There’s history, and then there’s history. As a relatively young country, our architectural legacy doesn’t have a long tail—at least when it comes to our urban dwellings. Many of our loveliest older buildings were felled before preservation-minded folks put protections in place. These days, we’re better at saving our historic neighborhoods, and that’s largely a good thing. But sometimes an old building really does need replacement—if it’s functionally obsolescent and architecturally and historically undistinguished, or its condition is irretrievable. All were true for the previous house on this site in Boston’s storied Beacon Hill neighborhood.
The area has held landmark status since the mid-1960s, and a historic review board asserted dominion over the neighborhood a good 10 years prior to that. Great timing, because that era was especially hard on significant old buildings across the country. “Progress” was often accompanied by the wrecking ball. Architect David Hacin, FAIA, loves progress as much as the next architect and his firm has done its share of contemporary work, but he is especially adept at the kind of contextual work that honors the past while moving the design conversation forward at the same time. It was for just this reason that the clients for this project—the first new house to be built in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood in 50 years—came to David.
They had originally bought the house presuming its terrible condition would permit them to tear it down and replace it with no issue. They hired Holland Companies, an esteemed design/build/development firm, to help guide them. Although the company has a licensed architect on staff and is known for its historic work, it soon became apparent that they were going to need an even deeper bench to get the project through the approval process. That’s when the clients tapped David, who has a winning track record with historic commissions and award juries, to lead the effort. In fact, he had recently finished another Beacon Hill project that was lauded as “thoughtful and sensitive.”
David recalls, “They had gone to the neighborhood and the historic commission with a generic design for a Beacon Hill townhouse and a faux carriage house addition to serve as the garage. That basically created a World War III situation. The plan was attacked from all sides.”
The original house was located in the “Flat,” the zone off the hill and across Charles Street that once served the mansions, says David. “The Flat was built on fill and had stables and servants’ quarters, until it took off and then some very nice homes were built. So, there is a wide variety there—utilitarian buildings and then some nice houses. Some of those houses have garages because of carriage houses.”
The house was thought to have derived from a stable built in 1890 and converted to a house in the 1920s. It was, says David, “a very strange hodgepodge of things that had been built over time, and the whole thing was in a very derelict state.”
Once retained, David launched the endeavor with some hard truths. “The first thing I said to the clients was, ‘You’re never going to get this garage.’” The lack of a garage is less of an issue for many of David’s urban clients these days, especially when they live in such walkable neighborhoods as Beacon Hill—after all, the iconic bar from Cheers is just a stone’s throw away. “Many people who live here go down from two cars to one. It’s definitely a trend. I had clients who moved to Beacon Hill from Paris, in part because the area was so walkable. They don’t have a car.”
One of the clients on this project is also a developer, however, so although this was his primary residence, future resale and marketability were concerns. Still, he and his wife acquiesced and that opened up more possibilities for David’s team to design a commodious home.
To get the plans through the review board, it was important to understand what the old building contributed to the neighborhood. “The Boston Preservation Alliance had come out against demolition,” says the architect. “They were most concerned about the idea that this would set a precedent, so there was a ton of scrutiny on the project. We had to bring in three structural engineers and do three separate reports to prove the existing house was not in salvageable condition.”
Once the city agreed to condemn the building, clients and architect had to win approval of the design for its replacement. “What people liked about the existing building was that it was eclectic,” says David. “It had a big central window and a series of smaller windows that broke up the repetitive rhythms of the street. We took cues from the old building and incorporated them into the new design.”
The clients’ initial design for the new house was a “classic townhouse with a central stair.” David’s plan was to “push the stair to the side and bring in lots of light. We did something similar a few years ago on another house on the hill that was dark. What we do is a computer model light study to make sure the light penetration will be as meaningful as we think it will. We wanted to do a glass-and-open-riser stair, but the clients thought it might make them feel uncomfortable. So, the treads are very solid, but the way the stair comes up is pulled away from the wall and railing.
“Once we made the decision to move the staircase back, it became the central organizing element,” David continues. Wrapped in glass and steel with a skylight at the top, the stair is visible only from the courtyard at the back of the house, an area safe from the purview of the review board. “With no alleys in the back of these buildings, the struggle is always in bringing light in.”
The new rear courtyard addresses some of that—the original house had extended all the way to the back of the lot. The footprint of the outdoor space is now “nearly the same size as the house,” says David. Standing in the courtyard, you can see the traces of paint left by the old house on neighboring walls—a kind of pentimento of the original.
To recapture some of the square footage lost to the courtyard, David tucked the family quarters under the patio, and carved a skylight out of the pavers for natural light. “We raised the courtyard up a floor, and placed the formal main living room and dining room on the second floor,” he explains. The formal level serves as piano nobile, accessed by the grand glass stair.
There’s also a basement level with storage, exercise room, and a family gaming space. The first floor has a large kitchen, informal dining room, family room, and study.
The formal level comprises a catering kitchen, living room, dining room, and access to the courtyard. The third floor is devoted entirely to the master suite, and the fourth floor holds two bedrooms, each with its own bathroom. A roof deck tops it all off. In addition to the stair, an elevator provides easy access to all but the roof level.
“We’re seeing it a lot throughout Boston that people really do want to age in place, so an elevator becomes very important,” says David. “It goes up to the top floor, but we couldn’t take it all the way to the roof deck, because we would’ve had to have a head house for it.”
As it turns out, the historic commission did have jurisdiction over a part of the roofline in the rear of the building. “That’s the reason we have the copper dormer in the back—the right half of the top floor was subject to the commission.”
The interior palette is a dance of dark and light. The floors and some cabinets are cocoa-stained white oak. The large-format parquet design of the flooring harkens to the past, but its beefed-up scale freshens the look.
In the family kitchen and elsewhere, white is the broad-stroke color, with accents coming from the bold veining in the Calacatta marble, and the glass and steel of windows and stair.
Steel windows were allowable per the historic commission. “There was precedent for steel windows,” says David. “The trouble with wood windows is they have to be true divided light and they have to meet energy code.”
Construction of any new building in Boston must meet LEED standards, but David was precluded by the historic commission from installing solar panels, and the “delicate soils” of the old fill would not permit a geothermal system. The glass stair, however, gave the building credit for natural lighting, and the lack of a garage worked in its favor as well.
In the formal living room, the palette adds black to the color mix—in the windows, of course, but also in the fireplace surround. The articulated absolute black granite suggests the traditional detailing of a period surround, but is executed in a modern, minimalist way. The wall behind it evokes the millwork of another era, but is actually a series of built-in cabinets for storage and audio/video equipment.
The master bedroom has a similarly pared down fireplace surround, done in marble instead of granite. The master bath is swathed in the same Calacatta as the kitchen, with respite for the eyes found in the all-white floor tiles, white vanities, and monochrome vessel tub.
An upper-floor bathroom goes a little wilder with the marble—it’s on the walls, tub surround, floor, and counter. Above the vanity, a skylight brings soothing natural light down from the roof.
Everything is tasteful and timeless.
Another Brick in the Wall
It’s not so cool these days to build with brick. Perhaps we can blame the building boom legacy of brick-front, vinyl-sided houses that blotted the suburban landscape in the last millennium. Done well, however, brick is as ageless as that white marble, and just as durable. Here on Beacon Hill, it’s nearly de rigueur. The previous house was clad in brick, so there was no question that its replacement should be clad in the same material.
Until you build with brick, it’s a shock to learn how many shades, textures, and other variations a single material can have—not unlike marble, granite, and wood. So, choosing the brick was David’s first challenge on the building’s exterior.
“What I liked about what was there before was that the brick was a slightly different color from the adjacent buildings,” he explains. “It separated the façades and created a kind of picture frame for the building,” he says. Filling in the picture frame is an assortment of period-evocative materials, such as copper, wrought iron, steel, glass, and a protective granite skirt at the sidewalk edge.
Pulling from that set of playing pieces, articulation of the front façade was a game of inches. “What a lot of people don’t like about new buildings is that they appear very thin,” he explains. “You could use all of these materials, but if you treat them in a thin way, it doesn’t fall into the character of the street. There are shadows cast by the dimensions of the brick—the demi-lunes carved out of the façade next door, for instance.
“So we played up the details and pictured-framed all of the openings. We created soldier coursing. We added an atelier window—something we’ve seen around the hill—and flanked it with smaller-than-typical windows. This helps anchor the building into the morphology of the street. Then, we have this punctuation mark in the center of the building made three-dimensional by the copper planter. We pulled out the French balconies and the planter to make the façade more plastic. Instead of brick above the window with the planter, we cut into the façade with copper. And on the top story, we have the AB, AB rhythms of the columns.
“The goal was to get as much dimension in 18 inches of depth as we could,” he says. “We had to make sure our building wasn’t flat.”
The original building had arched windows, so you can be assured there was much discussion by the historic commission about whether to allow the architect’s right-angle approach to fenestration. David is good humored about such arguments, and increasingly tolerant of bending modernist credo in favor of contextual modesty.
“You hear a lot of architects say, ‘oh, no, not another building in brick.’ But you know, brick lets us do timeless projects,” he explains. “We have fantastic old-world masons in Boston, and this building is going to be around a lot longer than I will.
“I’m very concerned about quality,” he adds. “And I want our legacy to be as good as anything else in the neighborhood. Over the years, I’ve become even more committed to projects that really are of their place and not generic.”
That’s a good neighbor policy that goes a long way in places like Boston’s Beacon Hill. History isn’t just a matter of what was built in the past, it’s what you lay as groundwork for the future.
Plans and Drawings
Chestnut Street Townhouse
ARCHITECT: David J. Hacin, FAIA, principal in charge; Jeremy Robertson, senior architectural designer, Hacin + Associates, Boston
BUILDER: Joe Holland, The Holland Companies, Boston
PROJECT SIZE: 5,104 square feet
SITE SIZE: 1,746 square feet
PHOTOGRAPHY: Bob O’Connor Photography
BRICK CLADDING: BrickCraft ‘Harvard’ (modular)
STONE BASE: Impala granite (flame finish)
SILLS: Brownstone (lightly rocked finish)
STONE PAVERS: Delgado granite (flame finish)
METAL CLADDING: Red copper (flat and standing seams)
WINDOWS/EXTERIOR DOORS: Hope’s Landmark175 Series true divided lite (Rodin Patina satin finish)
JULIET BALCONY RAILINGS: Custom modification of original decorative railings
MOTORIZED SKYLIGHT HATCH: Rollamatic Roofs
WALKABLE SKYLIGHTS: Atlantech Systems
GAS FIREPLACES: Montigo (H-Series)
WOOD FLOORING: Rift-sawn solid white oak (5” wide plank, custom stain)
APPLIANCES: Sub-Zero, Wolf, Bosch
KITCHEN/BATH STONE: Calacatta marble
MASTER TUB: MTI ‘Andrea’
MASTER TUB FILLER: Lefroy Brooks Kafka