Listening to the house: A Keswick renovation aims for seamless style

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Before the renovation, says homeowner Peter Thomas, "The kitchen and bathrooms were small, outdated—a disaster." Photo: Stephen Barling Before the renovation, says homeowner Peter Thomas, "The kitchen and bathrooms were small, outdated—a disaster." Photo: Stephen Barling

The charm of many old houses is found in similar places—old-fashioned doorknobs, homey fireplaces and gracious entryways. It’s much rarer to fall in love with an aging bathroom or kitchen. When Peter Thomas bought a house in Keswick, built in 1953, he found much to appreciate, but the kitchen and bathrooms were not in the plus column.

“What attracted me to the house was the beauty of the property,” he says. The nearly 26-acre lot has bucolic views and mature trees, and the brick house is tucked into a quiet, level spot. Architect Andres Martinez says there was already plenty to admire about its design.

“The entrance is really amazing,” he says—a sheltered porch and a front door from which one can see all the way through the back of the house. From the foyer, an arched doorway and two steps lead down to a sunken living room.

Yet there were problems, too. “The kitchen and bathrooms were small, outdated,” says Thomas; “ a disaster.” All these rooms were too narrow and the kitchen, in particular, lacked a good connection to the rest of the house. “There was not a dining room per se,” says Martinez. Instead, the little nook designated for a dining table was accessed via a narrow doorway and two steps.

Meanwhile, the second floor could only be reached by climbing a stairwell too narrow for current codes.

Updating the house, then, was truly a matter of reimagining it from a 21st-century perspective. Yet even as he planned sweeping changes to bring the house’s layout up to date, Martinez, like Thomas, wanted to honor the style of what had been here all along.

“We listened to what the house needed,” Martinez says. White oak flooring, for example, was a real asset, but where old vinyl flooring needed to come out, new oak would have to be added. The details of trim and exterior materials remained consistent to the point of being seamless.

A small addition off the master suite, for example, blends perfectly with the exterior of the original structure. The new square footage allowed both bedroom and bathroom to gain considerable space, and the suite now includes a generous closet.

Martinez says the bedroom now has better proportions. “It had a scale that was small for the fireplace that was here,” he says. Certainly the bath, with its rough-textured stone backsplash tile and other natural materials, feels up-to-date compared with the pink-hued bathroom that was here before. Yet the original detailing around the fireplace also grounds the master suite in its past.

In the kitchen, the heart of the house and of the renovation, contemporary norms demanded that dining space, continuous with the cooking zone, would take over space that had previously been devoted to a second bedroom. Martinez specified that a large central island would sit where a wall once marked the limit of the kitchen. Now, there is ample room for guests and family to gather around the island, cook, visit, and then migrate easily to the formal dining table at the other end of the space.

In an example of “listening to the house,” Martinez left in place the ceiling beams that had been part of those old walls. That was partly practical—removing them would have been an expensive challenge—but serves an aesthetic purpose, too. “It’s a memory of what was there before,” he says; without them, the room would be “more warehousey.” As it is, the beams cross the ceiling above the kitchen island and make the seating there—the island has room for stools on both sides—more intimate.

Local soapstone countertops, white cabinets and a modern stainless-steel range hood set a clean tone for the kitchen design. Brass pendant lights over the island add an unexpected accent.

Upstairs, now accessed by a more generous stairwell, a cavernous space has been thoughtfully more judiciously divided to create, in effect, a second master suite. The new bathroom features a freestanding tub tucked against a window dormer, plus a glass shower stall and herringbone floor tile.

“I think the house is simple but very elegant,” says Martinez. Thomas says the renovation more than met his goals: “to bring it back to life, to update it without losing the character of the original design.”

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