Thursday, October 16, 2014

Don't Try This at Home: A Renovation Rant

It's been a while since I've gotten on my high horse about how to respect old houses and apartments.

Fasten your seat belts, all you folks back there in the stagecoach. It's going to be a fast, bumpy ride.

A couple of weeks ago, I took an architectural tour of our neighborhood and our guide stopped in front of 211 Commonwealth Avenue. Known as Mason House, it was one of very few original single-family houses in Back Bay that still retained most of its historic details: woodwork, elaborate plaster, grand rooms, period lighting, etc. It belonged a family who bought it as an investment in the late 1990s; they didn't live there but used it for social events. My husband was invited to speak at a university fundraiser there a couple of years ago and came home starry-eyed, showing me the photos he'd managed to snap.

Here's an article about sale of that house. It sold for close to $13 million. You would hope that whoever paid that much for it loved it for what it was, a museum-quality historic home. But as we stood in front of it listening to our tour guide, I looked through an upstairs window and noticed that the walls looked raw and freshly sheet-rocked, while the ceiling was recess-lighted. A big black TV had been installed in one of the walls, perhaps above a mantel I couldn't see. I felt sick and sad. It looks like the downstairs rooms are also being gutted, but I'm not sure, or I'm in denial. At least one of the grand, formal front rooms was stripped of furniture and loaded with building supplies the other day. My husband and I both felt queasy and sad for the rest of the tour. 

That article doesn't show you my favorite room, a little library or study to the right of the front door. I have spent happy minutes on many icy winter evenings peering like the Little Match Girl into that room from the sidewalk. I would stop whenever it was softly lit by that chandelier and the sconces on either side of the fireplace. From the window, its blue walls, woodwork, and ceiling made it one of the prettiest. most welcoming rooms I've ever seen. And I bet it's gone now. But here it was:


For me, the most important principle of interior design and decoration is: "Respect What You Have." To me, it is a terrible mistake to work against the architectural period and style of a house or room. It is a fatal mistake to rip out surviving architectural details in an attempt to "modernize" the room. You aren't "updating" it; you are denuding it. Don't lower ceilings; don't replace fine old wood floors or doors or cabinetry or plasterwork.  Don't replace that original, carved mantel with one you designed yourself using marble bathroom tile. Don't let your contractor talk you into using anything that's a deal at Home Depot. Your contractor can't do a single thing better than a 19th-century craftsman could. Let him update your wiring as long as he doesn't wreck your walls.

Recessed lighting doesn't belong in a room that existed before electricity did. How I hate recessed lighting. Also track lighting and fancy ceiling fans with lots of fooffy glass lampshades. When I walk into a Victorian-era room and the ceiling is pock-marked with recessed lights, speakers, and HVAC vents, I start calculating the steps toward getting that ceiling back to a plain, beautiful expanse of plaster. Call me crazy, but I couldn't stand living under a ceiling full of holes. I barely tolerate the smoke detector in our bedroom. It annoys me.

I know I'm extreme. You're free to disagree with me. But please consider my point of view.

Nothing you do to "modernize" an old room is ever a good idea, aside from installing heating, plumbing, and electricity. Anyone with an educated eye will see that you got rid of those perfectly good walls between your previously well-proportioned living room, dining room, and kitchen. You "opened up the space" and now you have to furnish a giant space with competing functions. But you have hardly any wall space left for art or storage or shelving. And your lighting fixtures are all either going to clash or look inappropriate from one area to the next. And you'll no longer have any privacy in any of the rooms you opened to make "entertaining" easier. How often do you really entertain? And how often are you hanging around with just your partner, wishing you couldn't see your dirty dishes by the sink as you sit in your living room? Or wishing you didn't hear the TV show blaring in the living room while you're trying to concentrate on a recipe?

Walls are our friends. Why does everyone want to live in what are essentially "studio apartments" these days? A couple of decades ago, fresh out of school, we could not wait to earn enough to get out of them and into a bigger apartment with separate rooms. 

I suppose it's only a matter of time before the "open bedroom/bathroom" concept becomes the next trend. If it is cheaper and easier for contractors to build that way, that's what seems to matter, not a homeowner's comfort or privacy.

Thinking about what's probably going on in 211 Comm. Ave. even as I write this depresses the heck out of me. I may decide to continue this discussion later, moving to the less painful subject of using "contemporary" furniture in traditional rooms. 

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