Taking an Architectural Tour of Harvard Square

Project: Bob's Shingle Style Home, Episode 1, Part 3



Bob gets started on the Cambridge project with architect Greg Rochlin and carpenter Bob Ryley and explores Harvard Square with architectural historian Brian Pfeiffer.

Part 1: Touring the Home Exterior
Part 2: Touring the Home Interior
Part 3: Taking an Architectural Tour of Harvard Square

Bob explores Harvard Square with architectural historian Brian Pfeiffer, vice president of Building Conservation for the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities. Pfeiffer highlights three centuries of architecture in Cambridge, MA, from the 1700s to the 20th century.

This project centers around the remodel of Bob Vila's own gracious Shingle Style home in Cambridge, MA. It's a house with a lot of history and beautiful architectural details, many of which were obliterated in remodels of the 50s and the 70s. On the centennial of the house's construction, Bob gets together the best talents in the business to recreate and renew it to its former glory, making some important modifications along the way that will transform this into a dream house for today.

Also from Bob's Shingle Style Home

Hi. I'm Bob Vila. Welcome home again.

Today we're starting a brand new project. This time a big old house. Almost a hundred-year-old shingle style house in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

And you know, after remodeling houses for the last fifteen or sixteen years for strangers who've become friends, this time, I'm doing this house for myself and my family. We're going to get started in a minute, taking a close look at the exterior. I also want to give you a look at the town of Cambridge. Stick around, it's good to have you home again.

Bob Vila's Home Again.

The architectural style of this house is shingle style, very popular in the 80s and 90s. But like any house that's almost 100 years old this house has seen some damage and it's seen some remodeling.

Much of what's on the front facade is original. We're lucky to have the beautiful windows. Eight panes of glass over two. And it's, you know, that kind of glass that really ripples when you walk by it.

And of course the shutters are still in place on many of the locations on the facade. You're looking at a gambrel end. This house has two gambrel roofs that intersect, so of course you've got gable ends that are really gambrel ends.

And some of the shingle up there looks to be a little bit damaged, but for the most part, it's in good shape.

If you look down here, the side wall flares out which is a way of shedding the weather, the rain etc. And there are spots where you'll see some damage, but I don't think this is a house that has to be totally stripped and re-shingled. I think there's a lot of repairs to done. That's about it.

The foundation is really pretty. I suspect it's a type of slate. I'm not sure what kind.

And there's been a fair amount of landscape work that's been done on the front yard, and that looks really really pretty, so we'll have to do lots to conserve it.

Look over here at this end of the house. Shingle style houses attempt to blend the roof with the sidewall so that there's no real differentiation. And here of course, it really fails because you have got so many different lines. intersecting. Perhaps they've added some of these gutters after the house was built, but you've got three conductor pipes coming straight at you.

And you also would have the electrical service, which was probably installed just in the last five or ten years from the look of it. Be nice to be able to have that underground.

At this end of the house you have another gambrel roof. And this one, this gambrel end overhangs the side wall by about two feet, and is supported at either end by a bracket that's also sheathed in shingles.

Very pretty little curve there, lets look around back. This back corner of the house has the original kitchen area and that's why at some point a deck was added here.

But look at the condition of the sidewall and the roofs over here ok, especially at the point where the second floor is, is kind of demarcated by this horizontal line which, incidentally, is the overhang and the gutter hang goes around three whole sides this house.

Quite a bit of damage, water damage and some rot is Of it and just to the naked eye. You don't have to get up there and poke at it.

You know it's in bad shape. But there's a nice sunny backyard, and there's unusual touches.

You know, clearly this is an architect's attempt at camouflaging that stone foundation for some reason, and probably done in the last ten or twenty years, it looks kind of oriental. Well, let's get together now with Greg Rockland, an architect friend of mine has already had a chance to study the place.

Hi Greg.

Hi Bob, how are you?

I'm good. What do you think of the condition of the house back here?

Well, this side of the house is in the worst condition. It's facing south and the shingles because of constantly wetting and drying and have warped and curled and probably the best thing is not to selectively replace the shingles on this side, but to strip the whole side and start again.

What about that fire escape up there?

Well, you gotta remember that after the war, a lot of these houses got broken up into apartments, and there is an apartment built on the third floor probably in the 40's, and the code required that you have a fire escape because there was only one means of egress.

Yeah.

Now that you're converting this back to a single family house.

Yeah.

You really don't need this fire escape, and it just is a dangerous point of entry for burglars.

Right, and I intend to turn that third floor back into a kind of teenager space. So, we'll get rid of that. The other unusual thing about the back of the house is this bump. You know, how do you explain this addition here?

Well, in the 70's they had a major renovation to the house where they enlarged the living room.

Uh-huh.

And so they pushed the living room to the south, almost doubled it in size, and from the inside, that's great. There's a very nice living room.

But they really didn't do anything to blend this into the outside of the house. They just took the volume and put a wall around it and put a flat roof on it, and said, that's it.

Yeah, and kept more of this camouflage wood, kind of, to give it a an architectural feel. But it's really nothing but a box with a flat roof on it, right?

That's correct.

Could it be changed somehow to blend better with the lines of the gambrel and all?

Well, if you go back and say, what would the original architects have done? They probably would have dealt with this the same way they've worked the rest of the house, and continued the belt line. So what they might have done, is taken this soffit and even wrapped it around this three sided box, and continued the roof around also as a hip, and tried to blend it into the volume of the house instead of this thing which is obviously added on.

That would be an interesting way of fixing it now, but it would probably be pretty expensive.

It might be, but it would be worth having an estimate done.

Sure.

Considering how much better it would look.

Well I think it's time to go inside. It's a little nippy out here, but first we're going to break for some messages. Don't go away. So you suspect, or you're sure, that this front porch used to go across the whole width of the house right?

Oh yes, that's the way it was originally built.

And so when they enlarged it in the 70's they closed in most of the porch and put the bump on the other side of the house.

Doubled the size of the living room.

It's got a great front hall closet, there's no doubt about that.

But you got to admit it doesn't read like an 1897 house when you walk in here.

These architectural features are straight out of the seventies.

Oh yes, it's all very clean, slick. They took out all the moldings.

Can I take your coat?

Sure.

They took out the moldings. They put in feature like the ceiling, the drop ceiling up there with the lighting.

I mean, to me, that's kind of is very commercial looking. It's not very residential at all.

And, there are all sorts of other things that just don't set right with me, like mirrors and the lack of moldings. then the lack of chair rails, no detailing at all in here.

That's right, they stripped it all out, and I think it's been part of the project here to put it back.

That floor, you know, the quarry tile floor inside the house; again it just doesn't look right for a Victorian or a shingle style, or a house of this vintage.

No, it's not something you'd find here.

And yet, the scale of the room is great. It's about 24 by 22, that's a big room.

Yes, the original room went along this wall here, which was the old outside wall. And then back this way, and this was the porch and then they had this bump-out portion here. Between the porch and the bump-out, they almost doubled the size of the room.

But that would have meant the original room had the fireplace off center, almost in the corner of the room.

That's right, and that was very characteristic of houses at this time. If you look at work that these architects have done in other houses you will see the fireplace in the corner, usually back to back with the other fireplace.

In the next room?

In the next room, at an angle.

After all, it was just a practical piece of equipment, it was heating, right?

That's right.

Now I understand the steel beam over my head here that was added in order to carry the upper floors, so we can't really do anything to change that. We need to keep this ceiling dropped 6 inches to hide that beam. But can we do anything about this lighting that goes around the whole perimeter? It looks like a, like you know, really commercial space.

Well, you might want to eliminate that. Those bulbs are incandescent. They are very expensive to replace, almost 15 dollars apiece.

Really?

Maybe you want to just continue the ceiling out to the edge, and put a crown molding in which would have been in the space and original .

That would be a great idea. Let's take a look at the den. The house is really four rooms on the ground floor. Dining room, living room, den and kitchen.

So this room is fourteen by sixteen, and again, here you've got the masonry mass on the other side and you've got the fireplace at an angle into the room.

Yes, projecting out so the heat and the appearance of the fireplace is dead center into this room.

Yeah I like it at the angle. You know the shelving in here is nice, but if somebody collects art and architecture books like I do. You really don't have any room here. They are only about nine inches deep, so that I could see redesigning this, rebuilding this.

Yeah, you'd need a shelf that's somewhere between fourteen to sixteen inches deep to handle art and architecture books.

That kind of a library, yeah. And then through here, you connect back into the front hall. You know, Greg, there's real evident different difference in the flooring material here, isn't there?

Yes, this is original floor which is hard pine.

In the dining room.

In the dining room. And then when they, major changes was done to the house in the 70s, they redid the hall and the living room in strip oak.

Mm-hmm. Well, the room, the dining room again, it's not a big room, but it's got this interesting plan really, where again, the same kind of angled placement of the fireplace, which is balanced on this side. Have you look closely at this hutch?

This is a very nice piece of woodwork. It's buried under many layers of paint right now, but if this could be restored, it really could be quite a nice piece. At one time, as you can see from this stop, there were doors, probably glazed , in the top of this hutch and I think we want to think about re-creating those.

It's a detail worth restoring. Let's look at this nineteen 1970's kitchen.

Well, Bob, actually, this kitchen is probably a lot earlier than 1970. I'd guess more like the 50's.

Walnut plastic laminate was a very popular material in the fifties.

Fifties and sixties probably, yeah.

There certainly is a lot of it here.

Now this looks like it s original 1897 glass doors?

Oh yeah, it certainly is. Look at the glass it has the same purple like the glass on the outside windows has.

This could have been butler's pantry territory right off the dining room.

There is a wall right here. But these cabinets probably went down to the floor on either side.

So the plan is pretty unusual though cause you walk in, you've got counters. You've got peninsulas.

You've got this right in the middle of the room, which. To me, it looks a little bit like Casper the Friendly Ghost, doesn't it?

You know, the shape?

Well, it is sort of a very fifties-type design.

You can seat a lot of people there, I guess. Yeah.

And look at that.

Well, this is certainly fifties industrial design. This is a streamlined look.

I like it. It's neat. But it's probably a good 40 year old stove. And one oven and then they added added two more ovens here, huh?

These? Yes, I would guess that those are replacements.

One interesting thing about old houses getting kitchens retrofitted into them, even in the 1950s is that they can really do some goofball stuff; like putting the counters at three feet height up against windows that go all the way nearly to two feet off the floor. So you get these pockets back in here.

Well, I think the reason this happened is that they didn't want to change the windows on the outside of the house. They realized that they shouldn't change the front facade.

Um-hum.

At the same time, they decided to push the cabinets up against the outside wall.

Yeah.

Resulting in a sort of strange juxtaposition.

Well I think it's time for everything to leave.

I think so, 40 years is about enough for one kitchen.

The space is good too, because if you go from back here to over there, you're close to thirty feet.

And it's almost sixteen feet wide, so you have a very large area you can produce a new kitchen.

Lots of fun to design. Let's go take a look upstairs. The staircase in this house is pretty generous. I mean, we can walk two abreast up it.

Yes, that was very characteristic of these houses; a very wide stair, lots of light, and this one goes up to the third floor, which is unusual.

And the spindles change. I mean there's an order of spindles on the staircase and then they're turned differently here. They almost create a screen. It's really one of the most elaborate parts of the design of the interior in it, and it's spacious enough that you know, you don't feel cramped when you get here.

You've got three small bedrooms on that side and then you got the master bedroom here. Which is not a big room. It's maybe sixteen feet, kind of, because you've got a jog there, maybe almost twelve.

And this is something we might want to think about widening. Maybe taking this wall out and pushing it back a foot or so.

And taking over the space in the little bedroom that's over there.

Right.

And what about something like this when you got these closets that-

These closets you can take out. They're really not serving much of a purpose then you just have the roof line in the room and the floor plate goes all the way through, making the room appear much larger than if the closet was here.

Yeah. And you'd have enough floor space that you could have a chair, an easy chair or something like that. What have you been doing over here?

Well, I've been looking at the floor to see what condition it's in. It's squeaky and it's pretty heavily damaged with a carpet installation and maybe you want to think about replacing it.

I love the fireplace behind it here.

That is very nice.

Again, at an angle as we've seen in two or three of the rooms. Well, listen I know you're measuring so I'll let you get on with your job, I'm gonna go find Riley.

Ok thanks.

Well we know that this third floor was used as a rental space, probably since the 1940's, and there's one little bedroom, a bathroom, kind of a closet with a shower, rooms all over the place.

But this room is unusual for a third floor attic because it has its own fireplace and it has a large, beautiful window and it has a whole wall of original built in bookshelves. We can tell they're original because the moldings on them all match up to what we see in the rest of the house. And of course a very unusual dormer arrangement with this triple window up here.

I know that Riley is around here some place. But, anyway, we did find out that the original builder of the house, a Professor Pickering, probably had this room laid out as his private study.

Let's see if we can find Riley. As I was saying though, there's storage rooms everywhere in this place. I mean there are nothing but . . .

Hi Robbie.

Hey Bob.

I was just, so how are you doing?

Good.

I was just saying, there's nothing but storage rooms, and storage rooms, and you come in from in there. What's in there?

Well I was just looking to see just what's structural and what isn't.

Yeah?

And this is dead space back here. But this is a structural wall. This is right where the break in the gambrel roof is that you can see outside.

So whatever we do up here, this wall needs to be kept in some form or fashion.

Yes. Right.

What's this?

I found this inside. This is an old directions for the wallboard that's on here.

1924 patent.

Yeah, and it tells you just how To put it on.

So that may indicate there was a remodel here in the 20's.

That's right, you know it.

Well, have you looked around... you think there is a possibility of tearing down a lot of these other walls? I mean, there's a storage room there, there's another storage room here.

I know that there's another bedroom here that's not a bad size, but then another storage room in here.

Hey, what's unbelievable to me is you go in here, and this storage room has it's own storage room that you can go into, and it's just never ending.

I know some of these walls definitely can come down.

Greg was talking about trying to create one huge family room space up here.

Well that would be nice.

Have you looked up there yet?

No. That's where I'm headed next.

So, what's it look like up there, is there like a ridge pole that goes from front to back?

Well uh, yeah there is.

We've got a lot more space up here. We do have a ridge pole, we've got some rafters that are really in good shape, the whole place looks very sound structurally. clean, dimensional lumber, right?

It sure is, yeah. No, it looks good. It looks like a lot of possibilities.

All right, and there's insulation up there, right?

There's insulation for the ceiling, yes. Yeah.

Come on down.

Okay.

I mean do you think, it's gonna be an easy job to take down a lot of the ceilings then?

Yeah , I think most of the walls and ceilings can come down, and what's going to determine the big cost is whether, what kind of look you want.

Rock is nothing, just, you know, I would say cathedral ceiling.

To sheet rock it.

Well we'll have to study that.

Okay.

We're gonna break for some. messages, and when we come back, we'll be touring Cambridge, so stick around. We're in Cambridge, just across the Charles River from Boston, Massachusetts. And I'm standing in Harvard Square. Really known around the world as an intellectual center, also a hot spot for night life and for shopping.

We're going to be starting an architectural tour with Brian Pfeiffer, who is the vice president for Building Conservation at the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities. And Brian, is this really a good spot to begin our tour?

Absolutely. This is a terrific spot. Within an easy circumference of us, you can find three centuries of Cambridge architecture. Starting with the Wadsworth house, was built in the 1720's for the president of Harvard. But going on to College Hall over here, which was built in the nineteenth century to house students. And continuing to the twentieth century, the controversy over existing buildings that are proposed to be taken down for modern buildings.

Exactly . Harvard Square, which still represents wooden buildings from two centuries ago, but most of us think of Harvard Yard is being all Georgian brick buildings, right?

Well, there is a lot of Georgian and brick, but that's just around the corner. It turns itself slightly away from Harvard Square. The old yard faces the common and has on it the Massachusetts Hall of the early eighteenth century, which is a
dormitory and classroom building.

Then Harvard Hall, and then at the end of it, it has a wonderful granite building designed by Bullfinch which really defines much of what people think of as Harvard College and Harvard Yard today.

And of course, just outside the yard, we have one of my favorite landmarks, Memorial Hall, one of the most exuberant examples of nineteen century architecture around.

And the history of Cambridge involves two social groups, the Puritans who first came here as well as the British aristocrats, the Tories, right?

The Puritans came, in a way, to get away from the Church of England, to purify, to live a simpler life in New England and in the late seventeenth century though the Royal Governors, the Church of England came and established some small churches, and it was generally a wealthier sort of royally associated group who lived in a different way, and the Puritans didn't entirely like it.

But Cambridge had both living side by side and attending Harvard and attending church within a couple hundred yards of where we stand.

And some of them living in great elegance and others living in great simplicity.

Sure. In Cambridge there are a number of houses like the Cooper Frost Austin House which is north of the square. Center chimney houses built by Puritan farmers. Very simple living. Often, the cooking, eating, and sleeping arrangements were all in the same room. Storage in the room above. By contrast the Longfelllow House out on Brattle street is a house in the mid-eighteenth century, built for a wealthy Tory with plantations in the West Indies. And the house shows it with its grand carving and center hallway and Palladian style.

Exactly. Well thank you Brian.

Good, well, thank you.

That's a wrap. Come home again next time when we'll get together with the architect and we'll talk about his ideas for changing the layout. We'll also begin demolition and tour some neighboring shingle-style homes. Until then, I'm Bob Vila. It's good to have you home again.

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