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Long Time Coming: Inside the West Roxbury Victorian Project

After nine years of dreaming, designing —and squirreling away savings—the owners of this 1894 Victorian finally give it the functional upgrades it needed and the updates they longed for.

West Roxbury Victorian dining room and kitchen
The new open floor plan emphasizes 9-foot ceilings, expansive sight lines, and blended styles, with modern kitchen cabinetry on view along with original trim in the dining room.
Erin Little

This article appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of This Old House Magazine. Click here to learn how to subscribe.

From the moment we stepped into this house, I was redesigning everything,” says architect Derek Rubinoff, who, along with his wife, Robyn Marder, loved their home’s Victorian character but knew the house needed an overhaul. Its history as a two-family home had left behind some significant layout dysfunctions, including a bare-bones kitchen with its sink in the pantry and unattached lower and upper cabinets sitting on the floor.

Family outside of their Victorian home
Homeowners Derek Rubinoff and Robyn Marder, with teens Zach and Aria, on the front porch, where cable rail makes an updated balustrade.
Erin Little

On the second floor was another kitchen and a dining area where bedrooms should have been, and a glass-paneled wood door connected the couple’s bedroom with their daughter’s. But between raising two kids, then 8 and 5, working full-time jobs—Robyn teaches high school English—and no available capital after buying the house, the couple could only dream and make do with the place as it was.

That all changed last fall, when the exterior’s peeling paint couldn’t be ignored any longer. On close inspection, rotting fascia, soffits, and siding came to light, which put new clapboards, trim, and house wrap on the agenda, which in turn highlighted the need for new windows. Derek and Robyn realized that the time to give the house what it—and they—needed had arrived.

Kitchen and entryway of Victorian house
LEFT: Matte-black cabinets frame an inset row of natural-wood units along the cooktop wall, where a door concealed to the guest room. Black-quartz counter- tops and backsplashes add to the dramatic look; the island’s white-quartz waterfall-edge countertop adds contrast. RIGHT: The entry’s original features include the paneled front door, unpainted staircase and trim, and stained glass window, all now refurbished for many more decades of service.
Erin Little

“I can’t believe we actually did it,” Robyn says eight months later, the family now settled back into their modernized forever home. “I have an amazing kitchen and so many improvements everywhere,” she says, marveling at the renovation work done by builder Deliandro Dias and his crew.

“Best of all, we did it while keeping the house’s original Victorian elements,” she adds. Lending a hand every step of the way was the team from This Old House, which documented the project as part of its 43rd television season.

Dining room and living room of Victorian house
The opening from the dining room to the living room was widened, providing sight lines through the first floor, from the kitchen island to the living room’s front windows. The ceiling and the sides of the soffits concealing ductwork were painted to give the dining room definition. The diamond-pane windows are original; all other windows were replaced.
Erin Little

As with many old houses, there were obstacles both known and unknown. “These old houses present many challenges because floors are uneven or you find surprises once you get into the walls,” says Dias. Addressing the water-damaged exterior meant removing rotting clapboards, renailing the sheathing, and replacing deteriorated rosin paper with modern house wrap. Fiber-cement clapboards, PVC trim, and high-performance windows put a fresh face on the house and help make it weathertight.

Returning the house to a single-family home meant resolving layout issues on both the first and second floors, which had been separate dwellings. On the main floor, the kitchen design drove the changes. Robyn and Derek were united in wanting a modern, European-style kitchen with sleek frameless cabinets and built-in appliances.

Living room of Victorian house
The living room’s original features include window casings, 9-inch baseboards, red oak flooring, and a French door to the entry foyer. The neutral color scheme includes two shades of gray.
Erin Little

An open-plan layout was the best route to achieving the larger kitchen and better traffic flow they were after. Removing load-bearing walls opened up the kitchen to the dining room, and installing perpendicular laminated veneer lumber (LVL) beams provided the needed support. Closing up a doorway from the kitchen to a back guest bedroom created space for an L-shaped run of floor-to-ceiling kitchen cabinets. Demolishing the old pantry allowed for adding a full bath to serve the first floor, as well as guests.

Working with kitchen designer Marissa Perez, Derek and Robyn chose matte-black cabinets, with an inset row of shallower natural-wood units that wrap the cooktop and sink walls. “The upper black cabinets create an architectural frame around the inset cabinets,” says Derek. The light-dark contrast is magnified by black-quartz countertops and backsplashes that highlight the angular, modern vent hood. Another wall of cabinets across from the sink holds a massive built-in refrigerator-freezer and double wall ovens. A 7-by-3-foot island holds more appliances and offers stool seating.

Breakfast nook in Victorian house
A sunny breakfast nook off the kitchen went in after the back staircase came out and the new rear entry was added.
Erin Little

The first-floor spaces, while open to one another, are still clearly defined, each with its own personality. The dining room still showcases the soul of the original Victorian house, with its stained-wood moldings—the rest of the rooms have white-painted casings and moldings—and diamond-pane windows with aged-gumwood casings. For a cohesive look, Derek and Robyn wanted the trim on the new dining room windows to be stained to match the existing gumwood trim.

TOH painter Mauro Henrique assisted Alexsandro Cruz and his team in creating a patinated look by wiping on a 3-to-1 solution of stain and paint thinner. Then they went over it with a chip brush; once dry, they gave the surfaces a light sanding and a coat of wax. The dining room’s new LVL carrying beams help to set off the space, as do the dark-gray walls. Dias suggested going even bolder by painting the ceiling dark as well.

Adding another Victorian touch, he and This Old House general contractor Tom Silva installed new crown molding matching the original profile and using a combination of mitering and coping techniques to make the trim fit properly. “The corners aren’t always 90 degrees in an old house,” says Tom.

Office in Victorian house
The first-floor guest bedroom doubles as a home office; its ample windows provide a view of trees in this urban neighborhood. The homeowners chose a palette of cool, neutral grays and whites for the entire house.
Erin Little

Removing a little-used, space-hogging back staircase freed up the needed area to improve the second floor. An original feature of the 1894 house, it continued to be useful when the structure was converted to a two-family home. But excising it was key to giving Robyn and Derek a true primary suite with room for a private bath, complete with a spacious shower, a soaking tub, and a double vanity, as well as a walk-in closet.

The renovation also improved the teenagers’ upstairs bedrooms. To give son Zach a bedroom closet, Dias’s crew took space from the hall bath, and to give daughter Aria’s bedroom privacy, they closed up a door to Robyn and Derek’s room.

The renovation also increased the homeowners’ indoor comfort with HVAC upgrades that combined existing and new systems. “We kept what we could here because budget was important,” says TOH plumbing and heating expert Richard Trethewey.

While the gas furnace that serves the first and second floors was still functional and efficient, adding a heat pump coil tied to a cold-weather inverter condenser outside will provide additional heating and all the air-conditioning. A separate pump will supply heating and cooling to the previously unconditioned third-floor space, which will function as a teen hangout.

Throughout, new paint in shades of cool gray and white, with darker-gray accent walls, gives the refurbished interior a clean, fresh look. Sanded and finished with a clear coat, the original red oak floors took on a paler hue that blends with new flooring in a similar shade feathered in as needed.

Close up of bed in primary bedroom of Victorian house
In the primary bedroom, a soffit concealing ductwork creates a niche effect; the accent wall behind the headboard previously had a door to another bedroom.
Erin Little

Outdoor upgrades provide finishing touches that give the family more use of their urban lot. TOH landscape contractor Jenn Nawada and TOH mason Mark McCullough laid a herringbone brick patio in back. In front, a new brick walkway and granite steps replaced crumbling masonry.

With no budget for new landscaping, Jenn cleared overgrown beds and transplanted mature plants. “We really opened up the front of the house by moving the large rhododendrons to the backyard, where they add a lot of privacy,” says Jenn, who kept a color accent in front by replanting a red Japanese maple from the backyard.

Exterior of Victorian home
When the 1894 three-story house, located in Boston’s West Roxbury neighborhood, was built, the area around it was mostly farmland. The renovation kept the house’s simple Victorian architecture intact but updated it with modern materials, including fiber-cement siding, PVC trim, aluminum gutters with a wood-gutter profile, an ipe porch floor and ceiling, stainless steel cable rails, and dual-pane fiberglass windows.
Erin Little

Dias rebuilt the water-damaged front porch, adding a new ipe floor and ceiling and replacing the old wood balustrades with a more open cable-rail system in keeping with Derek and Robyn’s contemporary aesthetic. “It gives a modern look to a traditional porch,” says TOH host Kevin O’Connor. “It’s another good lesson that you can use new elements and keep the Victorian feel.”

For the family, the years of waiting were worth it. “We bought the house intending to renovate and convert it back to a single-family, and after the long wait, we have our dream house,” Derek says now. “I imagine these things for a living, and, wow, this is even better than I imagined it.”

Primary bathroom and closet in Victorian house
LEFT: The primary bath was created by stealing space from the hall. The open, curbless shower gets its modern look from wave-textured wall tile and sleek black plumbing fixtures. RIGHT: Derek and Tom installed a DIY-friendly closet system in the primary suite, in space once occupied by a back stairway.
Erin Little

Floor Plans

Floorplans for West Roxbury Victorian Project Ian Worpole

The existing footprint of the 2,400-square-foot house remained virtually the same, but the, renovation removed awkward remnants of a two-family conversion. The four-bedroom, three-bath home now boasts a sight line from the front, foyer to the back door. This was, made possible by reworking the existing pantry—now a full bath—removing a wall between the dining room and kitchen, and adding 26 square feet for a new back entry, a breakfast nook, and relocated access to the guest bedroom. Upstairs, removing the back stairs allowed for a primary suite. The front bedroom gained a closet with space taken from the shared bath.