Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Crimes of the Hearth, Etc.

Those of you who've been reading here for a while know that I periodically complain about real estate, particularly about how so much of Boston's housing stock lacks character and taste. Even the loveliest 19th-century Boston townhouses, with beautifully preserved exteriors, are likely to be disappointing inside. Both developers and homeowners love to wreak havoc with historic details. Almost everywhere I look, I find that the details I cherish most — original fireplace mantels, wooden floors, paneled doors, staircases, hardware, moldings, wainscoting, plasterwork, built-ins — have been replaced with cheap, new, generic building materials just as you'd find in any recent suburban development.

Another surprising failure in taste is the lingering love of exposed brick, which began as a cheap alternative to replacing old plaster. Exposed brick's heyday was the 1970s, but while the Formica kitchens and colorful bath fixtures of those days are long gone, incongruous brick walls remain in otherwise stately Back Bay settings.

Below is a dining room in a newly listed penthouse condo in the Fanny Farmer Mansion on Hereford Street. A crystal chandelier and exposed brick? I don't think Fanny would have approved, at all. I'm going to visit her grave the next time we are at Mount Auburn Cemetery to see what's happened to the sod. All the rolling over she's been doing down below may have left some traces.


Many of Boston's townhouse condos also have frustrating layouts. While converting a single-family townhouse to apartments is challenging, it can often be accomplished gracefully if no one insists on carving out more bedrooms and bathrooms than a floor's footprint can support in the greedy quest for higher selling prices.

Here's an example from a 2-bedroom condo in Back Bay that recently went under agreement, with an asking price of more than a million dollars. Look at the master bedroom, below. It was originally the house's dining room, occupying the back half of the house's most formal, parlor level.


What you can't see in this carefully angled photo is the wall a developer added right behind the bed. It destroyed the elegant proportions of the room. The third bay window, which you imagine is behind the bed, isn't in this room anymore. It's been walled off, with about a quarter of the original room, to create a second bedroom. "And what a charming and practical room it is!" Said no one, ever:


I don't see how anyone could live here without constantly wishing this were a less awkward, rectangular room.

Let's return to the master bedroom photo and consider the fireplace. Under that bland white paint, there's probably magnificent walnut — the finest, old-forest walnut that could be bought in the 19th century, possibly inlaid with other rare woods of different colors. No one will probably ever see it again.

Fireplaces are commanding architectural elements. When a room has a fireplace, it's hard to make any other feature the focal point of the room. As you see in the bedroom, whoever furnished it bowed to that truth and installed the television above the mantel. Now that black screen is the most riveting thing in the room and indeed, television is the most riveting thing in many people's lives. At least it's easy to remove the TV and replace it with a nice work of art.

Let's try to imagine what was above the mantel more than a century ago: very likely a towering walnut mirror with a carved frame to match the mantel. It would have reflected the light of a multi-armed brass and crystal gas chandelier, suspended from an ornate plaster ceiling medallion over a massive dining room table. Matching pairs of sconces would have blazed around the room. That grand mirror would have made the room seem larger as well as brighter.

Oh, well. Now we can watch Oprah above the mantel instead.

Finally, here's a living room in a Marlborough Street parlor-level condominium that just went under agreement after being listed for $1.275 million.


This is a lovely room, or it will be when the TV goes away along with a horrible (fluorescent?) ceiling fixture that you can't see in this photo. (Most of the furniture clashes with the stately, English-style paneling, but I bet it's only rental furniture via the broker. No real homeowner would buy those vases or clog their sofa with all those drab pillows. Would she?)  Because this room had so much of its original detail intact, I went to the open house last week just to admire it. Apart from the lighting and the TV, this is a wonderful room. (I also hate recessed lighting in most rooms, and many professional decorators back me up, but I'll spare you that diatribe. It's easy to get rid of it.)

As I was leaving the open house, I heard the people behind me talking about how much better the living room would look when it was painted.

Just shoot me.

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