Sunday, April 10, 2016

Annals of Real Estate: The Arthur Vinal House, Part 1


My last post about a Victorian house for sale in Boston was 11 Robinwood Avenue in Jamaica Plain, which I prefer to call "The Chicken House." It is still listed as "active" on the market (58 days) and has not had a single open house yet. If it does, I will try to go, if only to try to count chickens, and I'll report on any interesting details that weren't photographed. (I also hope to meet that pretty cat nestled on the stairs.)

Yesterday my husband and I drove to Dorchester to visit 35 Melville Avenue, or the Arthur Vinal House, above. Vinal was a prominent New England architect and a master of the Richardsonian style for public buildings. He built this as his family home in 1882. Here's a great post describing the house, on Old House Dreams, one of my favorite real-estate porn* sites. Go there and drool over the photos and come back here for my own thoughts and photos. 

The agent is Lee Robinson of Sotheby's International Realty. She seems to specialize in the area's period houses and so we have run into her before.

The house is a Queen Anne gem in Dorchester's finest Victorian neighborhood, so it was a must-see for us, even though we realize that moving to a house in Dorchester would be a huge stretch for us after decades of tiny-condo living in Back Bay. At least it's not a ridiculously huge house at 2,870 square feet, some of which is taken up by a few ratty third-floor rooms that could be used as attic storage.

It's typical for a fantastically preserved house like this to stick out like a rose among thorny, "remuddled" messes. So let's check out the immediate neighbors.

Across Melville Avenue: 


Directly next door to the Vinal House.


 Also directly across the street and visible from many windows of the Vinal House:


Not too shabby, huh? The neighborhood is loaded with Victorians in all states of repair and disrepair, and preservation or lack thereof.  Haunted-looking, decaying grandes dames sit next to perfectly restored painted ladies.

The Vinal House is sited on a small corner lot, so there's only the grassy front yard you see in my photo, plus a paved double-wide driveway. There's no backyard, just a big front porch for outdoor living. (No one with a conscience could make the front yard "private" with a tall hedge or fence; the world deserves an unobstructed view of this house. And I have to assume that historic neighborhood guidelines are in place to keep the next owner from doing anything like that.  

A few lions greet you as you walk up the path to the porch:


Lions are good-luck omens, at least for us cat people. The late Henry Augustine Tate, art historian and dear friend, told me that when we were buying our place nearly 20 years ago, which has two incongruous stone lions on the little roof above the front door. I've never forgotten how excited and pleased he was to hear we were moving into "the house with the lions," which he'd walked past and liked for ages. Now I'm always glad to see lions outside of properties we look at. 

In the entry hall of the Vinal House there's a fireplace with a three-dimensional, carved panel of galloping horses. Their heads stick straight out of the wall and you can stroke their protruding necks:


It looks awful in photographs so it didn't make it into the listing, and now I see why but, trust me, it belongs there:


The main staircase is every bit as wonderful as it looks. The lighted stained glass panels in the newel posts continue up the stairs and are very fragile, leaded glass with candle bulbs inside. Some of the panels are missing but could be reproduced.


I had never seen curtains made almost entirely of fringe before. Bead curtains, sure. But these are Flapper Curtains. Obviously no cats ever lived here.


As you saw in the listing, the more recent owners of this house made some unfortunate choices in decorating but at least they kept most of the main features relatively intact, including almost all of the natural woodwork. (The house has been in the same family for 50 years.) It was hard to see what was original and what wasn't until I got there in person. Even so, I'm no expert and I left with a lot of questions. (I'd love to get a master's in historic preservation and then a job to pay for the tuition, at least. But no one hires people my age, not even employers who long to preserve everything else in America that's old.)

This wallpaper was one of those unfortunate choices, easily remedied:


On the other hand, the original ceiling fixtures are all gone. It would be a research project to figure out what might have hung there and come up with appropriate replacements. They were probably as unique as the rest of the house. In their place is a series of dreadful crystal numbers that would look better in Florida, or perhaps a function hall catering Italian weddings on Route 1. (I'm Italian, I can say that.)

I suppose this one is the best of a bad lot, since it has some decorative brass details that hint vaguely at the Moorish style of the dining room:


There are two little wooden seats (with hinged tops, perhaps to hold firewood) within either end of the archway, on each end of the long wooden radiator cover that looks like a bench. We both sat in them for a long while, enjoying the room. We loved the stained-glass window, the lively parquet floor, and dark mahogany woodwork, which has darkened further with time and varnish. However, the gold walls are a huge disappointment. As I say, I'm not an expert, but I think they started out as Anaglypta or something similar (tin? maybe plaster?) that is strong and highly textured, and might have originally been covered in gold (or maybe bronze) leaf. But someone coated it in gold spray paint. (I don't mean the complicated, technical spray-painting that pros do on kitchen cabinets these days; I mean cans of gold Krylon.) The color looks only faintly suspicious in photos but if you look at the gold-and-white areas in the two pictures below, you'll see how I know:



I went peering into corners with my iPhone's flashlight and found traces of bright red paint. I don't want to imagine these walls as primary red, or bright white, so I'm going to assume it was used as an undercoat for gold leaf at some point. (The whole house needs a paint and wallpaper study. The entry way walls seem to be painted-over wallpaper with what may have been a flocked texure. Hard to know how old that paper might be, or what's under it.)

Still, there is the gorgeous fireplace with what seem to be original andirons. All of the fireplaces in the house are "blocked up" and some have plugs for electric log sets (sigh). 


And there's this tile:


It's so pristine that I can't be sure it's original but it's loveliest hearth tile pattern I've ever seen:


The pocket doors aren't just accented with stained glass, they have jewels:



This is getting long, so I'll continue in another post soon!


*I hear there are other kinds of porn on the Intertubes, but I can't imagine why anyone would be interested in anything besides old houses and maybe Norwegian Forest Cats. Don't bother to enlighten me, okay?

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