Boston Globe Magazine
"The American Evolution: The Metamorphosis of a New England Farmhouse"
After experiencing the stimulation of New York for three years, Sana and Jeffrey Berry knew that when they moved to the Boston area and started looking in the suburbs for their first, it had 'above all, to be interesting.'
The yellow farmhouse (circa 1790-1810) with its ancient air gave them all they wanted, including an acre of land with a path that literally lead through the woods to grandmother's house. Early on, the rooms, with all their nooks and crannies, did not seem so small and the two staircases sharing one landing intrigued them. All that was needed was some fresh paint and paper and a remake of the kitchen.
Once that was done, the couple started on 'the big room', originally an attached barn that is now a relaxing, much-used family room. The work included walling up a hayloft, then designing and building two small connecting guestrooms, each on a different level. The first, with its vanity table, can also double as a dressing room for the second, unless the day bed with its unique trundle tucked under the skirt is needed.
At that stage it was hard for me to believe my mother when she said, "You'll remember with fondness the shoestring days," says Sana, a part-time accountant. But when the family grew to include two children with a third one on the way, the couple agreed they needed more space. "Our main thought", says Jeffrey, a Boston marketing executive, "was to preserve the outer look of the house, so we discussed tacking on a rear addition."
That was before they consulted Stephen Roberts Holt, an architect known for his classic designed houses, and nationally recognized for his restorations of 19th-century houses, particularly the large 'cottages' in his home town of Manchester-by-the-Sea.
Holt says that early New England farmhouses easily lent themselves to the changing life patterns of their occupants. "They (the families of that era) started with the first house, usually two rooms, then as the family changed they added more room, up and out. The next step was usually to build an ell attaching the barn to the main building."
In fact, there is an old children's rhyme that goes, 'Big house, little house, back house, barn.' It's also the title of a book by architect Thomas C. Hubka, which explores the metamorphosis of 19th-century New England farmhouses. Holt often refers to Hubka's work in talking about the Berry house.
Today, five years after the Holt-designed renovation was completed, one can see, both inside and outside, the design integrity of the 20th century expertly blended with the rich architectural traditions of earlier periods. But where it all starts and ends is only visible on the architect's plans.
In the process of his renovations, Holt reinforced the main house. Some walls came down, some others were moved out, floors came up and supporting beams went in. The Berry's old bedroom is now an elegant master bedroom with adjoining bath and a wall of closets. Ellie, 11, now has a larger, more comfortable room, while brothers, Jeb, 8, and Whit, 5, have their room. The children share a bath. But Holt's innovative hand is best observed in the first floor layout where the living room--once part of a screened porch--is now triple its original size.
Here is the mantled fireplace the family never had. Beyond the living room is a new garden room with its two walls of French doors, seven in all, leading to the outside deck. Adding footage to these rooms subtly changed the appearance of the smaller areas. The library (supposedly the very first sitting room) and the dining room (thought to be a later 19th-century addition) no longer seem cramped.
Faced with a beautiful new-old-house, Sana Berry, as the decorator, was in her glory. Her color scheme is a sunny palette of yellows, pinks and tender greens varying in tone from room to room. The library with its deep green faux marble walls (painted by Sana) is the exception. A Florentine book paper lines the bookshelves picking up the dark corals and grays of the sofa an chairs, at once stately and welcoming.
"I wanted an English country house feeling," says Sana, "in contrast to the some chicer look of the other rooms"--rooms where bright chintzes accent the more muted spectrum of wall paints, carpets and fabrics.
Just like their predecessors, the Berrys continue to make additions. They recently turned an old storage shed that ran along the side of the big room-barn into the children's playroom.
As one views the exterior of the yellow and white building with its decorative wood-trimmed porch evocative of the Victorian era, it is difficult to imagine, much less see the multitude of changes this old New England farmhouse has experienced in its 200 years.