Your home | family living

A run-down duplex in Cambridgeport becomes a single-family beauty

Rehabbing a two-family home was the perfect solution for a family of five.

Dan Cutrona for the Boston Globe
Michelle Hicks chops at one end of the kitchen island while her two younger kids, Cate and Matt, do homework. The lower cabinetry is painted Benjamin Moore Normandy; upper cabinets in Snowfall White match the trim and walls.

Knowing their family of five would at some point outgrow their Cambridgeport home, Michelle and Cam Hicks kept a careful eye on neighborhood real estate for close to three years. In 2010, they found just what they were looking for — a dilapidated two-family fixer-upper.

Armed with a strong sense of style and solid ideas of how they wanted to live, the couple hired Newton-based architect Mary McKee, with whom they had worked in the past, along with Boston-based architect Rob Trumbour and Cambridge-based M.F. Keane Contracting. The team transformed the home, which had been virtually untouched for decades, from a dark, architecturally uninteresting box into an airy, functional family home with more than 3,900 square feet of sun-dappled space. Major renovations wrapped up in 2011, and smaller projects last year.

McKee and Trumbour looked at layout first; their biggest concern was creating an open floor plan that would allow as much light as possible to penetrate the house. Step one was relocating the staircase from the middle of the building to one side, allowing the interior to breathe.


The new open-tread maple staircase with steel cable rails is the home’s architectural star. On the driveway side of the building, about 12 feet up from ground level, McKee and Trumbour designed a bump-out that shoots up through the roofline. The result (after a bit of back-and-forth with the zoning board) is an extra-tall, almost tower-like stairwell with oversize windows, a glass-block landing, and skylights. “It’s like a glass beacon that illuminates every floor,” says McKee.

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The homeowners hired Cambridge-based Emily Pinney as their interior designer. Pinney, who had been their baby sitter while she was a student at the Boston Architectural College — the children are now 15, 12, and 10 — also lived in the home for an extended period while the family was temporarily in Connecticut. “My connection with them gave me a unique perspective,” says Pinney. “It’s the most collaborative project I’ve ever done.”

Sunlight and an open layout were top priorities, but the Hickses also wanted walls for art. They own a vibrant collection of mostly abstract pieces that include a Damien Hirst spin painting and a wealth of brightly colored canvases by Michelle’s mother, local artist Priscilla Hayes. Michelle says, “My mom would be upset if we didn’t have enough space for her work!”

McKee and Trumbour reconciled the objectives of creating an open layout while maintaining walls for artwork by cutting out large sections of interior walls from the floor to the ceiling rather than just widening doorways or removing walls altogether. “These partition-like walls both define the space and provide places to hang art,” says Pinney. “They feel very design-oriented.”

The effect is simultaneously expansive and intimate. Newly enlarged windows open some rooms to the outdoors. Other areas, such as the den, which can be closed off with pocket doors, provide respite. In the living room, the sofa nestles in a niche and a gas fireplace keeps things cozy. “We’re neither on top of each other nor completely separated,” Michelle says.


Just beyond, the dining area, furnished with mid-century modern pieces and inherited antiques, flows into the kitchen. At the homeowners’ request, McKee and Trumbour removed a three-season porch in favor of floor-to-ceiling doors that lead from the kitchen to a new back deck and patio. The family plays with their rescue dog, Digby, in the yard and sometimes sets up a screen for movie night.

The kitchen mixes hard-edged lines with soothing color. The manufactured-stone countertop and backsplash were chosen for durability. The island, though partially the same material, is mostly constructed of ash. “Wood has a homier, more relaxed feel and will show some age,” Pinney says.

Michelle says she loves the flexibility. Sometimes family dinner is at the dining table, where the kids also do homework. In nice weather, they eat on the deck, and on fish taco night, for instance, they put bowls of ingredients on the island and gather around on stools.

“We never wanted a formal house,” Michelle says. “We want to be just like this — comfortable and happy.”


Dan Cutrona for the Boston Globe
Ten-year-old Matt Hicks works on a puzzle in the living room. The coffee table is from Burlington-based Vermont Farm Table.

Dan Cutrona for the Boston Globe
Emily Pinney designed the built-ins in the den, where 15-year-old Ben works at a desk. A transom window above the cabinetry looks into the stairwell. It draws light into the room and allows family members to catch glimpses of one another as they travel up or down the stairs.

Dan Cutrona for the Boston Globe
Street artist Michael De Feo created the purple-and-orange flower painting on plywood that graces the stairwell. A mix of pillows on the window seat invites lounging.

Dan Cutrona for the Boston Globe
The new American cherry-wood flooring was chosen for its resemblance to the much pricier African walnut that Michelle and Cam Hicks originally had their eyes on. They own five “Gothic Kitties” paintings by local artist Dave Olson.

Dan Cutrona for the Boston Globe
The brightly colored landscape in the entry hall is by Michelle’s mother, local artist Priscilla Hayes.

Marni Elyse Katz is a regular contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to