CHESTNUT GROVE, NEWTON UPPER FALLS, MA 1988

I got a call one day from a friend and client saying he was looking at a unit at Chestnut Grove and wondering if we had anything on the original specifications. I was able not only to send him the original marketing brochure and the builder’s specs, but also to rediscover this charming 29 unit project.

One hundred eighty years ago, Willard Marcy came from Hartland, Vermont to settle in the village of Newton Upper Falls, a quiet place of seven rolling hills and lush farmland, bordered by the winding Charles River. He built an estate in 1869 on five forested acres, and over the next several decades he and his family farmed the land. He became a prominent local citizen, serving in a number of prestigious posts and representing Newton during the late 1800s in the House of Representatives.

As we have seen from some of the previous posts, turning former estates into elegant condominium projects was a good real estate play in the late 1980s, especially when you could preserve the feeling of living on an estate, such as at Shadow Farm, Ledgebrook, and Sears Point. In addition, this well-located project has great access to transportation and is in a desirable community.

The real genius of this project lies in the building expression, conceived as six compact carriage houses carefully inserted into the existing mature landscape surrounding the renovated mansion. Each “carriage house” contained five housing units and was developed with parking below. This minimized the need for large areas of asphalt and allowed the roads to have minimal impact on the existing structures. The site possessed a fair amount of topography and the Second Empire main house and barn (including some less formal outbuildings) were located at the center, further limiting the site planning options. The six new buildings were placed at the perimeter so that the main view upon entering the site is of the original building cluster. Because the “Marcy Estate” was small in area compared to the other estates we had worked on it meant the new buildings would be in close proximity to the original structures. It was therefore important to the design concept that the new structures be subservient in the architectural hierarchy and character, keeping the emphasis on the historic buildings.

The buildings are compactly arranged to form three intimate courts, thus reducing the apparent density and preserving much of the vegetation.

As I have pointed out in some of the previous posts, a key design idea here is thinking in terms of a larger building scale and suppressing the individuality of the units. This strategy results in less visual chaos (better for a small site) and a more discernible carriage house/stable concept. As compared to the mansard roof form of the main house, the new structures’ gabled roof takes on a more utilitarian massing which further emphasizes the “carriage house” concept.

The ground floor, containing the garages, is expressed as a relatively solid base to the building and takes on a service function equivalent to a stable. A more refined composition sits on top of this base and houses the living quarters. This functional separation scales the building using the traditional facade treatment of a clapboard first story, topped by second story shingles and a third floor dormer level.

The grouping and projection of the entries reduces the apparent density and downplays the garage doors.

The materials further emphasize the concept, with the horizontal pattern of the clapboards connecting the building to the ground plane and the dark shingled upper wall recalling the creosote stained shingles of the turn of the century farm structures. Dark green trim completes the effect, with textured lattice panels in lieu of ornate trim. The roof is a simple folded plane interrupted by gabled forms over the entries. A long shed dormer provides some visual relief to the long roof form. This is precisely the New England vernacular interpretation that the firm is known for and that Eric Gould discussed in last week’s post.

The brown and green colors of the forest were chosen so that the buildings recede and give prominence to the historic structures. Decks are articulated with lattice detailing that gives them a feeling of substance while providing private outdoor space for each resident.

Jim Futral, the project manager, reminded me that the builder struggled with angled cuts at the transition from the eave of the main roof to the rake of the interrupting gables. While on a ski trip to Vermont, Jim saw a farmhouse with the same detail and took a picture for reference. Another colleague, Mary McKenna, had her cabinetmaker husband build a prototype to show the field carpenters how to make the transition. This was in the days before the compound miter saw was invented. Jim’s well-drawn wall section below shows the transition to the sloped fascia of the rake.

THE HISTORIC BUILDINGS

Although the owner had rejected a National Register of Historic Places designation and potential tax credits, a strong community desire to preserve the existing house and barns was met in the creative adaptation of the buildings into five units—three in the main house, two in the barn, and the grain house became a single two-bedroom unit.

Adaptively used historic buildings.

Chestnut Grove demonstrates that with planning the site carefully and rethinking the townhouse model creatively, you can create a relatively dense development that preserves the character of the site and the neighborhood. Writing a column for the Newton Graphic, local architect Richard T. Hardaway, AIA highlighted the year’s best buildings in 1989. His summary of Chestnut Grove captures the essence of the place and the design.

“They were slipped smoothly into the rolling site, seemingly without disturbance, and many large trees were carefully saved. Three 19th century buildings on the property were sympathetically remodeled and converted into condominiums as well. The new buildings are noteworthy for their richness of surface texture, subtle use of color, and variety in materials. The general aesthetic combines freshness with a sense of comfortable familiarity.”