An Old Home Goes Modern

A Portsmouth property gets a 2017 update
photos by greg west
A custom built-in bookcase runs alongside the three-story staircase.

It’s not an uncommon dilemma in the design world — how do you preserve the best of a historic building while updating it for modern living and contemporary aesthetics?

Gil Anderson and Winifred Amaturo weren’t daunted by that conundrum when they found their three-story, mid-19th-century brick house located in a historic section of Portsmouth. Having spent many years in New York, the couple wanted an urban lifestyle in which they could walk to Portsmouth’s many restaurants, cafés and shops. As for the building itself, they were instantly attracted to the house’s sturdy bones, brick exterior and private pocket garden. They also saw an opportunity in the adjacent small parking area — potential to build an attached garage with a spacious master suite above, the overall façade of which would complement the original building.

Regrettably, as is too often the case, time and fortune had not been kind to the structure, aesthetically speaking. Decades of commercial use had stripped much of the façade and interior of its original character and left it as a bare-bones office space. And yet, paradoxically, because of the building’s historic district location, any renovations undertaken would be under the strict scrutiny of the Portsmouth Historic District Commission. Updating the home would not be a task for the faint of heart.

Anderson and Amaturo enlisted the aid of Lisa DeStefano of DeStefano Architects to assist in making the house comfortable for residential living again.

“This project was unique for us in that we had homeowners who were extremely passionate about a high level of detail and bringing it back to its original historic grandeur,” says DeStefano. “This was a labor of love and an investment of significant time and money.”

Every square inch of the exterior — moldings, roof shingles, lighting, etc. — had to be approved by the commission, a process that took six months. A 1901 picture of the house, found in the Portsmouth archives, showed shutters and eyebrow moldings around the windows, all of which were then replicated. Where evidence of the past was lacking in the house itself, DeStefano looked to the surrounding neighborhood for cues as to what was missing.

The exterior of the home

“The approval process was very challenging,” Anderson says. “Lisa was instrumental as a guide. She knew how to manage the design process in order to get to the solutions we wanted for the house.”

The biggest initial challenge in changing the house back into a residence was its corner location. Fronting streets on two sides makes for a lot of glass windows — wonderful for light but a killer for privacy.

“When we work with clients, we always think about flow, privacy and connectivity to the outside. The downtown location of this house really forced us to think about the hierarchy of the public versus private spaces,” DeStefano notes.

Furthermore, Anderson and Amaturo had amassed a large collection of antiques during their years of European travels, as well as a significant library requiring wall space the house didn’t initially provide.

After considering various floor plan iterations, the trio decided to move the public rooms — such as the kitchen, dining room and library — to the front of the house and swap the bedrooms to the back where it was more private. The second space solution was Amaturo’s brainchild.

“As in many antique homes, the rooms of this one were small for heating purposes. Though I wanted built-in bookcases in the library, we would have lost too much square footage had we done that in every room,” says Amaturo. “But then there was this amazing, three-story staircase. I thought that tracing the stairwell with books might amplify the beauty of those curves and give me the shelves I needed.”

The unique kitchen walls mimic the look of peeling Mediterranean plaster.

Creating that bookcase was a feat of engineering. The front of the current bookcase is actually where the stairs’ load-bearing wall formerly was. Maine Coast Builders, the contractors on the project, created a new post-and-beam structure behind the original wall to support the weight of the house. This allowed for 14-inch-deep niches to store Anderson and Amaturo’s thousands of books.

“We went light and lacy with the stair banister and balusters so that you can see all the colors of the books from the ground up,” notes DeStefano. “The books themselves are the art on the staircase.” 

The interior design and exuberant color scheme were all Amaturo’s work, born mostly from her acquaintance with European antiques and architecture. The kitchen’s unique walls mimic the soft patina of peeling Mediterranean plaster — recreated in much more durable form with a mix of plaster and cement. Their color scheme of yellow, mauve and blue was taken from two colorful 17th-century Dutch tiles, which she had carried with her from kitchen to kitchen through for years.

“I’m not afraid of color,” Amaturo says. “It’s one of the cheapest mistakes you can make. And in a historic house that is likely to have smaller windows and less light, it’s a way to bring in a lot of character.”

Maine Coast Builders’ team of artisans worked diligently to bring Anderson and Amaturo’s ideas to life.

“These New Hampshire artisans executed our ideas so beautifully. There were simply amazing — incredibly talented and totally honest,” says Anderson.

“Yes, we found out later that a lot of them thought we were a little crazy with our ideas, but they were all so poker-faced during the process,” smiles Amaturo. “It seems that they usually have to work exclusively in whites and creams, and they had fun getting to play with color. However, I think they were a little worried at the same time. As the project neared completion, they started congratulating us on how wonderfully everything turned out. I think they may have been surprised how much they themselves liked it!”

The owners eschewed the more traditional tones of cream for bold colors like this vibrant red in the living room.