Design Solutions: Modern History

Slocum Hall Design Group revives a neoclassical ‘white elephant’ in New England and ushers the historic home into the 21st century.

authors Kyle Clapham | March 17, 2021

Following the renovation and expansion of a sizable Tudor, David Boronkay joked with its owners about a new listing less than a mile away: the Riley Mansion. In 1896 textile industrialist Charles Riley built the neoclassical revival residence to pay homage to the childhood of his wife, who came from a wealthy Newport, Rhode Island, family. The clients said they wanted to see the 2-acre property.


“We walked through the house, and [they] just absolutely fell in love with it,” recalls Boronkay, principal of Slocum Hall Design Group in Watertown, Massachusetts, who had done multiple projects for the homeowners by that point. “They were accustomed to hosting larger-scale events [before the COVID-19 pandemic], and the spaces in this house lent themselves well to the way they like to entertain.”

The clients also had four children and worried their Tudor still might be too small, even after its recent addition/modernization. They decided to undertake a major interior restoration and renovation of the Riley Mansion and construct a three-bay garage with guest accommodations connected to the house, returning the property to its Gilded Age heritage with modern updates for a young family.

Design Cues

Naturally, the historic home adhered to a very formal layout with an undersized kitchen that lacked connection to the rest of the house. Originally, the space had been intended for service staff while the owners used the public areas, Boronkay notes. To enlarge the kitchen, Slocum Hall borrowed space from a walk-in pantry and a back stair hall.

The general contractor then cut through an 18-inch granite wall to open up the entire area to an adjacent space that had been a covered porch before a remodel in the 1930s or ’40s enclosed it with windows, he adds.

“It essentially made the house suitable for a modern family,” Boronkay says. The clients wanted to keep this new, window-lined breakfast room and the bigger kitchen bright, so they opted for shaker-style cabinets in white lacquer paired with Italian marble and added a new, copper atrium skylight.

“The other thing we did to make the house more usable for a family with four young kids was we converted the previously unfinished basement into a large, usable space,” he adds. The team enclosed an outdoor stairwell off the kitchen and connected it to the new family room below, where additional square footage also afforded a secondary caterer’s kitchen for entertaining. a large laundry room, home theater, full gym, hair salon, spa bathroom and a steam room.

“What is now the home theater was actually a gardening shed that was accessed from the exterior, so we infilled some exterior space and created access to the area,” Boronkay says. “A significant amount of unfinished space [in the basement] remains. There is approximately 2,000 square feet—or maybe even more—of storage space and a large mechanical room that houses the extensive equipment to keep a house of this size running.”

Ensuring the formal areas were unaltered—the living room, dining room, drawing room (now the music room) and library—remained a priority throughout the project. “It was painstaking in some cases where some of the plaster molding was cracked, and we had to have it cast and replastered to match the existing,” Boronkay explains.

“There was the preservation aspect of the project that pertained to the public formal spaces, and there was the renovation aspect. Our goal was to make it all feel like it belonged there and yet elevate it a little bit from a modernization perspective. We were very careful to take our design cues from the era and integrate them into the new plan.”

Rigorous Review

The most complicated part of the project—updating the electrical and HVAC systems—required surgical precision to respect the antiquity of the home. Slocum Hall prescribed an undermounted, radiant heat system to be installed beneath the original oak floors, which were screen-sanded then stained. The firm preserved light fixtures by removing them, re-wiring them to code and reinstalling.

“It was like doing open-heart surgery, but without cutting anything,” Boronkay says. “We didn’t want to create any new duct work or openings by cutting the existing floors. We had to carefully dissect behind the walls and underneath the floors to integrate these new systems into the house. That was definitely an added level of complexity because we didn’t want to recreate all of that woodwork and plaster work. It likely would have been impossible, and if not, extremely costly.”

Boronkay conceived the idea to locate the master bath in what had been a sleeping porch, though the area used only two-by-eight floor framing. The design called for “a mausoleum’s worth of marble” in the bathroom, so the general contractor needed to reframe that whole portion of the house. “The house is allegedly at the highest point in Newton,” he notes. “From the second floor up in the summer months, you can see downtown Boston; and in the winter months, you can see it from each floor. The sleeping porch had commanding views of the city and seemed like a cool place to put a bathroom.

“Because the house is historic and because there were some rulings made on the property when it was subdivided in the 1980s, everything we were doing to the site and exterior had to go through a rigorous review by the city of Newton,” he continues. “They determined that we could not do a blacktop driveway; the only driveway they would find acceptable would be either gravel or cobblestone. And gravel wasn’t an option because the homeowners were concerned that pebbles would get in people’s shoes and ruin the original floors, so we ended up going to a granite cobblestone.”

But cobblestone cannot be plowed in the winter, therefore, Slocum Hall had to find a way to heat the entire driveway. “There’s 2 million BTUs worth of boilers in the garage that keep it [clear in the event of] inclement weather,” he adds. “That was something I don’t think the owners were anticipating, but it was the only option in order for the site to pay homage to the house.”

Labor of Love

To select colors and fabrics for the home, the clients and Slocum Hall collaborated with interior designer Grant-Larkin. The notion of adding color to the formal sitting room (wedgwood green) and double parlor (wedgwood blue) came from china in the owners’ collection, Boronkay notes. They elected to veneer the walls in Venetian plaster in a creamy white with honey gloss and shift the frieze to the same tone and a muted platinum gold leaf, enhancing the refinished African mahogany woodwork.

“The goal was to mute out the walls,” he says. “We did the Venetian plaster in a high gloss on the walls in the entry foyer and up the stairs into the bedroom area. But the goal was to just let the architecture be the focus—there’s not a whole lot of color in the formal areas. In the dining room, there’s actually a plaster relief on the walls. That’s original to the house, and it was in impeccable condition. It has pomegranates and vines, and it’s sort of a forest green with some golden tones.”

The clients, who love older homes, stayed involved throughout the entire remodeling process and considered the project “truly a labor of love,” he adds. “They’re thrilled with the house and feel honored that they can be the stewards of it. The original plans for the house were given to them by the previous owners, and they are hanging in the hallway. Portraits of the Rileys are on the basement stairs. They genuinely respect the history and the people who’ve lived there.”

Since the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered schools and businesses and forced people to work from home, all of the extra space has come in especially handy. “Two [of their] daughters are college-aged, and they’re doing school from home, so everyone’s [living] there; fortunately, there’s more than enough space for people to hop on Zoom calls and not be interrupted,” Boronkay says. “The hope is that one of their four children will want to hold onto the house and keep it in the family.” QR

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