All old houses have past lives, some more than others. Boston’s Back Bay townhouses have hosted a particularly varied parade of occupants in the past 150 years. Built on landfill in the back bay of Boston Harbor between 1857 and 1881, these architecturally significant homes were designed for some of the city’s wealthiest residents. But many of the building interiors were substantially altered in later decades. Some were converted into rooming houses in the 1920s and ’30s, and later became duplexes and triplexes before being returned to their original use as single-family homes.
The Beacon Courtyard Townhouse had reached that point in its journey when David Hacin’s clients bought it. Converted back to a private home in the early 2000s, it retained much the same character as it had in 1881, when it was built. The brownstone’s elegant façade had intricately carved details and graceful bay windows with stained glass transoms. Six stories tall, it contained a separate apartment on the ground floor, a dining room and kitchen on the first floor, and the primary bedroom and office on the second floor. Above that was a library and another bedroom, topped by two more bedrooms on the fourth floor, an entertaining floor on the fifth, and a roof deck.
Its best qualities were its well-proportioned spaces. “One thing that’s so wonderful is that the house is one room wide and has beautifully proportioned rooms,” says David, FAIA. “You want to keep those bones.” As the clients made clear, however, almost everything else was fair game for reinvention. “It had some characteristics that the current owners weren’t attracted to, and they wanted to make it their own—simpler, cleaner, more open and livable,” he says.
Indeed, every renovation reflects the lives and tastes of its current owners; a makeover is an amalgam of original, reinterpreted, and new. That might be the most enticing aspect for the architect drafting a redesign, especially when the clients are as sophisticated and astute as this couple, who moved from suburban Indiana. Active and semi-retired with three grown sons, he is on the board of several high-profile institutions, and she has a strong fashion and design sense.
“This was not your typical Back Bay client,” David says. “For them, there was nothing sentimental about the traditions of what might have been in this home before. It was about remaking it in their vision, and I appreciated that. They were interested in novelty, but I think she also wanted to be a bit of a disrupter, to take things that might be expected and not do them, by design. To partner with someone on that kind of a mission is exciting and satisfying.”
Grand as it was, the house had a familiar set of ailments. There was no buffer between the first-floor formal rooms and the vestibule, and the center of the house lacked natural light. Other conditions were simply confusing. On the main level, a previous owner had added an eccentric mezzanine with a bath and closets. And the dark wood had a nautical vibe that was out of sync with the house. It was, says senior designer Christine Rankin, “a maze of sectional moments with lots of cutouts and levels, none of which provided more light or air.”
With six levels to fit out, two principles guided the floor plan changes. One was the owners’ wish for a house that nurtures health and wellness with a gym and spa, comfortable baths, and an inviting kitchen where the family could cook and eat together. The other was David’s philosophy of drawing the owners through the house. “When we design these homes that are vertically oriented, we always want to make sure someone is moving through the entire home all the time,” David says. He deliberately separated the lounge spaces from the living and dining level. On the ground floor is a family room that opens to a garden courtyard and spa. On the top floor is a game room where they gather to watch sports. That level opens out to a deck facing the street, and from there stairs lead to a rear rooftop deck overlooking the Charles River.
The ground-floor redesign had a pleasantly serendipitous effect. Formerly a separate apartment, this multipurpose space now functions as part of the house. The front section, with new access to Beacon Street, assumes vestibule duties as a catch-all staging area for sending and receiving packages. With the installation of a Murphy bed, this secondary entrance can also host overnight guests, while the back room serves as a family room, complete with a full kitchen, that opens through glass doors to the courtyard. Although the clients originally didn’t imagine themselves spending much time in this low-ceilinged space, the new vestibule/mudroom and the addition of a spa across the courtyard has turned it into the wife’s private getaway.
Fitted with a large skylight and steel-and-glass doors, the spa and pool were carved out of an existing tall, greenhouse-like space in the garage. “We were presented with the typical condition of a garden that dead-ends into the back of the garage,” David says. “We reimagined it as an indoor spa, which in Boston is a really unusual amenity. Now the ground floor feels more like an enclave.”
Changes on other floors revolved around the need for natural light. On the first floor, the dining room, which by nature requires less light, was placed in the center and a fireplace added for ambience. Handsome glass-and-steel doors and transoms open or close it to the rear kitchen, whose broad strokes were straightened and simplified. Via an elevated walkway, the kitchen connects to an ample outdoor kitchen and dining terrace on the garage roof. At the front of the house, the living room parlor remains intimately scaled, with its original stained-glass transoms and the cozy addition of a fireplace. A matching set of steel-and-glass doors were installed at the entry, which connects the spaces visually.
“So many older houses have high ceilings but the rooms are too small,” David says. “This was a beautiful home from the outset, and we were honoring those traditional proportions. The challenge is how to open these 19th-century homes in a way that doesn’t feel wrong. That often has to do with how you flow through and what the rooms relate to.”
Although the house was gutted, some partitions remained. The primary suite sprawls across the entire second floor while maintaining some of the existing floor plan. The bedroom and an office nook occupy the back room overlooking the courtyard and spa. A bath stretches luxuriously along the west side behind the stair hall, connecting the bedroom with a bespoke dressing room at the front of the house. Lit by the large bay window and stained-glass transoms, the dressing room fills a 34-by-18-foot area that previously held an office and exercise equipment. “They are big shoppers and wanted the closet area to feel jewel-like,” David says. “If you really care about clothing, seeing it in natural light is very different than getting dressed under fluorescents. This was a way to celebrate that.”
“In these houses where there’s clearly a front and back, the connective tissue is where a lot of the design opportunity happens,” he adds, “places to create nooks and shortcuts. It’s always nice to have a circular pattern of circulation. All those ideas were explored floor by floor.”
The third level contains a gym and powder room at the front, a laundry in the middle, and a guest suite at the back, all unified by a series of steel and glass doors. Upstairs are two additional guest suites and a library, and on the fifth floor is that destination game room and lounge. There, a refurbished terrace has a bird’s-eye view of the roofs and chimneys of houses along Beacon Street. A new set of stairs, surrounded by copper cladding, leads from the terrace to an ipe roof deck that looks over the Back Bay.
Woven, Carved, Stitched
For all its grounding in history, the house is firmly anchored in the present. The clients’ important art collection, focusing on Black artists, played a significant role in the architectural details, materials, and color palette. The design team worked with the wife to create places for specific pieces of art and appropriate wall construction and lighting. The artwork supplies pops of color, and furnishings and finishes have a layered, handcrafted look that balances the high-tech lighting.
Throughout, engineered oak flooring and oak cabinetry has a light gray wash, giving it a contemporary flavor. “In my first meeting to talk about finishes, the wife said, ‘I don’t want to see anything I’ve seen before,’” Christine says. “Many clients want a safer palette, but she loves boldness. This was an opportunity to play with graphics and bring in pattern, such as the stone in the kitchen.”
On the island, the slab marble’s outsize swirls provide a graphic contrast to the muted flooring and cabinets. Chosen before the other finishes, this anchoring countertop contains a hint of green. So does the stone around the living room and dining room fireplaces, whose Zebrino marble has a raked texture and subtle green hues. “Every gray has a hint of something else that gives a little more life to it,” Christine says. “But as an overall palette it’s not overwhelming.”
The sinuous stairwell is another graphic architectural feature that unifies the house. The existing balustrade spindles—though not original—were painted black and rise from a black floor area set into the lighter wood floor, “so it feels like a cohesive ribbon running through,” Christine says, and the newel posts were simplified. Ornamental cutwork on the sides of the stairs was also stripped off. “Any ornament we could remove without taking away from the integrity of the stair, we did,” she says.
Like the shapely spindles, rich textures also convey handcraft. Cladding the kitchen island, a custom architectural screen made with Banker Wire adds a little jewelry and protects it from swinging feet. The kitchen backsplash is handmade glass tile. Zebrino marble slabs reappear on the shower and water closet walls of the primary bathroom, along with Ann Sacks custom mosaic floor tile.
Many of the carpets have metal inlays or leather loops, and the coffee table is hand carved. Between the glass dining room doors is an oval mirror set into a hand-carved bowl made by a Rhode Island School of Design student. Carpet runners with hand-stitched edging protect the stairs and stair halls; each rug has a different color stitch.
“Whether it’s the installation of a mirror, or lighting, or the way the floor is laid, the craft is evident in how it’s put together,” David says. “On one hand you’re creating this backdrop with all the tech and lighting that’s as invisible as possible, and on the other, it’s to showcase those natural elements and human craft.”
A backdrop to the glass-tiled plunge pool, the mossy spa wall is another striking work of art and was the last piece installed. The clients commissioned it from Plant the Future after seeing their work in a Miami lobby. It’s based on a landscape photo. “To bring in her affinity for graphic elements, the scene was cut into sections and applied in three scales to give it a dynamic mood,” Christine says. “We added a UV film to the skylight so the preserved moss won’t fade over time.” It’s become the wife’s personal oasis. “She hides there, and we had to put shades on the skylight so the family couldn’t see where she was,” Christine adds.
In addition to meticulously planned lighting systems, the other tech elements David alluded to include TVs—sometimes more than one—in every room and outdoor zone. One TV, for example, lowers from a retractable kitchen hood. Working with the family’s audiovisual consultants, media was integrated in a low-profile way, David says.
For builder Tony Salem, the central challenge was working with the mélange of new and existing architecture, building contemporary spaces inside a historic home. Floors were leveled and reinforced, and the garage foundation was evaluated before the spa pool went in. “We had to understand the foundation and then build a concrete tank for the pool in the confinement of the garage space,” Tony says. The pool was pre-formed and then lifted into the concrete base.
On the exterior, new entry doors were added, existing windows were refurbished, and the brick and stone façades were repointed, cleaned, and reconditioned. For historic landmark reasons, wood windows were used on the front façade, though they have a slimmer profile than the previous set.
While the home’s street face is very much of its neighborhood, the interiors are an unmistakable expression of the owners. “We did a house across the street that couldn’t be more different, and both fit in our portfolio,” David says. “It’s the extraordinary people that excite me about our work. They didn’t come to us for modern Back Bay townhouse 103 but for something very custom and specific that is woven through the fabric of this older home.”
The house was completed just before the pandemic, and their sons decamped from across the country to form a family pod. “Apparently, it was a wonderful experience for them to have that place to live, not in a sprawling suburban house like the one they came from, but in an interesting vertical home that had all these spaces and made them interact in ways they hadn’t before,” David says.
Domestic amenities aside, the house has a visual order that surely lends a subconscious sense of well-being, too. Adds David, “A lot of times these homes have clear trim proportions and window dimensions, and that is something you can definitely get wrong. We worked hard to make sure all those proportions and trim details echo the spaces in a way that feels right, but reinvented—in the contemporary sense of the word.”
Beacon Courtyard Townhouse
Architect: David Hacin, FAIA, principal in charge; Matt Arnold, project architect; Jeremy Robinson, project manager; Christine Rankin, senior designer, Hacin + Associates, Boston
Builder: Tony Salem, Sea-Dar Construction, Boston
Interior designer: Matthew Woodward, Hacin + Associates
Landscape architect: R.P. Marzilli & Co., Medway, Massachusetts
Structural engineers: Robert S. Cotta, Linea 5, Boston; Terry A. Louderback, Souze, True & Partners, Waltham, Massachusetts
HVAC engineer: Sean Fennessy, Sun Engineering, Danvers, Massachusetts
Lighting, audio, and visual consultant: Sean Bartram, TRIPhase Technologies, Zionsville, Indiana
Kitchen consultant: Donna Venegas, Venegas and Company, Boston
Project size: 8,200 square feet
Site size: 0.09 acre
Photography: Trent Bell Photography
Cabinetry hardware: Atlas, Shaub and Company, Turnstyle, Water Street Brass, Molteni + Jeffrey Alexander
Cooking vent hood: Bosch, Wolf
Countertops: Caesarstone, Cumar
Door hardware: Water Street Brass
Faucets: Grohe, Blanco, Dornbracht, California Faucets, GRAFF
Fireplaces: Isokern, European Home
Flooring: Madera European Oak 7-inch-wide planks, Porcelanosa, Ceramica Colli, Pompeii, Ann Sacks
Garage doors: Carriage House Door Company
Landscape: LiveRoof roof deck, Plant the Future moss mural
Lighting: Allied Maker, Sonneman, Materia via Fair Tsuru IIII, Bec Brittain via Future Perfect, Juniper THIN Primaries Hexagon 36-inch chandelier (living room)
Ovens: Fisher & Paykel
Pavers: limestone, ipe
Radiators: Runtal Radiators Wall Panels
Shower enclosure: McGrory Glass custom
Sinks: Kohler, Blanco, Franke, Salvatori
Specialty appliances: Wolf
Washer/dryer: Asko, Whirlpool
Windows: Hope’s Steel Windows and Doors, Belisle
Wine refrigerator: Sub-Zero