From the sunlight-flooded wall of windows in the living room, the view across the rooftops extends to Boston Harbor, with the iconic Custom House clock tower to the right. From a brightly lit window facing east in one of two studies, the spire of the Old North Church rises above the vista. Beyond the views, the location of the building, a onetime elevator factory in the heart of Boston’s North End, means easy access to the neighborhood’s legendary restaurants, pastry shops, and lively street scene, as well as proximity to downtown, public transportation, and Interstate 93. The owners of the condo had taken up residence in the late 1970s, making themselves, as the wife says, “part of the neighborhood” and raising two children — who moved out some time ago and now have children of their own.
However, though the location of the handsome, historic six-story factory building was ideal, their living space was not. A combination of two units — the 2,000-square-foot apartment they had bought initially and an adjacent 1,000-square-foot unit they purchased in the 1980s — the spaces had never been adequately incorporated. With just a doorway cut into a wall to allow access from one to the other, the smaller unit trailed behind the main apartment like an afterthought.
When they bought their first unit in the landmark structure, the oldest cast-iron-clad building in New England, the couple turned it into an inviting home through an extensive renovation. But all these years later, what once seemed a wide-open space felt as if it were closing in on them. “Every time you pulled a chair out from the dining table,” says interior designer Nancie Dangel, “you hit a wall.”
The couple hired Dangel, owner of ND Design Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to change that. Out went the oversize sectional sofa that faced away from the windows and views, the drop ceilings that hid a significant portion of the original factory’s wood ceiling, the isolated main kitchen, and a dimly lit narrow corridor leading to the underutilized back apartment with a rarely used kitchen of its own.
After a 14-month renovation, the new space is bright, airy, and welcoming. The enlarged foyer, created by moving the walls, invites people in rather than confining them to a cramped vestibule. The old kitchen is gone, replaced by a sealed room concealing the apartment’s systems — and the humming noises they make. At roughly 9 feet by 19 feet, the new, slightly elevated open kitchen is visible from all angles of the huge living/dining space. The height change feels subtle, with a small step on one side and an almost imperceptible incline on the other. “There’s nothing plumb or square in the North End,” says the wife, “including this apartment.” By raising the floor, they could ensure everything in the kitchen, at least, would be level. Now the cook isn’t tucked away from the action but can bread a cutlet, talk to guests, and check out the expansive skyline at the same time.
The hallway leading to the back unit has been widened and interior transom windows stretch along its length, inviting light from the windows in adjacent rooms. Off the hallway, the husband’s office (formerly the master bedroom) has a wide entry. The wife’s office has no doorway at all, so light streaming through the room’s tall windows spills into the hall, which terminates at the new master bedroom. An adjacent bath with a separate tub room replaced the second kitchen.
Dangel heaps credit on contractor Ed Herman of True North Inc. in Arlington, Massachusetts, for working with her to get the job done. “His contribution was invaluable,” she says. He heaps credit back and says that he enjoyed “coming up with methods of fabricating unique pieces and installing them.” That would include the vertical column of stainless steel Dangel wanted in one of the guest bathrooms to house all the shower’s plumbing, and the decorative box high up on a wall in the living room that covers the air-handling mechanical system and ductwork.
Dangel’s plan accommodates the wife’s collections of objets d’art. The industrial elements of the apartment, such as the huge wooden beams, could have overpowered the delicate glass statuettes and pottery pieces gathered over the years. So Dangel designed special nooks and shelving to highlight the collections. She also carefully hung dozens of paintings by artists such as Poland-born Theresa Bernstein and 1920s Cape Ann painter Leighton Cram.
Another special touch is the stone flooring throughout much of the apartment, custom-made by Littleton, Massachusetts, company Stoneyard, which ground down northern New England boulders for the tiles.
“It was just a really great combination,” the husband says of his wife’s working closely with Dangel. “I’m not gutsy,” the wife says. “Nancie is.” The result of their collaboration is nothing short of spectacular.