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Turning a cookie-cutter town house into a cheerful forever home

Four floors and four times the renovation challenges in a South End town house.

Two giant windows transformed dead space into a light-filled reading nook between the sitting areas in the front and the back of the house on the second floor.Sabrina Cole Quinn

At 2,628 square feet, this South End town house is quite a bit larger than this young family’s prior two-bedroom condo, plus it has a yard. However, what really makes the difference is having the square footage spread over four stories, affording some separation and privacy that was especially helpful when both parents were working from home during COVID. What it didn’t have was personality. “The house was built on an empty lot in 2000 as part of a neighborhood redevelopment effort,” says architect Tim Pingree. “It was devoid of character.”

Pingree and his partner, builder Lucas Robertson, helped transform all four levels to inject function and character, with the homeowners handling the décor. Most of the effort focused on the dark and drafty first floor. “They wanted to open it up from front to back to make it a comfortable space where the family wants to spend time,” Pingree says.


So, the walls came down, the dropped ceiling was torn up, and Pingree gave them a family-friendly kitchen in the center, with a sunny dining nook in back and a cozy TV lounge in front. “Kitchens make sense in the middle because you confront corners at the end of the house, which limit storage and restrict circulation,” Pingree explains. “We do many diagrammatic exercises to ensure we use every sixteenth of every inch.”

Navigating around the existing masonry window openings and carefully considering how the ceiling soffits line up, Pingree designed a modern kitchen scheme that feels artfully asymmetric. Using the fridge and a matching pantry cabinet to define the kitchen on either end, he centered the range between them. A window and a knife niche in the same dimensions and trim details — cut from the same slab of honed Carrara marble that lines the backsplash — flank the range.


Taking cues from the clients’ desire for a light and bright shell, Pingree incorporated rich walnut accents that provide contrast with the white walls and cabinetry and play beautifully against the new black windows. In addition to wrapping the island base in walnut and running walnut shelves on one side of the plaster hood, Pingree carved a walnut niche into the coffee station cabinetry.

Niches are found throughout the house. One appears as a walnut backdrop for the television within the built-in toy storage cabinet in a lounging room near the kitchen, where Pingree resisted carrying the millwork to the ceiling. “There’s a lot going on with the change in ceiling heights between the spaces,” he says. “Sometimes less is more.”

One flight up on the double parlor level, there is a slate blue niche for the television. “We built out that wall to be on the same plane as the fireplace wall on the other side of the box bay window, then punched in the niche and cabinets,” Pingree says. “It’s a similar language, but done in a different color instead of a different material.” Building off that idea, the office, which seems sunk into the wall opposite the fireplace, is painted the same slate blue.

As for the box bay window area, itself a niche in the middle of space, the team swapped the trio of unremarkable double-hung windows for two massive windows. Not only does it let in tons of light and frame a giant tree, instead of dead space, it’s a well-loved reading nook for the kids.


On the third floor, a few tweaks went a long way. Pingree absorbed a bedroom closet that jutted into the kids’ bathroom to make the bath into a crisp rectangle with plenty of breathing room. Then he reconfigured the wall that separates the two children’s bedrooms so that there are closets on each side of it.

Meanwhile, on the top floor, Pingree radically rearranged the rabbit warren-like primary bath. “Before, you walked right into the vanity, the toilet room blocked a window, and a jacuzzi tub and small shower stall shared a short wall,” he says. Now, the space exudes a clean spa-like feel, with a soaking tub beneath a pair of windows that look out to community gardens.

“Unlike historic homes, every floor of this house is a concrete slab,” Pingree says. “It posed all sorts of challenges, especially with plumbing and HVAC.” In the end, however, everything worked.


Architect and Contractor: SHAKE architecture:construction, shakeac.com


Before: The old kitchen was squeezed into a narrow space.
After: The team opened the enclosed kitchen, demolished the dropped ceiling, and perfectly aligned the necessary soffits with the cabinetry.Sabrina Cole Quinn
The rear of the main level is now a sunny dining nook with oversized windows and a built-in banquette. There’s a slider to the patio nearby.Sabrina Cole Quinn
On the second floor, Pingree designed built-ins with a TV niche painted Benjamin Moore’s Blue Note and the owners found the rug at Room & Board.Sabrina Cole Quinn
For the primary bath, the homeowners asked for a bleached white oak vanity and dark floor tiles based on a bath that Tim Pingree designed for another client.Sabrina Cole Quinn

Marni Elyse Katz is a contributing editor to the Globe Magazine. Follow her on Instagram @StyleCarrot. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.