Building the Beliveau House
In Charlestown, houses don't so much have addresses as they have names.
A view from the Beliveau's roof, overlooking the historic homes of Charlestown and the Bunker Hill Monument.
It's a short walk from our offices at the Bunker Hill Monument to the Bunker Hill Street home of our new neighbors and clients Dan and Heather Beliveau. As we meandered up the newly paved and tree lined Bunker Hill Street, we were delighted by the number of newly pointed and freshly painted facades. We reminisced about a similar walk we took to our first house on Bunker Hill Street over 22 years ago. How different the street was then, showing few signs of the remarkable transformation that was about to take place.
Bunker Hill Street is old by American standards, steeped in history and
tradition. In 1775 it was little more than a path, but it marked the long and
bloody line of retreat of our patriotic forebears from the pivotal Battle of
Bunker Hill. Twenty-two years ago, we'd speculated that the street, like the
retreating patriots, was tired, spent and a little bit bloodied, not from bullets and bayonets but from failed urban renewal policy and mortgage redlining. Still, even then one could feel a certain underlying pride in the street, a sturdiness in the best American tradition, which would allow it to muster victory from apparent defeat and an extraordinary rebirth from overwhelming oppression.
In Charlestown, houses don't so much have addresses as they have names. Our
mission as we saw it, with the help of Dan, Heather and the This Old House team, was to help the Doherty House become the Beliveau House. Oddly enough the Dohertys themselves had laid the groundwork for our preservation and restoration effort. During their long tenure, they kept the house warm and dry and steadfastly resisted the trend to modernize homes with dropped acoustical
ceilings and photographic plywood walls. Despite some 1960s "improvements" that
include cladding the mansard roof in white three-tab shingles and installing
de rigeur hot pink bathroom tile, the house is essentially original and intact. The major exceptions are the rear kitchen wings, which had been modernized every 20 or 30 years since its construction. They now contain metal kitchen cabinets and a "Bengal Tiger" gas-on-gas stove. But the house's beautiful stained woodwork and ornamental plaster still define its good, square rooms.
In our preservation meetings with Dan, Heather and the This Old House crew, all agreed that brick would be repointed, the chimneys rebuilt, the mansard and cornice restored to its original design and the aluminum-doored vestibule opened up once more to reveal the original paired mahogany doors. Plaster, mouldings and the original stairs would be skillfully returned to past glory. We vigorously debated Dan's request for new shutters. Generally they are thought to be inappropriate for this style of house. However, he convinced us by finding the remnants of old shutter hardware in the exterior window trim. From there, we moved on to designing in the actual rooms not with pencil and paper but with large markers and 2x4's. As the Beliveaus walked through the house making important design choices, you could feel that transformation had begun.
However, in order to complete the transformation, we will need variances for the third floor bath, the roof deck and larger bedrooms on the ground floor. This is both a legal and community process. In order to get approval from the Boston Zoning Board you must win the support of your neighbors. And so we entered the civic phase of the project. As both architects and long-term residents of Charlestown we helped the Beliveaus pick a date for a neighborhood meeting to discuss the zoning issues, coordinated this with city agencies, created a flyer and invited neighbors to attend. We prepared drawings of the latest plans and helped set up the living room for the neighborhood review. Ordinarily, we ? the project's architects ? would give the presentation, but the night belonged to Dan and Heather as they discussed the plans for the house, why they needed the
variances and their hopes of becoming part of the Charlestown community. Their neighbors responded positively to their request for support and somewhere in the discussion, the Doherty House became the Beliveau House.
As architects the majority of our projects are large and complex. But here on Bunker Hill Street, our task is simple and enjoyable: to help a family embrace a house, a neighborhood embrace a family and a street embrace its history. So we look forward to next Bunker Hill Day and the parade that commemorates the great battle. As the parade winds up Bunker Hill Street we hope to stand in the shadow of this proud and restored house, its bright work gleaming and its chimneys
straight and tall, and salute Charlestown and its people as the Beliveau house takes its newfound place in the long and varied history of Bunker Hill Street.