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Time and Space

A late-19th-century Tudor in Cambridge, MA, is updated and expanded.

Project: Residence, Cambridge, MA

Architect: Meyer & Meyer Architecture and Interiors, Inc.; Laura Brooks Meyer, IIDA, principal in charge

Contractor: Payne/Bouchier Fine Builders, Boston, MA; Brooks Wright, project supervisor

By Gordon Bock

Any house that reaches the century mark is inevitably ready for major mechanical upgrades, not to mention a round of interior decorative refreshing, but when the house has a significant historic pedigree, as well as strong architectural bones, the project can get tricky. How, for example, to strike a balance between doing too little in the name of authenticity and sliding into the project creep of a total overhaul? That’s part of what the Boston firm of Meyer & Meyer Architecture and Interiors, Inc., faced in 2010 when it took on a kitchen and bathroom upgrade in a venerable house near Harvard University.

Erected in 1894, the Tudor Revival-style house was built in Cambridge by Gardiner Greene Hubbard, a dynamic Boston lawyer, financier and philanthropist who was one of the founders of the Bell Telephone Company. Besides launching other high-tech ventures of the day, Hubbard was also the first president of the National Geographic Society and, after moving to Washington, DC, in the early 1870s, he subdivided his estate west of Harvard Square to build several large houses for Harvard faculty – this residence being one of them. “The street address,” says principal Laura Brooks Meyer, IIDA, “is Hubbard Park Road.”

“When the clients bought the house, the first things on their minds were the relatively dated kitchen and bathrooms, but it became one of those projects that starts small and then grows,” says Meyer.

Project architect Molly H. Richter says that, of course, when you fix up one room, then see it next to an old one, you want to fix up the old room as well. “I think the more the clients saw the potential of the house, the more they wanted to improve it – which was exciting for the whole team,” she says.

Because the bathrooms hadn’t been touched since the last renovation campaign over 30 years ago, they became ground zero for the first phase of the project. “In one or two rooms we kept historic features, such as a clawfoot tub on the third floor,” says Meyer. “But they really needed replacement fixtures – not just a facelift.”

The new master bath was a good example. In a house of some 5,000 sq.ft., lack of living space was not a driving concern for the clients. “In fact,” says Meyer, “they had more bedrooms than they actually needed, which enabled us to take an office off one of the bedrooms and turn it into a master bath.”

The office had an existing fireplace and “wonderful 220 sq.ft. of space,” and while the master bath fixtures and finishes are all new, the standalone Roman tub and counter sink with exposed decorative legs add a contemporary but historic reference. The architects incorporated paneling as well as a water closet (a private room for the toilet). “We also tried to modernize certain functions,” says Meyer, “like bringing the laundry up to the second floor, which, given the floor plan, was very successful.”

The kitchen was another matter. Meyer says the clients wanted a kitchen where their family would have options for comfortable seating, an eat-in space at the island and easy access for outside family dining, so that meant demolishing the existing small kitchen and replacing it with a 300-sq.ft., gable-end addition that includes an enlarged kitchen, enlarged pantry, back entry/mudroom and the expanded family dining space. The addition is fronted by a bank of double-height, stained-glass windows with a fleur-de-lis pattern that rises into a cathedral ceiling at one end of the kitchen. The fleur-de-lis not only reflects the owner’s love of stained glass, but also a bit of the family’s French history. Though the cabinetry and high-end appliances are clearly contemporary in feel, otherwise the idea was to have another Gallic touch with a French Country look.

“We tried to mix finishes between paint, wood stain and the countertops,” says Meyer, noting how the light color of the perimeter cabinets contrasts with the large surface area of the darker granite countertops. “The backsplash is also granite and uncommonly tall – rising right to the underside of the window sill.”

Aside from the kitchen, the firm took a dining area and back stairway that was all closed in and opened it up to make a new back entry. The original pantry was long gone but, as part of the addition, a section of the kitchen was designed to work as a pantry, with glass-front cabinets and a door to the dining room. Because of the way the neighborhood grew, Hubbard Park Road is connected to the next street by a public path that cuts across the backs of some yards, and right along the outside wall of the pantry. “The clients wanted light,” says Meyer, “but they worried that if there was a lot of open window space, they’d find strangers looking in at inopportune times.” So the firm designed the custom stained-glass windows and added cross-diamond glazing to match original windows in the house.

Most of the other spaces in the house were “lovely” in the words of the architects – especially the central staircase – and saw a minimum of changes. The work kept all five fireplaces basically as is, though several were converted to gas in the course of doing structural work. The original Tudor-inspired wall paneling in the main living room was retained, but stripped and refinished, while the firm added sconces over the wood-burning fireplace. A more complicated enhancement was the addition of two new metal casement windows. In the 1930s, the house was occupied by Jesse Woodrow Wilson Sayre, one of the daughters of President Woodrow Wilson. “During the Depression she enclosed a porch to the left of the front door to expand the living room – sort of her own public works project to help keep people busy during lean times,” says Richter. The firm was able to determine that the windows in the living room were manufactured by Hope’s Windows, Inc., alive and well in Jamestown, NY.

“Hope’s was able to supply us with exact matches,” says Richter, “so the two new windows add some nice light while looking like they date to the 1930s changes.” Small features were not overlooked either. Where walls meet at 90 degrees, the original plaster was rounded to make a radius corner, so new drywall corners were detailed to evoke the same effect, especially on the first floor.

Among the upgrades the owners wanted was to make the basement a real, usable family space, so the floor was excavated to gain more height and head clearance. In doing so, the architects ran into two surprises. First, in digging out the floor, they uncovered the main water pipe to the house – and in such poor condition that it was about to burst. Then they found that the footings supporting some of the fireplaces and chimneys that extended up through the building were collapsing. Ultimately this one-thing-after-another scenario had its silver lining. Once the decision was made to save the fireplaces, that opened the opportunity to run piping and convert them to gas, as well as rebuild them solidly. Even the failing water pipe was a blessing in disguise. “Had we not dug down,” says Meyer, “the owners would have had a major problem very soon, so it was a huge plus to find the pipe while still in a state that it could be repaired.”

The house’s illustrious location brought not only a layer of local architectural scrutiny to the project, but also a welcome vote of confidence. On one elevation was a side porch from the 1960s that stood on bright orange pipe supports, as unsightly as they were out of sync historically. Early on, the architects proposed removing the deck and enclosing the former open space with a stone foundation wall and barn doors to create much needed ancillary storage space for bicycles and the like. According to Richter, “When we met with the staff of the Cambridge Historical Commission to explain our proposed design and get a demolition permit, they were so thrilled that we were removing the 1960s deck for something more appropriate to the house that they signed the permit application on the spot.” The neighbors have all welcomed the family and the remarkable changes to this historic home.  

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