A New Old House on Inherited Farmland

Architect Frank Shirley creates a new old house that appears as if it has been on the land for centuries.

If you happen to live in the same town where your forebears settled in the 18th century, bonding inextricably with the land is often preordained. For one homeowner in a Massachusetts enclave 20 miles west of Boston, building a new old house on five acres of inherited farmland was in many ways the ultimate tribute to her father, a longtime advocate for preserving the town’s natural resources. It was also a means of perpetuating the virtues of an open-field habitat and the fauna it supports, particularly different species of birds, including red-tailed hawks and wild turkeys.

After a recent facelift, the classical house has the “self-confident exuberance” of Greek Revival style. (Photo: Randy O’Rourke)

With a background in architecture, the homeowner also had more than a passing interest in the type of house that would grace the property. An architect friend and a member of the family in the construction trade helped design and build the initial dwelling and an attached garage. It wasn’t until after living in the house for several years, with their two children, that the client and her husband conceded it fell short of their expectations for a forever home.

“They wanted a graceful Greek Revival house,” says Cambridge, Massachusetts–based architect Frank Shirley, who was hired to execute a comprehensive redesign. “We maintained some of the original house, but all the details changed. This is still in the Greek Revival genre, but the specific vocabulary is one that we decided on ourselves.”

Details were added to the existing house; the old garage became a great room, and the barn-like garage is a new addition. 

Randy O’Rourke

There was another significant consideration for the redesign: the wife’s nearby homestead, which was built in 1793. “I was raised in a large farmhouse that was renovated over time and connected by sheds to a barn,” she shares. “I wanted to have that as our reference—the idea of multiple volumes put together really appealed to me.”

The owner’s family’s 1793 New England homestead inspired the vernacular layout of connected buildings and additions.

Randy O’Rourke

The first and most radical step was razing the existing garage, a two-story structure whose height was disproportionate to the adjacent house, and replacing it with something more aesthetically appropriate and more practical for how the family lives. “This launched a multi-phase process of building new sections for the home,” Shirley explains, adding that they re-skinned the parts of the house that remained. Collaborating with contractor F. H. Perry, Shirley embarked on the facelift. “I liked the simplicity of everything that had been done here, but I wanted to give it more life.”

For example, opines the architect, the front elevation lacked a certain “self-confident exuberance” typical of Greek Revival style. “We enlarged the entablature and pilasters to give the façade the gravitas of its original precedent—the Parthenon,” he explains. “The front porch sat low on the house and looked like a furrowed brow that hid the front door, so we raised the porch to expose the front door, which we then re-trimmed to give it appropriately big shoulders, announcing itself to arriving guests.” Shirley also extended the porch farther along the side of the house, gave its columns a facelift, and installed a new standing-seam metal roof.

The new great room opens to a sunken, English cottage garden with brick walks. A beamed ceiling and grasscloth keep it traditional.

Randy O’Rourke

At the back of the house, raised beds edged with Goshen stone on either side, Shirley designed a screened porch. He added a skirt and trellises to the existing semicircular deck, with a southern exposure especially appreciated in spring and fall. “In the summer,” says the homeowner, “we go from porch to porch to patio. The house has a very nice relationship with the outdoors.” 

Nowhere is the home’s indoor/outdoor attribute more salient than in the new great room that replaced the original garage. On one side, floor-to-ceiling windows fold open into a nine-foot expanse that looks directly onto a sunken, English cottage-style garden with brick walkways. Beyond, paths, mowed through a vast wildflower field of echinacea, bee balm, and partridgepea weed lead to a petite crabapple orchard. 

The house glows at twilight; rolling doors open to what is now the great room, located in the former garage and set back from the main house. 

Randy O’Rourke

In cooler seasons, the great room’s focal point is a wood-burning fireplace made from stone excavated on the property. With a cross-beamed ceiling, V-groove boards, and grasscloth wallcovering, it’s a comfortably furnished space, whether for hanging out with just the family or for large-scale entertaining. Against one wall, a handsome mahogany wet bar with burled veneer exemplifies the high level of custom cabinetry Shirley is known for. Years ago, says the architect, he became enamored of the artisanship of antique furniture and delved into the thought processes underlying the beautifully crafted pieces. Elsewhere in the house, more custom-designed pieces were added, including a mahogany cabinet and a mahogany newel post. 

On this new first level, reducing the size of an existing guest room allowed for expanding the mudroom and adding a pantry. Upstairs, above the great room, a music room is mostly the domain of the husband, who plays guitar and has an impressive vinyl record collection. Shirley designed ornamental trusses made from reclaimed white oak to hide steel tie-rods. To maintain good acoustics, the team added carpeting, upholstered furniture, and roman shades on the windows. 

Randy O’Rourke

A subsequent phase of construction brought an iconic, red, New England barn-style garage to the property.

The homeowner appreciates her good fortune in finding Shirley and F. H. Perry, and she has equally high praise for the landscape professionals involved—Tom Wirth and Matthew Cunningham for the gardens, and Robert Hanss for the hardscape. 

 The music room is tucked upstairs over the great room.  

Randy O’Rourke

“We’re lucky we’ve been able to do things in stages and we had the time to figure out just what we wanted.”

The ornamental oak trusses hide steel tie-rods at the ceiling of the music room. 

Randy O’Rourke

A custom mahogany hall cabinet, designed by Shirley, can be concealed with sliding barn doors. 

Randy O’Rourke

Traditional elements with longevity include wood shingles, standing-seam metal roofs, granite piers, and brick pavers.

Randy O’Rourke

A cupola tops the garage imagined as a red barn.

Randy O’Rourke

Tags: New Old House NOH Winter 2022

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