The Preservationists

August 14, 2023

A passion for place inspires one family to take on the renovation of a lifetime—and become design patrons in the process.

Text by Erika Ayn Finch    Photography by Greg Premru

When you know, you know. And for a couple with three preteens, they knew their pocket of Brookline, Massachusetts, was home sweet home. Unfortunately, they had outgrown their residence, so when they spotted a house with a for sale sign—and a huge yard—just down the street, they turned a blind eye to the overgrown trees and rotting windows and leapt at the opportunity.

The opportunity, though, could just have easily been a nightmare in the wrong hands. The couple hired architect Kyle Sheffield of Blue Hour Design (Sheffield was a partner at LDa Architecture & Interiors when the project was completed) after admiring a remodel he’d undertaken in the same neighborhood. Sheffield will be the first to admit the house needed some major TLC. “It was up to us to figure out how to reorder it for a family of five,” he says. “When we started investigating all of the spaces, it was like an archaeological dig.”

Built in the early 1900s by architect Joseph Everett Chandler, the English Tudor had housed only two other families prior to Sheffield’s clients. Its second owners included one of the first plastic surgeons in Boston, who used the ground level as his offices. A chopped-up floor plan coupled with some rather eccentric features like a second-floor kitchen, a series of backyard koi ponds (one with its own below-grade observation portal), and windows that had been sealed shut to keep out the cold presented a challenge for the design team, to say the least. But the even bigger challenge may have come from the homeowners, whose aesthetic leaned toward contemporary—in a home rooted in one of Brookline’s historic districts.

“Their goal was a modern family home,” remembers interior designer Dean Sawyer. “It was the property and neighborhood that were the draws. I like to refer to them as ‘accidental preservationists.’ ”What followed was a herculean effort by Sheffield, Sawyer, builder Jim Youngblood, the landscape architects at Matthew Cunningham Landscape Design, and Michael S. Coffin’s landscape contractors.

The most significant original features, like the paneling in the living room and the entry’s showstopping oak staircase and stained-glass windows, turned into objets d’art. But others, like the living room’s oak vegetable-and-fruit-motif ceiling, had to go to bring the space into the twenty-first century. And some elements were modified, like the staircase paneling that was stripped, refurbished, and treated to a fresh coat of white paint. Gone is the second-floor kitchen; that room, along with the family room and dining area, now resides in a sunny glass addition at the back of the house.

Sawyer, who admits he was “obsessed” with the original detailing, found it easy to convey the importance of features like the stained glass when he showed the owners how something that might be perceived as fussy could work with, say, an ombré Stark stair runner. “It was easier to talk to them about preservation when we were also talking about the fun we could have with the furnishings,” he says.

Youngblood says the gloomy house was in serious need of an infusion of fun. His team put together a ninety-page report just on restoring the exterior’s limestone and brick masonry. That included recreating decommissioned chimneys so that they look original.

Ryan Wampler, project manager at Matthew Cunningham Landscape Design, was tasked with replacing the overgrown foliage (and the koi ponds) with a landscape that was both lush and modern.

To top it all off, the renovation took place during the pandemic, adding to a long list of challenges. When it’s all said and done, though, Youngblood admits it’s one of his top three favorite projects of all time. And the entire design team eschews the term “clients” for these particular homeowners. Says Youngblood, “They are patrons of art and architecture.”

Project Team
Architecture: Kyle Sheffield, Blue Hour Design (Sheffield was a  partner at LDa Architecture & Interiors when the project was completed)
Interior design: LDa Architecture & Interiors
Builder: Youngblood Builders
Landscape design: Matthew Cunningham Landscape Design

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