, logistical, and aesthetic reasons for not installing a faucet in a conventional fashion, this ceiling solution did require some special engineering to create the perfect flow of water that would not splash up and out of the tub.
Choosing the Right Partners
A project like this one requires a manufacturer that can deliver an extensive range of products that perform unique functions and fulfill the needs of distinct spaces, but these same products need to deliver an aesthetic continuity that flows throughout the house.
“When you're in a room and the room has both windows and doors in it, you really want them to feel like everything came from the same origin, and Marvin was able to do that for us, and they did a really great job,” Shulman said.
In addition to insisting on windows that unite architectural beauty and meticulous attention to detail, Shulman relies only on windows and doors that will perform, especially in the harsh environments that homes on the coast are subject to.
“As an architect, when you begin to think about a design, you have to think about how you're going to execute it,” he said. “The pen is very free, and you can draw all kinds of things, but at the end of the day it has to be built, and it has to be real. Working with Marvin meant that I was free to draw beautiful windows that I knew the house deserved and knew that could actually be built and would perform.”
Photos by Jared Kuzia for This Old House