Modernizing a home in Atlantic Heights
This area, known as Atlantic Heights, is steeped in history but hidden from sight—a well-planned neighborhood that arose from the need for workforce housing, a place that maintains its historical integrity despite a lack of architectural control or historic district restrictions.
Deep into the neighborhood, down arcing streets, Stephanie and Philip Cohen have created for themselves and their newborn daughter a home that mixes past and present. Atlantic Heights was constructed during World War I with partial funding from the federal government to house shipyard employees. Boston-based Kilham & Hopkins served as architects for the project. The firm wanted the development to have the character of a New England town, according to Richard M. Candee’s Atlantic Heights: A World War I Shipbuilder’s Community.
Architect Walter H. Kilham created diversity in the neighborhood by varying house placements, changing roof forms, and differing doorway details sourced from local prototypes, according to Candee’s book. The houses had soapstone sinks; cupboards were built over refrigerators to provide extra storage; and kitchens and dining rooms were combined to create the feel of a larger room. The architects also sought to create a sense of civic pride and community harmony by building a group of stores including a bank, drug store, grocery store, and meat market, along with plans for a school.
The Portsmouth Herald described the development on August 15, 1918: “Here in the short space of a little over a month has arisen a village of houses, not shacks or makeshift affairs, but solidly built and well-designed permanent houses, built of brick with every appearance of lasting as many centuries as some of the old English villages from which the idea has been taken.”
From the street, the Cohens’ home matches the look of its neighbors, blending harmoniously into the neighborhood. Inside, though, a rear addition turned what was a four-room, 900-square-foot house into much more. The addition added 550 square feet to the small first floor.
Philip, a banker and photographer, lived in another Atlantic Heights house for years, which gave him the benefit of seeing other homes undergo renovations. When he asked his wife about buying and renovating a house in the neighborhood, she was at first reluctant. “We had just gotten married and I said, ‘No,’” Stephanie says. “Then we went into the backyard, and I saw the river and was like, ‘Yes.’”
When the Cohens decided to renovate, they kept it in the family. Stephanie’s brother-in-law is Jon Bonita, an architect with Connecticut- and Florida-based AT Franco & Associates. “I’ve known Stephanie since she was 12 years old,” he says. “Phil and I now have a very close relationship. We speak freely with each other as family.” The resulting plan was completed in two to three weeks. Philip chose a local builder. “Bob Despathy had done a few renovations of other units throughout the neighborhood,” Philip says. “He really knew the layout of the houses,” including the plumbing and heating systems. “There weren’t any surprises when he took down the walls,” Stephanie says.
The architect and his clients had a goal. “The challenge was how do you increase the size of the house and still relate back to the existing structure?” Bonita says, adding that Philip’s intention was to respect the front of the house and integrate the addition seamlessly into the home. “The only way we were going to expand was in the back.”
Before the addition, the Cohen home had two rooms on the first floor—a family room and a combined kitchen and dining room. After the construction, the two front rooms became a dining room and an office, while an open-concept kitchen and family room with views to the river were added to the rear of the house. Bonita believes the new layout makes the small bump out feel even more substantial. “By having the open kitchen and the family room, those two spaces bleed into each other,” Bonita says. “It keeps a connection between the two rooms.” Pocket doors lead to a laundry room and mudroom on the left side of the home, with bead board walls, coat hooks, a built-in bench, and gray slate floors. The two rooms help keep clutter out of the kitchen and family room areas and contain space for overflow kitchen items, such as a stand mixer and coffee supplies.
The downstairs is exactly what the Cohens wanted, especially with most of their family living out of state. “We knew it was going to be a house for entertaining,” says Stephanie, a health coach and interior designer. “We wanted something easy-flowing and open.” The white, custom-built cabinets and gray-toned quartzite countertops keep the kitchen feeling simple and clean. The Cohens found the countertops at Boston Granite Exchange and had them installed by Independent Marble & Granite of Merrimack, New Hampshire. Lights hanging over the island came from Home Depot, and Brazilian teak was used for the floors. The light sea-green tile of the backsplash was left over from another family member’s project. Despathy made built-ins for the family room, where the Cohens chose stone for the fireplace mantel.
Bonita designed every space on the first floor to have multiple uses—an office in one of the original front rooms morphs into a playroom; it also has a pull-out couch for extra company. “They have compartments that blend into each other but will change as their family changes,” the architect says. “It’s cool to see how it’s already evolving. What I love about the finished product is that the house flows from the front to the back as if there were never an addition.”
The walls of the playroom/office, dining room, and other rooms throughout the home are full of Philip’s photographs, many of bridges and lighthouses in and around Portsmouth. A number of Seacoast galleries have displayed his work, in addition to such Portsmouth restaurants as BRGR Bar and the One Hundred Club.
Despite having to take most of the house down to the studs, the Cohens did what they could to keep original features and otherwise pay tribute to the home’s past. Under the rug in the dining room is a reminder of the former kitchen—worn, darkened spots on the wood floors marking the place where the previous owner washed dishes at the sink. Some changes had to be made, however. “The night we closed, we came here to eat and celebrate, and we couldn’t find the light switches” because there were none, Philip says. They also took out the horsehair plaster that had lined the walls.
At first, Stephanie did not want the second-story porch that Bonita had designed, but he insisted that she would love it both for the additional view looking north up the Piscataqua River and as a retreat when she and Philip had children. “Now every time we go on the porch, I’m so thankful we put the second-story porch on,” she says.
The porch is off the master suite, which forms the upstairs part of the addition. Bonita is especially pleased with the sitting room he created during the renovation. The space is only six feet by nine feet and contains two chairs, an ottoman, and a huge picture window. “I said ‘Bob, tell me the largest size window you can get,’” he says. “It became really a wall of glass—it was the only way to make a small room work. The view is your television.” Between the sitting room and the master suite is a hidden walk-in closet, with shelving done by Closets by Design. A small linen closet is adjacent to the home’s radiant heating system pipes. “In the winter they are so warm that you get heated towels,” Stephanie says.
The two other rooms upstairs are mostly original to the house. The nursery was the former owner’s bedroom. “His family had been here since they finished the neighborhood,” Philip says. Even after the man’s parents died, he stayed in the room where he had lived all his life, watching the freighters come and go on the river. In their daughter’s room, the Cohens modernized the closet; they also got rid of an eave in the guest room, which was the original master bedroom, to increase space.
Downstairs, French doors from the family room lead to a raised deck, a patio, and a small garden. “We decided we wanted more outdoor space rather than a lot more indoor space,” says Philip, who used rocks dug up during the excavation to create the stone circle around the garden. Despite having less than ideal soil, the Cohens grow lettuce, tomatoes, herbs, and other edibles. Hydrangeas, hostas, and ornamental grasses line the driveway.
Philip especially likes to be outside when freighters cruise by. Because these cargo ships sit so high above the water, their large viewing decks are roughly level with his backyard, and he can watch the seafarers walk back and forth. “As a photographer, looking at [the freight activity] is one of my favorite things,” he says.
In front, the Cohens and their architect agreed on a facade in keeping with neighboring homes. Green roofs are typical of Atlantic Heights, and that is what they chose for their home. The front door is also similar in character to the original doors of the neighborhood.
For Bonita, the Atlantic Heights project resulted in a life change. “It was great to be designing in the New England style, and it led to my decision to open a satellite office in New England,” he says.
The Cohens, meanwhile, say their neighborhood continues to change for the better. “There had been a lot of absentee landlords,” Philip says. “It’s been moving more toward home ownership in the last five years.” The neighborhood now has its own website, garden tour, and holiday house tour. Like generations of Portsmouth workers before them, the Cohens have found a neighborhood to call home and raise a family.