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Old House, New Light

Lighting designer Susan Arnold helped the Charlestown homeowners select modern fixtures to illuminate their old house

<p><em>This Old House</em> TV's Charlestown house project</p>

This Old House TV's Charlestown house project

When it came time to choose light fixtures for This Old House TV's Charlestown project, Dan and Heather Beliveau

faced a problem many owners of old houses confront: how to respect the

period of their home and make it comfortable for modern life. Sleek

modern fixtures can clash with the classic lines and historic details

that constitute much of an old house's charm. At the same time,

old-fashioned lights can look fusty and dated and leave homeowners

without enough light. Compromise is tricky but not impossible. Focus on

fixtures that reflect modern sensibilities but also give a nod to


So it went with Dan and Heather. After several meetings, we compiled a

list of where they needed and wanted light, including, accent, direct

and indirect lighting. With list in hand, we set off for the lighting

showroom, where they quickly realized the challenge of selecting

fixtures. There are so many, and they were choosing not only for their

own home but also for the rental apartment downstairs. Budgetary

concerns were on the table right beside aesthetic ones.

I suggested that we start in the foyer and main living spaces. The foyer

is both square and tall; I suggested a round period fixture that

corresponded with the Civil-War era exterior of the house. From the

foyer, we headed to the upstairs hallway, where Dan and Heather decided

on wall sconces with oval backplates and round arms that echo the form

of the foyer's light.

The living room-flooded with light in the daytime-already sports an

ornate plaster medallion on its ceiling, the perfect home for a

chandelier. We looked at several with the flair and design of the

house's era but decided on a less ornate though still traditional

fixture. More modern, recessed accent lights, nearly invisible, accent

the room's plaster details and the artwork above the fireplace.

Looking through the colonnade and into the dining room, visitors will

see another chandelier, two wall sconces and perimeter lighting that

complement those of the living room. These different light sources will

create a layering effect that will keep the rooms well lit and

comfortable at any time of day.

In the kitchen, we left behind our period lighting concerns and looked

to contemporary features for this updated space. We selected two, small,

low-voltage pendants for the bar area, recessed ceiling lights, and

halogen, under-cabinet task lighting. Indirect lighting will give this

room a soft glow and keep the space feeling open and airy.

The first floor bathroom also has a modern twist in the form of a

pendant lamp with a lemon scavo glass shade, hand-blown in Italy. While

still hot, the glass is dipped into minerals, ash and sand, which give

it a weathered look. The choice is a bit of a surprise for a

mid-19th-century home, but it is a prime example of the ways in which

the old can be combined with the new to great effect.