Rick, the architect, looks over the Milton project.
Rick looks over the project.
I still remember that cool, sunny April morning two years ago when I met the This Old House crew in Milton, Massachusetts. After parking my car in the small, sunken driveway, I walked up some old stone steps that were tucked in behind a very large pine tree. Once past the pine, I knew this was a special property. In front of me was an open, green meadow with splashes of daffodils and tulips blooming here and there. On the far side of this pastoral setting was a magnificent shingled barn. And on my left stood this wonderful old colonial house set at the edge of a row of towering pines. What a classic New England setting! In a matter of minutes, I had left the busy commuter highway that circles Boston and was in a world of low stone walls, large specimen trees, a traditional barn, and a classic, center-entrance, 300-year-old colonial house. For a moment I had a strong feeling that time had stopped here. When an architect starts to look at a project — either the renovation of an historic structure or the design of a new house — he looks for the unique qualities of the particular site or structure and tries to understand what makes the place special. Sometimes it's quite obvious what site characteristics are important — the south-facing orientation of a site, for example, or views to far-away mountains or a nearby lake. For an older house, maybe the details in the woodwork should remain or the classic proportions of the windows and doors should be preserved and celebrated. In the case of the Milton house, all of our thinking proceeded from one central decision: to preserve the integrity of the main house, a quintessential American colonial. This meant retaining and restoring both its exterior appearance and its traditional interior layout. However, in the tradition of New England expansions, the house had had several additions constructed on its back side, and some were not true to the original form of the house. The laundry room, for example, had a nearly flat shed roof that didn't match the pitches of the rest of the building. Its octagon window didn't blend in well either. Similarly, a tacked-on side entry porch on the north side detracted from the strong, classic symmetry of the front facade. We eliminated these and rebuilt a rear ell at a slightly larger scale, and in doing so created an outdoor courtyard and new wing that held an entry, mudroom, laundry, and half bath. These changes, and moving the kitchen from the dark north side to the sunny southern side, reoriented the way the whole house worked, bringing people, cars, groceries, and family activity deeper into the property and away from the busy street. Preserving the old limited us in some ways. For example, the master bedroom — while handsomely appointed with a working fireplace, pine-paneled mantelpiece, and original colonial window sash — was essentially a small, historic room. To compensate, we made the new master bath as large as any modern owner could want, with enough space for a soaking tub, walk-in shower, and separate toilet room. Working with the This Old House crew presented its own challenges. Each member of the group seemed to be asking, "What if this were my own home?" At times we felt that our "client" had a dozen different voices, each passionate about one particular feature of the project — be it the workshop, the kitchen, the original wainscoting or the right paint color. Harnessing that energy proved to be the project's greatest challenge, and its greatest strength; the result was a strongly realized single vision. In the end, a new chapter in the history of this homestead was written. The new systems should last another generation, or two. The building's exterior is restored and repainted in colors true to the house's origins. The landscape sports new trees and a new gravel drive that brings guests right through that meadow I remember so well. And now that the work is done, I hope the new homeowners still get the same sensation I had on that sunny April morning and feel as though time — at least in this corner of Milton — can stop for a bit.
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