Moving Up

May 11, 2015

An architect raises the roof—and then some—while revitalizing her nineteenth-century house in a Boston suburb. 

Text by Maria LaPiana


The ancient, industrial-size radiators made the cut, but the heavy, elaborately turned balustrade and newel posts did not. Manuela Mariani was extremely discriminating when she set out to renovate her home in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston.

The Italian-born architect knew from the start that she’d be reframing the very character of the house, in keeping with both her appreciation for history and love of modern materials. “I have to say it is my way of working. I definitely have respect for the historical details—with an intervention from the current times, the way we live now, with the materials that are available today,” says Mariani, who is a partner at the Boston-based InTAdesign and on the faculty at Boston Architectural College.

The architect did due diligence while house hunting. “We bought the house in 2007, shortly after having moved to Boston from Rome,” says Mariani. “Finding it involved long walks through a number of neighborhoods. When we came to Jamaica Plain, with its close proximity to the city center, parks, the subway, and bike paths, we knew we wanted to live here.”

Mariani was intrigued by the 1880 home’s good old bones, but felt it needed a more open feeling. “Like any typical New England home, it tried to minimize exposure to the rough winter, but in doing so, it also closed in on itself,” she says.

She knew that more than a few structural changes would be needed to transform the dark warren of small rooms. Her plan was to create “new ways of using domestic space” for the home she shares with her husband and two young sons.

The program incorporated preservation even as it embraced such contemporary elements as large, open living areas. Now three stories, the house is still a bit less than 1,700 square feet. The main floor holds a front-to-back kitchen/living space and dining room, while the second floor houses two bedrooms, a library, a small office, and bath. The third floor, now an open, light-filled office (and occasional playroom), was created by breaking through to the attic.

The architect’s most compelling (and visible) modern moves included the construction of a metal-sheathed bay that adds space and light to all three floors, while lending architectural interest to the exterior. A dramatic dormer with a deck tops the new third-floor aerie, extending the living space and fostering a connection with the outdoors.

Old meets new when exposed-wood ceilings and reclaimed-pine floors are introduced to open stairways made of metal grating. The wooden joists that had held up the attic floor were reused, thanks to the expertise of builder Paul Villiot. They’re juxtaposed with new beams, posts, and hardware. All of the new wood was stained a mustard color, part of the neutral palette throughout the house. Bookshelves on the second floor were fabricated with an aluminum rack system and more reclaimed wood. Mariani credits her collaborators—who include Villiot, structural engineer Armando Plata, carpenter Ralph Daniels, and the two welding firms that fabricated the metal elements—for results she calls “aesthetic, practical, and sustainable.”

Light was of paramount importance. The original apertures stayed the same, but contemporary new windows cast the space in a different light. “The whole idea was about transparency,” says Mariani. “We wanted as much light as possible in the living area. So in the morning, even on gray days, we have plenty, and don’t need to turn on the lights.”

Heating is assisted by passive solar gain in the winter, while in summer the family can forgo air conditioning, owing to extensive insulation, strategically placed new windows, and the locust trees that shade the house. The dormer features operable windows at the highest point of the house, providing welcome ventilation.

Mariani says, “We wanted to see just how contemporary we could be.” So why hold onto those radiators?

“Yes, they’re big and bulky,” she admits. But they are reminders of the home’s past. “I not only wanted to keep them, I wanted to feature them,” she says. Conceding that this was just one of several bold design decisions, she adds: “When you’re working for yourself, you can be more playful and try things you might not otherwise attempt.”

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