Return Engagement

February 18, 2011

Text by Megan Fulweiler    Photography by Laura Moss

Different tastes make the world go round—we’ve all heard that expression. Certainly it’s true when it comes to architecture. While one person sees a house in a certain light, another takes a completely opposite view. For every admirer of pristine clapboards and forest-green shutters, there’s also one for glass walls and steel railings. This beautiful Boston residence is a perfect example of a home that’s been shaped by diverse visions.

Years ago, a developer’s modern leanings led him to carve open the building’s second floor to create a double-height living room. It was a theatrical move for a seventeen-foot-wide 1875 Back Bay brownstone. And sure enough, when new owners with a different set of sensibilities came along, they decided to reinstate the second floor as it originally was. To help recapture what had gone missing in the previous remodel and create a more traditional nest, the couple recruited Wellesley, Massachusetts, architect Jan Gleysteen and Nantucket-based interior designer Anne Becker, who also happens to be a trusted family friend. “I had to tell them in the beginning that they needn’t worry about my feelings,” Becker says. “This had to be their home, not my version of their home.”

Becker’s client-wishes-come-first approach and her fine-tuned abilities were the perfect complement to the expertise that Gleysteen brought to the project. “Training in classical architecture allows me to understand how nineteenth-century designers might have handled things,” he explains.



A near-total gutting of the old house ensued. At the same time that the architect was seeing to the design—recapturing the home’s “understated elegance,” as he puts it—he was also ushering the building into the twenty-first century with brand-new systems. All that impressive technology aside, it’s the more visible details that capture and hold the eye. Gleysteen and his team made an academic study of the massive moldings, for instance, carefully replicating them and then reinstalling them in places where they’d been stripped.

Today the ground floor holds a top-notch exercise room and a noteworthy mahogany and walnut-clad billiard room that’s as shipshape as a fine yacht; the first floor houses the more formal living room and the wife’s study. And the restoration of the second floor has changed everything. Put back together, the space now holds a new kitchen, a warm family room and, at the core, a spectacular dining room—“the jewel in the midst,” says Gleysteen.

To compensate for the lack of windows and enhance the dining room’s sophisticated ambience, Gleysteen created a silver-leafed oval dome for the ceiling. Coupled with a custom-colored Gracie wallcovering, the dome gives the room airiness and sparkle. An antique mirror above the sideboard captures it all. And at night, light bounces from polished table to silver candelabras and back. Upholstered antique dining chairs promote leisurely meals and lingering conversations.

Should guests be enticed to pitch in with the dishes, however, it’s no chore in a kitchen as well-planned as this. Gleysteen—who designed all the new woodworking throughout—equipped the space with a generous island and a bounty of clutter-controlling cabinets. The cabinets’ soothing color—“off white and very pale, but more brown than cream,” stipulates Becker—reinforces the kitchen’s timeless look. The owners take breakfast seated on a luxe banquette. So smoothly does Gleysteen’s curved seat unfold beneath the windows, it’s easy to see why it could be pegged as an original feature. “The subtleties of scale, based on the human body, and proportion are a passion of mine,” the skillful architect says. “Learn them and you can make any room comfortable. People often sense one room feels better than another, but they can’t pinpoint why.”

Texture adds depth and interest throughout the home. The family room walls are sheathed in grasscloth, bringing in a wave of tactile drama. With its sophisticated putty colored walls, the living room may be the center of holiday entertaining, but the family room is where the owners are most likely to kick off their shoes at the end of the day. In both rooms, ten-foot-high ceilings create a spacious, spirit-lifting mood and the decor is a combination of antiques along with newer pieces—a Becker trademark. “I like to incorporate antiques but not the overly precious kind that people are afraid of,” she explains. A cylindrical glass Ralph Lauren lamp beside a favorite family room reading chair is just one of her many modernizing and upbeat touches.

Nowhere is the tempo livelier than in the wife’s study. Becker equates the red of the walls to her client’s energetic nature. “It’s a perfect match,” she says. Offset by white woodwork, the bright walls make the small space seem to glow. What’s more, they afford a dynamite backdrop for the couple’s pretty springer spaniel who, eschewing the sisal carpet, claims the soft upholstered armchair for naps.

The third floor—site of the master suite and the husband’s study—is decidedly tranquil. In the bedroom a flowered wallcovering teams up with checkered silk curtains. Neither too feminine nor too masculine, the flowers and checks co-exist happily. Bonuses include a chaise for lounging with a book (and perhaps tea or a cocktail) and a fireplace (one of seven in the house). Becker custom-designed the bench at the bed’s foot for a perfect fit.

The adjacent master bath displays a mosaic tile floor that’s as striking as the one downstairs in the entry. But here’s a secret: the floor that greets visitors when the front door opens is, in fact, also new. When the original version proved beyond salvaging, Becker devised a mosaic that only appears to have held sway forever, which is right in keeping with the owners’ intent.

Of course, down the road someone may come along and want to give the house more life-altering changes, but we’re guessing not. Results this perfect are sure to endure.

Architecture: Jan Gleysteen
Interior Design: Anne Becker
Builder: Geoff Caraboolad, Metric Construction

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