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In Reading, a couple has worked for decades on their unique home, filling it with iconic furnishings and precious mementos from their world travels.  ? By Regina Cole – Photographs by Bob O’connor

Pamela and Phil Parisi began work on their Reading house in 1976, when they bought an Acorn House kit, erected the shell, and moved into the bare space with studded walls and plywood floors. For the past 36 years they have finished, furnished, and, finally, renovated. Today, their home is colorful, personal, and beautifully livable, but the Parisis say that they will never be done. “The house is a constant work in progress,” the couple says, laughing.

The sitting room

The Acorn House was a novel architectural idea; a good design at a time when open layouts, angled roofs, and cantilevered decks were only available to lovers of modernism who could afford architects. As popular today as they were when first introduced during the 1960s, the modular structures feature post and beam construction, which allows for contemporary open floor plans with exposed beams and vaulted ceilings. The clean lines and interior flexibility appealed to the Parisis, both designers who met as students at Mass College of Art and married in 1971. Today, their home reflects their artistic sensibilities, encapsulating high points of 20th-century design while showcasing mementoes of their trips abroad.

“In the mid 1980s, we began our foreign travel,” says Pamela Parisi, who worked as a package designer for Gillette before she retired. “We bring back tchotchkes. Not little tchotchkes,” she says. “Big tchotchkes!”

These include Indonesian puppets, Tibetan weavings, and Japanese castings. The striking Asian art happily coexist with iconic furniture, including four original ladderback chairs by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the Glasgow designer and artist who straddled Arts and Crafts, Art Nouveau, and Modernism while he gave the world some its most sublime and original design ideas. A black steel circular staircase dominates the living room while a contemporary slab kitchen table refers to George Nakashima. Wassily chairs and a Saarinen lounge speak of seminal Western design history; contemporary art glass glows from mirrored shelves. The Parisis’ collections, which span the globe as well as the last century, look their best in high-ceilinged, light-filled rooms that look out at an equally arresting garden.

“We chose this building lot because it was easily accessible to our jobs and to the airport,” Phil Parisi says. “Then we picked a house plan, which we customized within existing support walls.”

Their home site occupies a thickly wooded rise populated with white pine trees. Though the lot measures a half-acre, it appears much larger thanks to judiciously placed plantings that screen nearby houses. The overall effect is that of a secret garden on a hidden woodland hilltop. The Parisi driveway leads into a world that seems far removed from its suburban surroundings.

“We didn’t plan to make a garden,” Pamela says. “But after we lived here, I wanted to be able to walk around the yard. We built a path; then we cleared around it. Then we kept going,” she laughs.

“When we began, I asked a local landscaper for advice,” Phil adds. “He told me to forget about it. ‘Nothing will grow in heavily shaded acid soil that’s carpeted with pine needles,’ he told me.”

The Parisis more than proved him wrong. Among the tall, straight tree trunks grow rhododendrons, azaleas, dogwood, hydrangea, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, and pink lady’s slippers. As early as February, snowdrops bloom in sheltered spots.

“I am Portuguese, so I have garden DNA,” Phil says with a laugh.

Parisi grew up in Gloucester before he traveled the world with the Air Force, settling to live in Wiesbaden, Germany, for three years. “I thought I’d live there; that’s where all the good design was,” he says.

When Pamela and Phil retired a few years ago, they began their latest house-building phase. Working with Lee Kimball, the Winchester design-build firm known for its kitchens, they converted the formerly unfinished basement into a sunny family room that doubles as a guest bedroom and installed a gleaming state-of-the-art kitchen for Phil, a gifted home chef.

“They’re quality- and idea-driven,” says E.J. Krupinsky, Lee Kimball architect and manager of the project. “They knew they wanted to relate the new downstairs family/guest room to the garden, and to expand the kitchen, making it beautiful and functional.”


He succeeded on both fronts with both new spaces, each of which has two personalities. The kitchen includes a built-in breakfast nook oriented around the slab table, while the business end is Phil’s domain.

“I like to be left alone to cook, so I didn’t want my end of the kitchen to be too welcoming,” he says.

The family room converts to a guest room with a Murphy bed. The bed stored in the wall holds perennial appeal to space-saving homeowners, while its descent holds a singular place in early 20th century slapstick comedy. This ground-level room has become the Parisi’s sitting room of choice. They take advantage of its immediate access to the outside with a closet for muddy gardening garb.

“E.J. and the rest of the staff at Lee Kimball did the one thing we really needed: they listened to us,” Phil Parisi says.

Krupinsky used interior windows to bring light into the below-ground bath that accompanies the new downstairs room. No hint of the former basement remains.

Next to their front door, Phil and Pamela Parisi display a stone three-foot Mahakala figure they found in Bali. The diagonally slatted stair landing and the house’s flat board siding could only date to the 1970s. The statue, a fierce depiction of Shiva, is pitted, covered with lichen, and timeless.

“In the Far East, figures of Mahakala are commonly used to protect homes from evil,” Pamela explains. Nearby, bronze Paolo Soleri bells cast on an Arizona mesa chime gently as the wind moves through the tall trees. Before stepping in the door, guests at Pamela’s and Phil’s home have already begun the multisensory tour of time and space the couple has created on this Reading hilltop.

“This is us,” says the lady of the house. “Modern, but not cold, and constantly changing as our collections grow and change.