An Architect at Home
Lisa DeStefano marries function and flair in her Portsmouth condo
Lisa DeStefano is one of the busiest architects in New Hampshire, with many commercial and residential buildings bearing her stamp. In the spring of 2011, she embraced the challenge of designing her own home, a journey that had particular meaning for someone used to creating spaces for others.
A Portsmouth native, DeStefano had always wanted to live downtown. “My husband Richard and I kept coming back to Harbour Place,” she says. “I had designed two of the units here so I was familiar with the building, and I loved the views.” Harbour Place is an elegant brick structure rising five stories above the waterfront. The condominium DeStefano chose commands striking vistas of the river, Prescott Park, and downtown. It also gets sun all day, a plus for self-described sun worshipper DeStefano.
Looking at plain concrete floors and just-framed walls would give most people pause, but for DeStefano creating a home from scratch was appealing. From the start, she knew she wanted a place with clean, simple lines and easy flow. “I like space that makes you feel relaxed from the moment you walk in,” she says. “This is home; you should have a sense of peace and comfort.” Many homeowners have expressed similar feelings, but DeStefano, with her architect’s eye, thought of dozens of details that she knew would have impact.
She had eight-foot doorways cut—the ceilings are 10 feet—so that guests entering through the condo’s main hallway would immediately see a stunning view of the Portsmouth skyline at the end of the corridor rather than the chopped off cityscape that a standard doorway would have offered. The fact that the condo even has 10-foot ceilings is the result of diligent planning between DeStefano, CPH Mechanical, and the building contractor, K & S Contracting, as they determined how to allow such height yet still retain room for the electrical, sprinkler system, and supports for the floor above. Another engineering feat involved the mechanical room; most of Harbour Place’s condominium units sacrifice some space for this essential element, but DeStefano sought another way—and found it. Again working with CPH Mechanical, she had the mechanics of the unit installed in the laundry room ceiling. Her hot water heater, only three feet tall, is in a wall cabinet above the washer and dryer. The result is lots more storage space.
After being teased by that stunning view at the end of the main corridor, guests turn left to enter the main living space. As they do so, the ceiling is lower and the hallway narrower; then suddenly, wow! Guests enter the living area and are immediately captivated by wall-to-wall windows, each with a unique view, and the sense of a spacious light-filled room. “I studied Frank Lloyd Wright in architectural school,” DeStefano explains. “He advised that if you want people to appreciate a larger space, then first have them experience a smaller space. That’s the purpose of my narrow hallway—it magnifies the impact when you come into the living room.” The hallway itself is a bit of clever planning. What seem to be squares of paneling on both sides is in reality carefully camouflaged storage. There are no visible doors, but press on a panel and voilà—inside is closet space.
DeStefano has nothing but praise for her contractor, K & S Contracting of North Hampton, New Hampshire. “This was not an easy job,” she says. “They had to take out the windows and crane all the materials up to the fourth floor. There was no laydown area, so they had to work and assemble in a very tight space, then pack everything out when they were done. They did a great job and finished the entire project in five months!”
DeStefano worked with interior designer Cicely Markoff of New London, New Hampshire, who helped her “pull everything together,” but she also made a lot of her own decisions. “I asked myself the same questions I would ask a client—how will the space function? What kind of atmosphere do I want? I spent hours on the Internet and poring through magazines until I pieced together things that I liked. Some decisions came together easily, others I agonized over.”
DeStefano admits that well-meaning friends sometimes added to her quandaries. “I felt I had to have everything perfect,” she says. “This was pressure I put on myself, mind you. People would say, ‘I can’t wait to see your place; it will be gorgeous!’ and I worried that it wouldn’t live up to expectations. I had to remind myself that the only people who needed to love it were myself and my husband.”
The living space comprises the kitchen, which fills one large corner, then a sweeping expanse of living room/dining room. DeStefano opted for neutral tones, choosing a soft taupe for the walls, with oatmeal sofas, and dark wood accents. “I wanted the color tones on the walls to be muted so that your senses absorb the view,” she says. “I also love the way the neutral walls change color during the day. Towards twilight, they take on nice purple tones.” Because of the large windows, wall space is at a premium, but DeStefano is content to let the gaze rest. A few select paintings grace key areas, but otherwise there are minimal distractions. The ceilings throughout the condo are painted in soft hues (no white allowed!), and in the living/dining area, she kept the ceiling space devoid of light fixtures, save for the chandelier over the dining room table. Even the sprinkler heads are painted the same color as the ceiling, so they “dissolve” into the space. Lighting comes from carefully placed lamps and perimeter fixtures. The smooth effect adds to the overall impression of clean, flowing space.
With extraordinary ceiling height and large windows, it would be easy for the room to feel overwhelming. To bring it down, DeStefano added horizontal interest. A large gas fireplace, with the television set into the top part of the surround, dominates one wall. DeStefano used that impact to help connect spaces by extending the dark wood of the fireplace mantle past the surround itself. This visual element now joins the living area with the kitchen on one side and bookshelves under the windows on the other side. The bookshelves themselves, which run the full length of the wall, also add a horizontal dimension. In a room of carefully planned space, the top shelf is sturdy enough to provide extra seating.
DeStefano notes that most people have the dining area adjacent to the kitchen, but she deliberately flipped things, placing her dining room at the far end of the living space. “I wanted to create a serene dining experience for my guests, where they can enjoy the food and the views and be away from the cooking and the kitchen clutter,” she says.
Each room has its special accents. In the dining area, guests immediately notice the massive dining table. “I’ve had this a while,” DeStefano says. “I don’t remember where it came from, but I love it. It’s hewn from one solid piece of wood.” Above the table and in sharp contrast to its rustic lines, is a thoroughly modern chandelier made of layered slices of metal in charcoal, gray, and ivory. It is a piece of abstract art by day, a stunning work of illumination by night. In the den, which doubles as her husband’s office, your gaze immediately goes to the armoire with its multi-hued striped wood. “The facade is zebra wood,” DeStefano says. “It looks textured—like a grass weave—but it is smooth as silk.” The guest bathroom also features a visual surprise. Upon opening the door, you see neither tile nor mirrors but a Picasso, deliberately positioned to make a statement as you enter.
Nowhere is DeStefano’s appreciation for detail more in effect than in the kitchen, which is both visually stunning and a masterpiece of organization. The tile, a selection she agonized over, picks up hues from the adjacent living space and wraps the walls in gleaming stripes of blue, brown, tan, and cream. “This decision was hard because I see tile as a work of art, so I wanted it to be eye-catching,” she explains. “Yet, because the kitchen is visible from the other rooms, I didn’t want the tile to clash. It had to have the right balance.” The dark wood of the cabinets and shelves from Portsmouth’s Dovetailed Kitchens complements the tile and provides abundant storage space. DeStefano organized the kitchen so that items she uses frequently such as dishes, glassware, and cookware are in cabinets close to the sink and stove. She went with very few upper cabinets, believing they would create too much wall-to-wall wood. The dishwasher’s veneer allows it to blend in with the lower cabinets, while across the hall, veneer on her refrigerator allows it to be camouflaged with her pantry, which fills an entire wall. The effort to add horizontal dimension is picked up again, both by the tile stripes and by the cabinet hardware—slim gleaming bars of stainless steel. The countertops are Silestone, a quartz substrate created from repurposed stone. They are highly durable and will not stain or scratch.
Tucked toward the back of the condo is the master bedroom, which is all cool whites and soft blues. Special glazing on the walls creates a cloud-like effect. “I wanted the bedroom to be the essence of coziness and comfort,” says DeStefano. The room maximizes space by devoting one smooth white wall to storage—including a tier of 4-foot long, custom-made drawers. “By having oversize drawers, you can accommodate more items,” she says. But even here there are soft touches; at first glance, the drawer pulls seem to be simple stainless bars, but look close and they are inset with glass “diamonds” that sparkle in the lamplight. “I call it bling for the bedroom!” DeStefano says with a laugh.
As she looks out over the city lights, DeStefano marvels at her good fortune in finding the right space. “For an architect, living in downtown Portsmouth is a dream come true,” she says. “To enjoy this wonderful cityscape with so many historical styles is a gift. I love seeing the North Church illuminated at night—it’s a view I never tire of. Richard and I are amazed every day that we can just step out the door and head to the park or to a great restaurant for dinner. We are incredibly lucky to live here.”