In 1992, Steve and Susan Howell built their house on a quiet 2-acre lot in Boxford. First, they constructed the garage, and then they assembled the frame for the house inside the garage and held an old-fashioned timber frame–raising with friends and family, erecting the bones of the 2,600-square-foot structure in one day. Susan remembers she was pregnant with her daughter, Olivia, now 25, and that a few years later she and Steve welcomed a son, Jake, now 22. They loved the house, but when Jake went to college four years ago, Steve and Susan, whose Howell Custom Building Group is in Lawrence, took a closer look at their kitchen. Other than some appliance upgrades, it hadn’t been touched since they built the house, and it needed to flow better with the spaces around it.
“We thought this could be a great place to live for the next stage of our life,” says Susan, “but our needs have changed. We wanted to create a more stylish space with an improved layout for hosting our adult children and our friends.”
“It was time to do it,” says Steve. “Our kids had grown up and moved to their own apartments. We felt the renovation would help invigorate the home for the two of us, as well as usher in a new era of entertaining.” Since they had connected the house to the garage with a 200-square-foot breezeway/mudroom with a large octagonal three-season gazebo in 1995, there was plenty of space to work with. But they also wanted it to be more efficient. For example, to get from the kitchen to the gazebo, where the Howells often entertain family and friends, they first had to go through a narrow hallway where the laundry and coat closets were located.
The Howells knew the first step would be eliminating the hallway, which would instantly open everything up. They sketched some preliminary kitchen layouts and called Holly Gagne from Holly Gagne Interior Design in Rowley. Gagne, whom they have collaborated with on client projects before, reviewed the layouts, which showed configurations similar to what had been there, and advised them to consider alternatives that shifted the orientation of the island and pushed the kitchen toward the back of the house, opening up the floor plan. “I told them, ‘You’re opening up the space for a reason,’” she says. “They wanted to connect the adjoining spaces for a greater interaction with them, so the orientation of the functions within the kitchen should be considered in this context.”
With the hallway gone, storage is now provided by a new closet and built-ins in the breezeway—the laundry was moved to the basement. The Howells placed a long island in the center of the kitchen with cabinets on the side and back walls plus two built-in custom sideboards in the dining area. Doorways were widened, a new window that overlooks the backyard brings in natural light, and the wood beams were appropriately showcased. Changes were also made to the living room, such as installing an additional window and new French door sliders with transom windows.
In the kitchen every detail was taken into account with the light gray cabinets built by B+G Cabinet of Newburyport, including accommodating an exposed beam with a cabinet door slightly shorter than the rest. Appliances include a Sub-Zero refrigerator, Sub-Zero refrigerator drawers, and an induction cooktop, wall oven, and convection steam oven from Wolf. Fixtures are from Designer Bath, the backsplash is made with glass tiles from Ann Sacks, and durable quartzite tops the counters. When it came to the floors, the Howells felt they needed to match the original antique heart pine in the living room, which was salvaged from an 1800s mill building. “It’s a highly prized salvage wood,” says Steve, who after some searching found more in a building in upstate New York that was being dismantled.
But the showpiece is the black walnut island and sideboards, made by Howell Custom Building Group’s lead carpenter, Kurt Baier. “Large-scale dovetail joinery on thick slabs of black walnut seemed to give many of the cabinetmakers pause,” says Steve. “We called three shops and they were all reluctant to do it. But Kurt was up for the challenge.”
Gagne assisted with material and finish selections and helped furnish and accessorize the spaces. The Howells’ friend, stained-glass artist Louis Pulzetti of Emmet’s Hill Wood and Glass in Alton Bay, New Hampshire, created custom stained-glass doors for a black walnut china cabinet that stores pieces collected over the years as well as heirlooms from a Cape Cod house that had been in the family for generations. Pen-and-ink drawings from Susan’s aunt, Nancy Seligsohn, who illustrated the original Pippi Longstocking book, hang in the living room, while artwork above the fireplace is by Newburyport artist Alan Bull, who created the painting from a photograph the Howells took on a trip to Patagonia.
Gagne also introduced the Howells to plant designer Lynn Steeves, whose studio Flora is located in Gagne’s studio. With Steeves, Susan chose plants such as succulents, ferns, and air plants to decorate the spaces, which Gagne likes to do because “it gives life and texture to a space without making it feel overly accessorized,” she says.
“It was fun to come home and see the progress every day,” says Steve about the renovation. As a builder, he loved the process almost as much as the result. “We got to step into the shoes of our clients and experience the transformation on a daily basis.”
“Every time I walk in the door or come downstairs, it exudes everything we wanted,” says Susan.
It looks like they are going to be enjoying their home for a long time to come.
Builder: Howell Custom Building Group, 978-989-9440, howellcustombuild.com
Interior Designer: Holly Gagne Interior Design, 978-432-1337, hollygagne.com
Kitchen appliances: Sub-Zero and Wolf, from Yale Appliance + Lighting; yaleappliance.com
Cabinetry: B+G Cabinet, 978-465-6455, bgcabinet.com
Plumbing fixtures: Designer Bath 800-649-BATH, designerbath.com
Backsplash tile: Ann Sacks, annsacks.com
Stained glass: Emmet’s Hill Wood and Glass, 978-290-8379, emmetshill.com
Art: Alan Bull, alanbull.com
Lighting: Guerin Electrical, 978-352-2939,
Plants specialist: Flora, florabylynnsteeves.com
Rugs: Gordon Rug Company, 978-463-4200, gordonrug.com
Stools: Restoration Hardware, rh.com
Light fixtures: Circa Lighting, circalighting.com