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Fire forces owners to restore historic Somerville home — again

The Joseph K. James House, completed in 1894 and seen here in a recent photo, is on the National Register of Historic Places.Charlie Allen Renovations

It’s true that love is lovelier the second time around.

In March 1894, the Somerville Journal heralded the completion of Joseph K. James’s home. The architect was none other than the owner’s teenage son, Thomas Marriott James, who would later co-design the Shubert Theatre in Boston. The grand house was built “on the crown of Spring Hill,” the Journal reported, with “several fancy windows of leaded plate glass, and a panel window in the dining-room of stained glass.”

More than 120 years later, in December 2014, the Joseph K. James House was back in the local news — after it was severely damaged by a two-alarm fire. But what could have been an obituary for the Queen Anne Victorian turned into a rebirth.


The longtime owners asked Cambridge’s Charlie Allen Renovations to bring the house back to life. It was Charlie Allen, after all — the company’s founder and CEO — who had carefully restored the home when the owners first purchased it decades earlier, en route to a designation on the National Register of Historic Places.

“We were in the office thinking, ‘It couldn’t have been that much of a fire, right?’ ” said Julie Palmer, president of Charlie Allen. “People who love their house like this are not people who usually experience a fire.”

The fire started in the basement.charlie allen renovations/Charlie Allen Renovations

But while the exterior suffered little damage, the fire devoured the basement, where the blaze began, sparked by an unattended candle, and shot up through the walls as if they were chimneys, destroying much of the third-floor rental apartment and leaving the first two floors covered in icy freeze-dried soot. Almost every window — with the original leaded glass — was broken, and many of the ornate cast-iron radiators froze and cracked. And though firefighters exercised tremendous care, even removing artwork before taking axes to the walls, the house was very much a disaster inside.


It would take a year of cleanup before Allen’s crew could even begin the restoration process. “Everything had to come out of the house before we could really assess all of the damage,” Palmer said.

The company hired a subcontractor, Belfor, to handle the initial cleaning. “They use dry ice to blast all the smoke and soot off of it, and then they seal it,” Palmer said. After that, all work halted as ozone machines filtered the air nonstop for more than a week.

Then the patience-testing process of disassembly, deep cleaning, and restoration began. “In order to clean it, we had to take it apart. So all of the moldings came off, all of the door trim, all of the wainscoting was removed by hand, cataloged, wrapped together with an identification key,” Palmer said.

They filled an entire bedroom with shelving to hold the various lengths of molding and trim. Allen said he took photos of everything they removed, capturing even how the molding and mantel intersected. “We needed to have a record of that in order to replicate it and put it back,” he said.

To find architecturally appropriate replacements for the many windows damaged in the fire, Palmer said, they turned to Jackson Schillaci woodworking of Waltham (cofounder Jeremy Jackson lives across the street from the house). “Their crew provided all the new windows and did all the custom trim,” Palmer said. Then Needham-based Wayne Towle, a master finisher, matched the tone of the original wood. The only clue betraying the new windows is the absence of the wavy leaded glass.


This stained-glass window in the dining room was destroyed during the fire and restored.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

The stained-glass window described in the 1894 Journal article was also broken, and an overzealous cleanup crew swept up and tossed the original glass fragments. But working off photos of the original, Jim Anderson Stained Glass in Boston was able to re-create the window, hand painting it to match the color. Only one of the four red-glass circles in the window is from the original, but the work is a close enough match that the owner can’t tell which one it is.

While an insurable disaster is a nightmare at best and potentially life-threatening at worst, it does create the opportunity to make improvements. “That’s about the only silver lining,” Palmer said. So this time, in addition to another meticulous restoration of the home, Allen’s crew put in a new kitchen and bathroom, opened up the rental unit, and extended the railing of the main staircase to make it more accessible, among other improvements.

“It makes so much sense,” Allen said, to address projects you’ve had in mind while the house is already under construction. “You have to put the third-floor apartment back, you have to put the kitchen back, you have to put the second-floor bathroom back, but maybe for years it hasn’t been the way you really wanted it,” he said. “Couldn’t we put it back the way you wish it was?”


But even those new rooms were designed to fit the character of the house — and echo its history. During demolition on the third floor, workers discovered original built-in cabinets stamped with the name of an old woodworking company in Somerville, J. Wiley Gates. They now have a more prominent position, incorporated as recessed cabinets in the new second-floor bathroom.

Likewise, the new, longer subrail on the main staircase features intricate woodworking, custom carved and finished to match the existing railing. But other pieces are actually transplanted from elsewhere in the home, like a Major League pitcher who’s undergone Tommy John surgery. “The brackets for the handrail were salvaged from another part of the house,” Palmer said. “They instructed us from day one to not throw away anything of any original importance.”

The turret in the remodeled third-floor apartment.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

In the rental apartment upstairs, Allen suggested removing a wall in the entry area, which had a powerful impact on the space. Meanwhile, the team was charged with re-creating the “Hobbit-like feel” of a small archway that leads to a round turret room bursting with charm, character — and an intriguing history: It was once a ritual room for witchcraft. Nowadays, just the hilltop city views cast a spell.

The owners made some minor cost concessions in the rental unit, Palmer said, but even getting them to agree to stock doors upstairs was a battle. “Many homeowners would say, ‘It’s a rental, let’s just put whatever,’ but it was extremely important to them that every detail — right down to the doorknobs, the window locks, the doors — still look appropriate to the house,” she said.


All that attention to detail costs money, though, and the owners refinanced their mortgage to cover what insurance would not. Insurance has kicked in $700,000 so far for the $1 million-plus renovation. (The owners received a grant from the city to repair the stained-glass window.) “It is, under the best of circumstances, very, very difficult to get things put back even the way that they were for what an insurance company will allow,” Allen said.

Owners of an architecturally significant or historic home should make sure they’re adequately insured with a policy that allows for the restoration — not just the replacement — of their home, experts say. “Most of the time, the replacement value would be the most important thing to look at,” said Bob Mackey of Kelleher & Mackey Insurance in Quincy. Insurance estimators automatically assume higher replacement costs for homes built before 1930, Mackey said, but homeowners can add extra coverage for the restoration of specific features as well.

“For very high-end homes with specialty finishes or very old interior fabric — rare 18th- or 19th-century wallpaper, things like that — they’ll need to look at special policies to cover full replacement,” said Sally Zimmerman, senior manager of historic preservation at Historic New England, a nonprofit.

Zimmerman said it’s a good idea to take photos of specific details, such as special hardware or moldings. “Documentation of the house will be helpful, but you have to keep it in a location that’s not in the house, with a family member or someplace secure like a safe deposit box,” she said. And while some contractors may tell you it’s impossible to find a replacement for a historic feature, she added, often they’re simply unfamiliar with the materials or where to find them.

That’s not a problem for Allen, an experienced restoration pro. “Charlie and I,” Palmer joked, “are nothing if not an encyclopedia of building supplies.”

Still, as hard as the crew worked to match the home to its history, there are some details only time can create. “The thing that strikes me is the new floors, and then I remind myself that they will patina, and they will yellow as the sun gets to them,” Allen said. “The polyurethane literally yellows over time. And if you put a little tint in it, so it looks yellow, then it’ll look too yellow.”

New floors notwithstanding, the homeowners — who lived in the carriage house during the restoration — were thrilled with the results as they prepared to move back in just before New Year’s. And with any luck, their house won’t make headlines again any time soon.


Charlie Allen Renovations
Charlie Allen Renovations
Charlie Allen Renovations


The glazed-tile hearth is the center of attention once more in the dining room.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance
A closer look at the glazed tile.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance
From left, project manager Nortoh Alexander and carpenter Alex Romanowicz look over the woodwork in the entrance.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe
A wooden doorknob is one of the period details in the home.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe
An ornate bull's-eye light fixture hangs in the second-floor hallway. Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe
A stained-glass panel with a vineyard motif and a tiled chandelier are among the period details that needed to be restored. Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance
Stained-glass wing windows frame the entryway.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance
A closer look.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe
Carpenter Alex Romanowicz replaces the top piece on a mantel. Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe
A room on the second floor.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance
Many of the period radiators had frozen and cracked after the fire.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe
A webbed oval window. Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe
An ornate window latch. Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Jon Gorey is a freelance writer in Quincy. Send comments to jongorey@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jongorey.

Due to photographer errors, the name and/or affiliation of two workers photographed were incorrect in a previous version of this story. The project manager was Nortoh Alexander, and carpenter Alex Romanowicz is with Charlie Allen Renovations.