Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood is filled with buildings that look grand and historic from the outside. Inside, however, most of them have been chopped up and turned into apartments, with little remaining of their period detail and once-glorious charm.
This six-story brownstone, built in 1868 with a Victorian interior and renovated in Neoclassical style in the early 20th century, was subjected in the 1950s and 1960s to the same fate. Over the last two decades, however, a dedicated new owner and a talented interior designer with an appreciation of antique homes have teamed up to rescue and restore the building’s underlying elegance.
Cheap “modern” fixtures had masked the home’s innate quality, and rental-unit tenants had worn the building down into “deplorable condition,” says Michael Carter, principal of the design firm Carter & Company. “Parts of the house had been completely gutted and modernized, and the original feel of the house was gone.”
All that changed in 1989, when Barbara, the current owner, bought the venerable brownstone. Instead of further modernizing and subdividing the place, she opted to turn it back into a single-family home, preserving as many original elements as possible and ultimately bringing back its classic style. “Somehow I always knew I would restore an old home,” she explains. “Of course, I always thought it would be some little shack by the beach. I never expected it to be my main dwelling. But when I saw it, I knew this was the one.”
Drawn to the home’s Neoclassicism, veiled though it was, Barbara felt a connection to the house the first time she saw it. “I’d been looking for two years,” she recalls, “and with every other house, there was always something the matter. I fell in love with this one immediately.” At that time, though, the whole house wasn’t for sale, and Barbara knew she wanted a large place that would welcome family visits. So she walked away, knowing that no other house she considered would measure up to this one.
When the entire house came up for sale a year later, Barbara went for it. Knowing that she wanted it was simple–but the prospect of all the work awaiting her was anything but. The restoration process hasn’t been easy–or quick. “It’s important for people to know that if you want to renovate a house, you have to do it with love,” Barbara says. “You can’t predict what you’re getting into, and it will probably take more time and resources than you imagine.”
Barbara began the renovations slowly, starting with a few key rooms–kitchen, bedroom, office–and was unsure how to tackle the rest. Then she met Michael Carter. An avid antiques hunter, she encountered him in what was then his Beacon Hill shop. With their shared passion for antiques and simpatico design vision, they clicked. Carter stopped by to see her house and fell in love with it just as Barbara had. “I knew he was the right person to help me with this project,” she says. She was right; their relationship has endured for almost two decades.
They decided to focus first on the drawing room, a space that was sitting empty; Barbara was using it as a “track” for walking. Carter came across a burled-walnut Steinway grand piano at an antiques auction in North Carolina and immediately called Barbara to tell her he’d found the perfect starting point for the room. “I had so much faith in Michael that I bought it sight unseen,” she says, “and when we got it to Boston, we placed it right away in this otherwise unpainted and unfurnished room.” The piano remains one of the home’s main attractions, and her grandchildren love to play it when they come for the holidays.
As they continued the renovation and decoration process, Barbara adhered strictly to the aesthetic that she and Carter felt would work with the house. “We wanted to do what was right for the house, and that was 18th-century European design,” she says. Carter explains that this style complements the Neoclassicism the house acquired with its renovation in the early 20th century. “There were times when I liked certain pieces, even though I knew they didn’t fit, and Michael would steer me away from them, telling me that they weren’t right,” Barbara adds. “He kept reminding me to have a vision, to keep a picture of that vision close by, and to refer back to it.”
And so Barbara and Carter worked slowly together, room by room, often starting with one unique piece–such as the large portrait of Lady Edwina Mountbatten that they installed in the dining room even before finding the right table and chairs–and creating the look of a room around it.
They found Adam-style wallpaper for the stairwell to unite the vision from floor to floor, and its color scheme (an ivory background with rose, white, and accents of blue) informs the palette for the entire house. Wherever possible, they kept the original elements of the house intact and added only paint or wallpaper and furnishings. The first-floor sitting room still has its original chandelier; the library still has its original wood paneling, fireplace, and mantel. But the library doors to the main hallway had been closed off, which disturbed the flow and symmetry of the entire floor. So Barbara reopened them and created custom doors to go with the original wood paneling.
Turning one of the apartments into a guest suite for Barbara’s daughter’s family required more extensive renovation: removing a modern circular flying staircase, rebuilding the original wood stairs, and installing a new kitchen and bathroom. When the family is visiting, they can relax and enjoy meals in their own space. But, of course, “we gather in the dining room every night for dinner,” Barbara notes, “and in the drawing room for parties and Christmas.”
So important are the holidays that Barbara wanted to add a space just for storing and wrapping presents. She didn’t want to change the building’s external structure, however, and the Back Bay Architectural Commission, with which she worked closely during the refurbishment of the facade, wouldn’t likely have approved it. Instead, she tunneled beneath the garden and created a room where the home’s coal chutes used to be.
Working with this much care for history and attention to detail, it took about 15 years to complete all the renovations–and some work is still ongoing. “A house of this importance will always need refreshing,” Carter says. But the time spent, Barbara believes, has been more than worthwhile.
“It’s been better than I could have imagined,” Barbara says. “I designed my house specifically for fun and happiness, and for my family to gather.”
She admits, though, that a labor of love like this isn’t for everyone: “Many people get frustrated that renovations take so long, and that they can’t do exactly what they want immediately. If I were to give anyone advice, I’d say, ‘Be patient and wait for the right thing at the right time.’ For me, this wasn’t just about redoing a house. I was creating the home base for my life.”
Carter is proud of the results, as well. “We worked really hard to bring back the grandeur of this house. And now it feels beautifully integrated–certainly not as though it’s gone through the tumultuous history it has.”