A Swampscott couple converts a one-time firehouse into a stunning home that pays homage to its utilitarian roots. By Regina Cole
To make a house a home,Â you need three things: sleeping quarters, places for food prep and ablutions, and room to sit. In Steve and Lisa Hayes’ Swampscott living room, the other necessity is a brass fire pole.
“We couldn’t very well take it out,” Steve, a building contractor, says. “This was, after all, the firehouse.”
Until 1996, fire engines roared out of what is now their 4,500-square-foot home on a Swampscott street corner. Even after the city stopped using the building to help fight fires, it became headquarters for an EMT organization. Its use continued much the same: Ambulances would speed out while the on-duty staff slept, cooked, and ate in the building.
Thus, when Steve-whose construction company, Donald T. Hayes, Inc., was started by his father-bought the then-unused building in 2010, he faced neighbors who had sentimental attachments to a Romanesque Revival fire station that had become a landmark and well-loved symbol of civic pride. The handsome turn-of-the-20th-century stone building has piered arches and splayed windows typical of the style, albeit in small proportions and mixed with a clapboarded second story. “The neighbors wanted to protect what was there,” says Lisa, an early childhood special needs teacher in the Swampscott public schools.
“They came by and told us how they used to come in here for a soda,” Steve adds. “Of course, we always wanted to honor the building’s history.”
That is why a shiny brass pole descends into the corner of the couple’s living room. In Steve’s office, a ceiling light fixture had a previous life as a fire hose. The Hayes’ doorbell takes the form of a fire alarm box on the granite facade, and horizontal double windows contribute to an exterior sleight of hand that replicates the look of a fire station’s enormous garage doors.
The building’s exterior looks unchanged in other ways: the original granite plaque announcing the station was built by the Swamscott Fire Department in 1903 is very much in place over the arched corner entry. Yellow and gray granite form the first floor in the substantial manner of civic buildings. “This was all built of Rockport granite,” Steve says admiringly, noting its superb condition 109 years later.
The interior, however, is the essence of a comfortable family home for Steve, Lisa, and their three children. While the three existing upstairs bedrooms only changed into more comfortable bedrooms with ensuite baths and roomy closets, the downstairs living space, where the fire trucks once parked, was an ideal blank slate for a contractor. For a homeowner, it resulted in a light-filled, fresh, and stylish space with large rooms flowing into each other.
“The tricky part about the decor was scale,” says Lisa, who created the interior design scheme with her husband. “The space is large; the ceilings are 12 feet high. I had a big velvet sofa in my other house; it was huge until we put it in here. Then it simply shrank and looked tiny.” Lisa recalls how she and Steve bought furniture at estate sales. “There we often found big, handsome pieces, which we then had recovered,” she says.
“I love our kitchen, which, in fact, used to be where the stables were,” Steve says. “But when Lisa picked out a five-foot Kohler sink, I said ‘Whoa!’ But you know, the house is big-might as well have a big sink.” The enviable kitchen shares the downstairs with the spacious living and dining rooms. The horizontal windows that give verite to the exterior of a fire station flood the living room with light.
“I was very leery of those windows,” Liza explains. “But they ended up [looking] just the way Steve kept telling me they’d look; they bring in lots of light while protecting our privacy from the street.
Steve’s lifetime in the building industry stood him in good stead when he built a vaulted entry worthy of 1907. Beyond is a gracefully curving staircase that occupies the footprint of the original passage. “We really didn’t know what to do with this part,” Lisa admits as she walks toward the entry and adjoining staircase.
Steve points to the curve in the stairs, a graceful note that was not an original element. “That was definitely the hardest part,” he says. “And the window had to stay where it is, because it’s in an 18-inch thick granite wall.” He gestures toward a window inconveniently placed where the stairs needed to go. Steve solved his dilemma with a time-honored New England building tradition: He allowed the stairs to cut diagonally across the window. The result is charming, and provides a view of the backyard to anyone climbing the stairs.
Upstairs, once a mechanical area full of water pressure meters, is now a game room furnished with comfortable couches, a big flat-screen TV, and a beer-and-soda refrigerator. “We finished this in time to watch the Stanley Cup,” Steve explains, recalling the family’s christening of their playroom. “When I built this, I called in a long times’ worth of favors so that I could get things done in time and in an affordable way.”
Steve is modest about his handiwork.”This was not a hard building project,” he says. “It was not a big problem, converting [the firehouse]. I build all the time. The challenge was to create an outside look of firehouse doors while not having the look of doors inside. As far as building goes, the hardest part was the last five percent [of the work]. For example, installing the red oak hardwood flooring over concrete.”
“We have Champagne taste, but a beer budget,” Lisa adds. The couple combed online outlets for plumbing and kitchen fittings. “You have to be careful; sometimes things arrive broken.” She remembers how their curvaceous slipper bath tub, now the centerpiece of the master bathroom, was sent back twice before it arrived unharmed. “That was one heavy package to keep sending back,” Lisa and Steve say, laughing.
Two children’s rooms and a master bedroom fill the remainder of the second floor, where the ceilings measure ten feet high. “This house looks deceivingly large because of the height of the ceilings and because we installed nine-and-a-half-inch crown moldings,” Lisa says. “In fact, we use all the space-not like a Victorian house where you often shut off whole rooms. There is not an inch in this place that is not used.” The clapboarded second floor also has shutters, a private deck, and a cupola.