Few architectural features add character and grandeur to a room like a cathedral ceiling. Sometimes called the “fifth wall,” ceilings represent an important opportunity to express creative architectural design and to emphasize a home’s style and theme.
The height and shape of a ceiling have the power to change a room’s atmosphere and positively impact the overall aesthetic. Because of its raised position, ceilings are among the first things we sense upon entering a room: our eyes are drawn upward as we subconsciously calculate if the space feels open and airy or restrictive and closed.
Cathedral ceilings are sometimes confused with vaulted ceilings, but each has its own distinct design pitch. Cathedral ceilings typically feature straight sides, designed to slope upward at the same angle as the roofline, allowing the room to open up to the highest possible point. Vaulted ceilings, on the other hand, are traditionally curved or domed and do not necessarily follow the roof pitch.
Cathedral ceilings have the capacity to make a space visually larger and airier, and because additional windows often accompany higher ceilings, the room receives more natural lighting. Extra yearlong lighting – particularly here in New England – is always welcome, whether in the kitchen, living room, or bedroom.
To recall the craft and quality of historic homes, we often use reclaimed beams or antique wood when designing our client’s ceilings. Cathedral ceilings offer an excellent opportunity to emphasize beam features and create warmth and rustic character within the home.
While cathedral ceilings increase the visual look and feel of a room, the space can still be designed with intimacy and elegance in mind. Beadboard walls, which lead to a trussed ceiling, for example, create a room that is both grand and intimate.
Cathedral ceilings are an important design element used to create architectural impact within a room, create an added sense of space, and effectively emphasize the home’s aesthetic tone and style.
Well-designed stairways represent an ideal marriage of form and function. While their primary job is to provide vertical transitions from different floors or levels, they can also make an impactful visual statement within the home.
For centuries, architects have used stairways as a way to express detail and spatial experience. In 1523, Michelangelo’s design for the steps in Florence’s Laurential Library broke the existing rules of classical proportion. By creating curved steps, which “appeared to pour down,” the artist “intentionally played with tradition,” creating lasting, visual impact.
When designing our client’s stairways, we first consider the home’s architectural style. Based on that theme, we then decide the appropriate visual statement to make. For example, if we are designing a primary, formal staircase in the entryway of a home, we often choose highly detailed newel posts and curvilinear balusters. The staircase and handrail will communicate a discernible presence with rich details the homeowner can see, touch, and feel.
In this formal setting, we may also design the staircase with lower risers and deeper steps, offering a more gradual and elegant way to traverse up or down the stairway.
While some staircases are grand features within the house, not all are meant to be statement pieces. We often design stairways that are not visible from the front door and are independent from the main reception area, which ensures the stairway will not compete with the natural “spine” we create through the house. As described in our earlier blog, the foyer serves as the start of the spine, off which the home’s primary spaces evolve.
Sometimes we design staircases that, while classic, are deliberately understated. They may be a secondary stairway joining two floors, or a hidden, private set of stairs, used primarily by the homeowner. The stairs may also become whimsical, reflecting a particular theme or area of the home.
Whether sculptural and grand or classically understated, the stairway is an important feature in every house providing access between floors, a transition between private and public spaces, and a discernible expression of the home’s architectural character.
Here in New England, the month of October brings brilliant fall foliage and shorter, crisper days. It is the time of year when we layer sweaters, watch football and appreciate all things autumn. While many of our clients welcome this seasonal change, they are not quite ready to give up their outdoor living spaces. This is when a three-season room is a wonderful option.
The three-season room, sometimes called a sunroom or solarium (Latin for “place of sunlight”), is typically enclosed in glass and provides homeowners with an immediate visual connection to the outdoors. The use of large window areas helps optimize the amount of natural light filling the room – providing a marvelous “outdoor” aesthetic. As the days get shorter, this access to light is especially appreciated.
We often design our three-season rooms with screened-in windows that can be replaced with storm panels as the seasons change. This offers homeowners a space with great versatility: in warmer months, the summer air can circulate, and when temperatures dip, the windows protect from elements like wind and rain.
While not fully heated like a year-round room, we often design our sunrooms to include radiant heat and a fireplace, which adds ambiance while entertaining or gathering on a cool fall night. The cozy space offers a connection with nature without leaving the house.
Sometimes, a client will request that we transition a three-season room into a year-round room. In this case, we will use permanent casement windows (which can open out 90% in summer months) surrounded by beaded board or wainscoting to give the sense the porch was enclosed over time.
As the days get cooler and shorter, we appreciate the wonderful versatility of a three-season room, which affords homeowners with extra sunlight, protection from the elements and effortlessly extends the outdoor living season.
Pantries help keep our kitchens clutter-free and provide a pleasing sense of order by consolidating food items, appliances and even cookware in one accessible location. With thoughtfully integrated architectural elements, a well-designed pantry is the ideal combination of style and functionality.
Originally, a home’s storage pantry was a utilitarian workhorse that often went undecorated – and unheated. In the second half of the 18th century, when large dinner parties became popular, the pantry (or butler’s pantry) evolved as a place between the kitchen and dining room where food could be organized before serving, and tableware could be washed and stored. It was considered a “buffer area” between public and private viewing space.
Today, pantries are increasingly popular with our clients, and we design them as integral transition spaces between adjacent rooms. Once referred to a “domestic service area,” they no longer reside behind-the-scenes: pantries are now often seen – and used – by homeowners and guests alike.
To create a cohesive flow, we design our pantries to progress naturally from surrounding rooms. By incorporating cabinetry, shelving, and architectural finishes from the kitchen and dining areas, the pantry becomes a seamless, integrated space, rather than a hidden or closed-off room.
While storage is the centerpiece for all pantries, many serve double duty as a bar or additional prep space. To enhance flexibility and functionality, we design our pantries with ample counter space for kitchen prep and often include a wet bar (farmer’s sink) and wine cooler for easy socializing.
Whether strategically positioned between the kitchen and dining room, or designed as an elegant side nook, a pantry provides valuable ancillary storage space for homeowners. By integrating architecture elements, finishes and flooring from adjoining rooms, the pantry becomes an integral part of its surroundings while maintaining its essential organizational role.
Last week we discussed the important role mudrooms play as the side entrance and “drop spot” for homeowners’ outerwear, bags, and sports equipment. This week we will focus on the home’s main entrance and how a well-designed entry foyer immediately impacts the tone and character and of a house.
Unlike a casual mudroom, a foyer represents the more elegant transition from outside to inside and provides a resting place for guests to orient themselves before entering the home’s main rooms.
As described in our book, Timeless, we often design new homes or reorganize the interiors of historic homes along a spine (or series of spines) within the house. The foyer represents the start of that dominant spine and is where the home’s primary spaces unfold.
The foyer is, in a sense, the storyteller of what is to come in the house. Because they are located off the main entrance (and typically do not have a door to obstruct the view), foyers provide guests with a visual cue for the rest of the home. We design them as a special space that continues through the house with shaped ceilings, sconces, built-in cabinetry, and bookcases. They are a place where guests can linger and experience artwork, textures, and architectural details.
Because entry foyers are located off the main entrance of the home, they are more likely to be seen and used by guests. A well-designed foyer is where the home’s visual journey unfolds – providing guests with a preview of what is to come.
September signals the end to summer and a time when many of us transition back to our indoor living spaces. Whether that means streamlining back-to-school living or simply refocusing on the home, many people are thinking of ways to help improve household organization. One solution is a well-designed mudroom which offers an organizational passage space between the outdoors and indoors and can help solve clutter problems for any size household.
Mudrooms have become increasingly popular in recent decades, and while some still serve as small, “unofficial” entryways, others are now large, carefully choreographed storage rooms with added space for a washer and dryer and an adjacent powder room.
Efficient mudrooms have one thing in common: smart storage. For our clients with children, that means having accessible hooks to hang jackets, cubbies with storage bins, and lockers for sports gear and backpacks. We often design mudrooms with multiple entries – including the garage, back yard, and the street – creating convenient access for kids to enter and remove wet clothes and shoes no matter what direction they’re coming in from.
As the “drop spot” to store anything that might otherwise add clutter in the house, the mudroom serves a key organizational role. However, that does not mean smaller mudrooms are less functional. For some clients with grown children, a transitional entry with a classic bench to remove shoes along with some handy storage hooks is the perfect solution.
Well-designed mudrooms provide an essential transition area to expand our clients’ storage options and make life bit more organized. Whether storing general outwear, cold weather accessories, or a stash of summer beach towels, this is the mighty space many of us can’t live without.
The romantic widow’s walk is a classic adornment of many nineteenth-century coastal homes throughout New England. Historians note that widow’s walks became popular during the early 1800s when sea captains built large, private homes from the fortunes they amassed in the whaling and shipping industries. Inspired by the cupolas of Italianate architecture, the design addition soon became synonymous with New England coastal architecture and remains so today.
The widow’s walk (or “viewing platform,” as it was sometimes called) is a raised and fenced rectangular structure built on the roof of a house. These platforms became especially popular during the height of the whaling industry throughout New England ports such as Edgartown on the island of Martha’s Vineyard.
With its deep and protected harbor, Edgartown became the whaling capital of the island sending “countless sailors all over the world from its port.” These sailors were often at sea for months and years at a time. It is said the widow’s walk served as an elevated vantage point for seamen’s wives to survey the harbor for their husbands’ arrival. Sadly, many never returned, leaving their anxious wives widows.
The widow’s walk conjures a nostalgic, poetic image where women paced, watched, and mourned their missing husbands at sea. However, some historians believe this idea may be rooted more in folklore than reality. They maintain that widow’s walks were designed with a practical and decidedly less romantic purpose in mind: firefighting. Chimney fires were a common and dangerous reality in the 1800s when homes were heated primarily by wood. Families would often store buckets of sand (and sometimes water) to pour down the chimney in case of fire – and the widow’s walk provided an access platform to the chimney openings.
There exists a third school of thought, which states there was a less practical reason these structures became so popular. The argument goes that wealthy sea captains believed the viewing platforms were an emotionally satisfying feature to have on their homes. They symbolized wealth and quietly said, “I can admire the source of my fortune (the sea) and survey my ships coming and going from the comfort of my home.”
There likely wasn’t one single purpose for widow’s walks; it appears they served different functions and ornamentation depending on the homeowner. However, today, many of our homes continue to include this classic coastal detail, which honors the romance and history of New England’s vernacular architecture and instills a historically correct sense of nostalgia.
This week marks the 43rd anniversary of the grand reopening of Boston’s historic Faneuil Hall Marketplace. As a young architect, Patrick had the privilege of being part of the lead design team at Benjamin Thompson Associates who helped transform and revitalize the building from a disused shell into a festival urban marketplace that today attracts over 18 million yearly visitors. As described in our book, Timeless, the lessons learned while working on Faneuil Hall had an influential and lasting impact on Patrick’s overall design philosophy throughout his career.
Originally built in 1742, Faneuil Hall was gifted to the city by Boston’s wealthiest merchant, Peter Faneuil, who felt the city was in need of a public meetinghouse. The building provided a platform for public speech, including several by Samuel Adams and James Otis who supported America’s independence from Great Britain. Further enhancing its historical significance, it was the site where American colonists established the doctrine “no taxation without representation.”
While Faneuil Hall served as a robust, public meetinghouse, it was also home to meat and produce salesmen, along with fishermen and other merchants. In 1826, the area was expanded to include Quincy Market to accommodate increased public demand.
The building continued as a vital and vibrant destination throughout the 1800s but fell into marked disrepair in the mid-1900s. Somewhat abandoned, the once-thriving space was set to be demolished until in the early 1970s a passionate group of Bostonians united with a plan to preserve and restore the marketplace.
Through the vision of the Rouse Company (the designated developer), Boston Mayor Kevin White (who secured bank financing), and architectural firm Benjamin Thompson, the centuries-old building would not just be saved, it would be reinvented.
This was a pioneering moment in terms of urban revitalization. While working on Benjamin Thompson’s lead design team, Patrick created a project “script” which weaved together a story of past and present. Long before computer drawings, he hand drew the animated streetscapes and cobblestone walkways, then blew them up to present to developers and city stakeholders as large wallpaper “experiences.” The design team created multimedia slide shows with aspirational images of kids on bikes, food stalls and flower vendors to demonstrate how the space could be an active urban marketplace with yearlong cultural, retail and culinary experiences. Their firm won the project and ultimately helped change the face of downtown Boston.
The lessons of that design experience are vast and continue to influence Patrick’s approach to work today. He learned that creating a script for a project proved one of the most important and effective ways to remake a building. Today, whether preserving a historic home or re-imagining a classically inspired new build, developing a meaningful narrative concept remains an essential step in his design process.
Another lasting lesson is recognizing and appreciating that the spaces between and around buildings are as important as the buildings themselves. In the case of Faneuil Hall, the buildings became the backdrop to animated cobblestone streetscapes and the garage-style doors on the sides of the building – raised in the warmer months – helped create a seamless transition from indoors to outdoors. This influenced the value he continues to place on creating easy alfresco living options for homeowners today.
Patrick’s work on Faneuil Hall significantly influenced his overall modern approach to space and building design. Creating a “spine” within a building offers both organizational structure and design fluidity. Designing interiors off of a central axis helps create an open and usable flow by connecting the rooms of a house from front to back or side to side. Not to be confused with hallways, these spines are “more like galleries, filled with life and art and meant to be enjoyed.” They are designed to pull you through the house with interesting views that entice exploration and – like Faneuil Hall – deliver an experience.
Today, Faneuil Hall Marketplace, which won the Twenty-five Year AIA Award and stands as a U.S. National Landmark, is often described as “the home of free speech.” We celebrate the anniversary of its iconic, grand reopening with great appreciation for the design lessons it provided – and we wish it a glorious 43rd re-birthday.
A Sneak Peak: Weekends with Yankee films with Patrick Ahearn
In historic Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard
We recently had the pleasure of filming an episode of Weekends with Yankee in Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard. Weekends with Yankee, a collaboration of the public media powerhouse WGBH and Yankee Magazine, asked us to highlight some of the town’s hidden, historic gems with their Public Television audience – and we were delighted to do so. Today we’ll share some of the day’s filming highlights and provide a preview of what’s to come this spring.
We met the WGBH crew bright and early at one of the Edgartown’s most historic residences, blacksmith John Coffin’s House, which was built on the town harbor in 1682. The current homeowners (who refer to themselves as stewards, not owners) were generous enough to share their morning with us describing our careful and collaborative restoration of the main house and reimagining of the additional outbuildings – all inspired by archival research. A stunning home in Edgartown’s historic district, the John Coffin house is truly an island gem.
Next, we toured Edgartown’s historic Carnegie building with Vineyard Trust president and CEO Funi Burdick who described the building’s important role representing and communicating the work of the Trust. Many do not realize that the Trust owns, preserves and operates 20 historic island landmarks, “restoring living institutions to their rightful place in island life.” The Carnegie is among the most treasured landmarks in town and represents an important and historically significant restoration project for us.
After a lively lunch at Rosewater, we walked down South Summer Street to film with Jane Seagrave, the publisher of The Vineyard Gazette and Martha’s Vineyard Magazine. Founded in 1846, The Gazette resides in the heart of the residential historic district – and literally lives and breaths beside its island neighbors. Ms. Seagrave discussed what it means to work with this historic newspaper, housed within one of Vineyard Trust’s historic properties, and she even ran the paper’s 150 year old press for us during the shoot.
The final part of our day was spent shooting at one of our first design commissions in Edgartown – a classically inspired new build that the homeowners graciously opened up to us. To make newly built houses feel authentic, we create a script that explains the design in historically accurate terms. We were all delighted when the crew asked about this “beautiful renovation” because, as intended, they had no idea it was not centuries old.
Sharing some of Edgartown’s historic gems with the crew of Weekends with Yankee was indeed a great pleasure. They were a delight to work with and we look forward to seeing this special episode next spring. Stayed tuned for air dates!
Summer is the time for alfresco entertaining and is the season we use our outdoor living space to its fullest. Whether it’s a large affair on the grill or a small, informal gathering, there is a special ease to outdoor entertaining that we treasure during these fleeting months of summer.
We frequently discuss the importance of easy indoor-outdoor living with our clients and detail various design solutions in our book, Timeless. Many of our clients want homes that feel intimate, yet are ready to entertain large groups year-round – especially in the summertime.
Creating an easy transition from indoors to out makes alfresco entertaining seamless for homeowners. We regularly activate ground floors by connecting them directly to the home’s outdoor living spaces. A first-floor room may open directly to a covered porch which transitions effortlessly to a pool terrace – becoming an outdoor dining room of its own.
Depending on the program, we often create layers of outdoor spaces that offer homeowners lively, multifunctional gathering options. Sometimes that means designing an outdoor kitchen and fireplace alongside a large dining area, while also creating more intimate, hidden seating spaces to enjoy with smaller groups.
Some of our clients wish to integrate lawn games into their outdoor entertaining repertoire. In such cases, we like to create an easy connection between the lawn area and the grilling, beverage, and dining spaces.
When summer evening temperatures drop, that does not mean that outdoor entertaining must come to an end. Warm and inviting flames from an outdoor fireplace (or fire pit) offer a wonderful place to congregate. Homeowners can encourage guests to linger by bringing blankets outside or toasting marshmallows over the fire. Candlelit tables and outdoor lighting also enhance the inviting ambiance.
Well-designed outdoor entertaining areas can be as comfortable and inviting as their indoor counterparts. With layered spaces and easy access to grilling and entertaining, outdoor living areas provide boundless opportunities for alfresco fun.