The Newton House
A conversion of 1886 Bigelow Homestead, designed by noted American architect H. H. Richardson, into condominiums in Newton, Massachusetts.
In the housing crunch in the early 1980s, single-family homes were
snatched up so quickly-and at such prohibitive prices-that developers
began to look for alternative forms of housing, transforming triple-deckers, downtown brownstones and even old factories into condominiums. This Old House joined the fray when it stepped in to rescue the long-neglected and often-vandalized Bigelow House, a sprawling historic mansion in Newton, Massachusetts.
Designed by famed Victorian architect Henry Hobson Richardson as a summer house for Dr. Henry Jacobs Bigelow in 1886, the large, rambling Shingle-Style house commands a magnificent view of the surrounding countryside. The property, which fell into disrepair when it was abandoned in 1973, found new life as a set of five condominiums with extensive grounds and a sunny interior courtyard. In addition to the main house, the This Old House crew converted a woodshed, ice
house, stable and barns from storage and haylofts into livable
condominium units with modern amenities. Details like eyebrow windows, hayloft windows and a cupola remained constant reminders of the historic building's past, as modern amenities such as central heat, electricity and telephone service arrived at the house for the first time. Because the house was designed for summer use, the crew also added blown-in cellulose and rigid polystyrene insulation, storm windows and energy-efficient heating and cooling systems, including solar collectors and wood stoves.
The house's 144 windows presented one of the greatest restoration challenges. Richardson designed a great variety of both very large and
very small windows. Normally, this effect might be jarring, but he proportioned them carefully to give the mansion an overarching symmetry. However, the windows' condition was as wildly divergent as their size. The crew salvaged many but still more had to be replaced with carefully matched historical replicas. The addition of interior storm windows that fit together tongue-in-groove-style made the house more energy-efficient
without disturbing its historic exterior.
The rest of the house's facade was carefully re-shingled in white cedar
so that the roof and side walls blended into a seamless whole. The
Shingle Style celebrates the grandeur of buildings, masking their
construction and keeping decoration subtle and restrained. The few evident flourishes, like the main house's turret, required a bit of
innovative thinking. While the original craftsmen would have scored the
shingles with small razor cuts called kerfs and bent them around the spire, this tactic wasn't practical for wider, modern shingles. Instead,
the crew soaked the white cedar shingles in water so they could be
easily bent around the turret's circular framework.
With new white cedar shingles replacing the asphalt shingle roof, the exterior of the house regained its original unified look, enhanced by a
new landscape plan. Relandscaping included building a new garage for the five units, a guest parking lot and a driveway to accommodate the
homestead's host of new residents, as well as extensive cutting and
pruning to rid the surrounding hill of dead trees and brush that encroached during the long period of neglect. Landscape architect Tom
Wirth also created a private yard space for the unit owners to enjoy, as
well as a brick interior courtyard where residents could mingle and
enjoy flowering trees and shrubs. A new deck surrounding the house
completed its transformation from a neglected 19th-century dinosaur into
livable, modern condominiums that glory in their storied past.