A Gilded Age home shines anew on the rocky North Shore
Andrew Carnegie, Jay Gould, Andrew W. Mellon, J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, Charles M. Schwab, and Cornelius Vanderbilt were among the great industrialists and financiers of the late nineteenth century. It was a time of rapid economic growth and ostentatious displays of wealth. On Boston’s North Shore, grand summer cottages were built along the rocky coastline and a vibrant summer community grew up alongside historic fishing villages.
Today, many of the cottages from the Gilded Age have been lost to demolition, neglect, or the simple need to downsize to save on energy and maintenance. But a few still remain, including The Ledges, an 1890s summer cottage on a rocky outcrop that offers views of the Atlantic Ocean.
When the home was purchased by a local family in 1996, much of its historic character had been stripped away. After living in the house for several years, the homeowners decided to undertake a large renovation project to recreate the original beauty of the historic exterior and modernize and reconfigure earlier additions to better incorporate them into the home and take advantage of the view. Tad Cunningham of Windover Construction and Robert Carty of TMS Architects were hired to oversee the renovations, including the redesign of the space.
The addition of a large, L-shaped wing in the 1920s nearly doubled the size of the house. The space was purely functional, intended for use by the household staff. It included the home’s only kitchen, along with several small spaces that the homeowners used as a dining area, family room, and playroom for their five children. The grandeur of the original house, which had retained much of its formality, contrasted sharply with the awkwardly configured, dark spaces of the addition. But it was here, in this less formal space, that the family spent the majority of their time.
“The only way to access the part of the home where the family spent all of their time was to enter through the formal dining room and then walk down a long corridor and through the butler’s pantry,” Rob says. “The home needed a second, less formal entrance, and the homeowners wanted to be able to enjoy the outside more. That side of the house offered a 270 degree view of the water—from the harbor, to the islands, to the open ocean.”
The design called for a new entryway to be built over an existing sunken courtyard, terraces to be built overlooking the ocean, windows to be replaced, and the interior of the 1920s addition to be completely reconfigured. “To finish the project on a tight schedule, we had multiple activities going on throughout the property,” Tad says. “Steel deck frames were being built outside, renovations and remodeling were going on in the 1890s portion of the house, and the windows and roof were replaced. There were days when there were more than 70 people on site, so logistics was a huge challenge.”
To bring a more unified look to the house, new windows and black shutters, similar to those that had been on the house when it was first built, were installed. “We were able to look back at the old photographs and get a sense of what the house looked like when it was first built,” Rob says. “And there were actually a couple of the original windows with a diamond pattern next to the main entrance. We knew we wanted to bring that feeling back to the house and that the detailing of the windows would help bring the two halves of the house together. At the same time, we wanted to make sure that the view was not impeded. So in the back of the house, we tried to bring the diamond pattern in without it being overwhelming.”
The other major change to the exterior was the addition of a new entry, expanded terraces, and better-defined retaining walls. Because the original house made extensive use of locally quarried stone, using the same material would give the exterior of the house a more cohesive look. Bob Marzilli of R.P. Marzilli & Company was able to secure stone from the same quarry. “He is a very capable, knowledgeable mason,” Tad says. “He was able to take a look at what existed onsite and find creative ways to join the old and new stone. He replicated the style of setting the stone so it blends nicely.”
But to experience the transformation, and how beautifully the original house and family wing combine, you have to explore the interior, which was designed by Michael Cebula of Cebula Design. Because the timeframe of the project was so tight, most of the family wing had already been gutted by the time Michael first toured the house. “Unfortunately, I never saw the house as it had been, and I never saw it furnished,” Michael says. “So, I didn’t see how the family lived or what belongings they had to bring back into the house.”
Most of the furnishings in the family wing were replaced, so the greatest challenge was working in the original part of the house. “I love historic architecture and love this period home,” Michael says. “But all of the family’s belongings had been removed, so we really had to rely on the photographs to know what was coming back into the house.”
When you first walk into the house, you enter a beautiful foyer with a marble floor and grand staircase that features hand-turned balusters. An antique mahogany buffet, which was original to the house, sits to the right. At the end of the foyer, French doors open up to the back patio and showcase the ocean view. “The marble floor had to be stripped because it had yellowed quite a bit,” Michael says. “We also added yellow damask wallpaper, which flows nicely into the dining room and the new space.”
A formal living room and small sunroom are located to the left of the foyer. Much of the architectural detailing of the living room was destroyed in a storm several years ago, and there was still a great deal of water damage. The crown molding survived, as did the medallion on the ceiling and the walnut floor. To recreate the original trim profile, new wainscoting, mantels, and paneling was installed. The draperies, which were made of a beautiful hand-screened fabric, were salvaged and provided the inspiration for the design of the room. “The damaged material was cut out of the draperies and the fabric was used to create a new style that suits the room,” Michael says. “Then we painted the room and reupholstered the furniture to complement the draperies.”
Passing back through the foyer, you enter the formal dining room. In the past, a door in the corner of the room opened to a narrow hallway that connected the original house to the kitchen in the 1920s addition. To smooth the transition, the door was removed and the hall was opened up to create a graceful arched entry to the family wing. To link these spaces, a Chinese hand-screened wallpaper was selected for the dining room and the hall was painted a soft yellow.
Down the hallway towards the family wing is the secondary entry. The barrel-vaulted ceiling and large windows create an open and airy space. A summer kitchen, complete with a grill, refrigerator, and full bar, is located in the screened porch of the terrace. “As you enter the family wing, you can see straight across the house and terrace out to the water,” Rob says. “We wanted this area to be a little more modern, but to still tie in to the older part of the house.”
The family room, kitchen, and dining area were designed with an open concept. Custom-made carpets, family-friendly furnishings, and the perfect floor stain tie the rooms together. “We tried about a million stains to get the right color for the floor,” Michael says. “The rooms are light, bright, and comfortable. And while it is obviously a new space, it has a lot of the character of an older space.”
The entire family wing was rebuilt using the same footprint and reconfigured to take advantage of the view. “Before the renovation, there was a really large chimney right where the kitchen is now,” Rob says. “The base of the chimney was about eight feet square.” Once the chimney was removed, a new kitchen was built in its place. Designed without any upper cabinets, the view from the kitchen is of the open ocean; there is no land in sight. It is reminiscent of being on a yacht, and the space seems to float over the ocean.
The adjacent dining area overlooks the harbor. The large table lends a somewhat rustic feel and seats 12. The chairs were upholstered in leather, which is both durable and stylish. The custom-made carpet is reversible, and the colors woven throughout the piece complement the window treatments perfectly. The room is painted a soft yellow to keep it open and bright. Most of the pieces in this part of the home are new, but a few pieces kept by the family are incorporated throughout the family wing. “The light over the dining table was an heirloom piece that was brought back from Portugal,” Michael says. “They definitely wanted that piece to be used.”
Towards the very end of the main floor of the family wing is a teen suite, designed specifically for the family’s five children. The suite includes the teen room, small bathroom, and media room. The teen room is contemporary, dark, and sleek. The cork floor, which helps insulate the guest rooms below from the noise, uses both a lighter and darker cork to create a striped pattern. Orange accent pieces add a bit of warmth to the space. And the disco ball, specially requested by one of the older children, sparkles off the silver-leafed ceiling. In the bathroom, silver-leafed wallpaper sets off the 1950s inspired tile and the period-style black and white floor. The walls of the media room are upholstered in gray flannel, creating a dark and cozy space perfect for movie night.
In about seven months, the entire house was transformed. It was a daunting task. “We needed to be done by July 1 because the family has a whopper of a Fourth of July party every year,” Tad says. “It was fast and furious, but we were able to do it—and we were all invited to celebrate with the family on the Fourth of July!”