This Back Bay Beauty Is Not Quite As Proper As You Might Expect

In the handsomely historic foyer of this Back Bay home, a marble bench from KGBL offers a hint of the irreverently realized rooms beyond.

In the handsomely historic foyer of this Back Bay home, a marble bench from KGBL offers a hint of the irreverently realized rooms beyond.

A sense of proportion – as admirable as it may be – is not always the most exciting attribute. But when a singular sense is proportionately demonstrated, the result can be unexpectedly satisfying. Matthew Woodward and Jennifer Clapp of Hacin+Associates didn’t exactly reference the usual sources when they fashioned the interiors of a classic townhouse in Boston’s Back Bay. And while they did respect the home’s period architecture – revived and recontextualized by architect David Hacin – they did not go old-school Boston Brahmin either.

“We were inspired by Wes Anderson,” shares Jennifer Clapp. Anderson, director of numerous films such as “The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001) and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (2014), traffics in the uncanny and the whimsical, with stories and settings that twist the ordinary into something strange, the familiar into something unexpected. “Our clients wanted a magical space; they didn’t want to feel like they were living in their grandparents’ house. There had to be a sense of irreverence.”

Irreverence, not mere cheekiness, pervades the home’s public spaces. But it goes deeper than that. A useful bit of hardware – the coat hook – takes on an over-the-top aspect when dozens are strung across the walls of a small anteroom off the foyer. Ushered beyond simple functionality (and certainly not your standard decorative detail), these assume a new and odd identity as multiples. But in embracing the unexpected, the designers aren’t so much about shock as they are surprise and surrender. Here, the seemingly out-of-place slowly makes sense – even if you’d be hard-pressed to say why, exactly. While the fender around the sitting-room fireplace speaks to what Woodward calls a ‘Dapper Gent’ thread in the design strategy, there’s something marvelously unsettling about the large format wallpaper that engulfs the room. A landscape motif may well have covered these walls in the home’s early years, but the scale of this forest primeval pattern – in a decidedly unnatural grisaille palette – makes for a kind of through-the-looking-glass experience. At the same time, it offers a more than reasonable justification for the stuffed fox that pokes its nose from a corner of the room.

The wallpaper was also, notes Clapp, an effort to come to terms with the generous proportions of this high-ceilinged space. Although such commodious rooms can induce serious envy, it takes finesse to make them completely comfortable. “We talk about scale all the time and the scale of this pattern was a way for us to help the room feel full,” she explains. Two seven-foot-long coffee tables made from book-matched pearlwood did their bit, too. In the equally spacious dining room, a different but equally energizing dynamic is at play. The walls are dressed traditionally with a silk covering that art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner might have chosen when she resided in the neighborhood long ago; and houseplants populate the big and sunny bay window. But the massive marble dining table (like a monolith laid to rest) and the ghostly lighting fixtures that dangle above – like salvage from Miss Havisham’s Satis House – create a momentary disconnect.

In refreshing the structure itself, Hacin combined an appreciative reading of the past with a sure understanding of how a couple might live reasonably in a six-story townhouse today. “These houses have a formal front room and formal back room, a pattern that repeats on each floor,” notes Hacin, “and living in them can mean there are floors you never go to. We worked very hard to make sure that you wanted to move through and around the house by the way it was programmed.” What’s more, to orchestrate the house for the here-and-now, Hacin gradually contemporized the spaces, with the traditional formality of the lower floors giving way to a more relaxed functionality at the top of the house. “The top two floors are almost like an apartment within the house,” observes Woodward. “The homeowners can live in those two levels and not feel overwhelmed by the scale of the house when it’s just them.” Maybe. But how to resist the call of the wild right downstairs?

Photography by Michael Stavaridis.

For more like this Back Bay home, be sure to take a look at how Tim Button reinvented this eclectic Boston townhouse.

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