Susan Emmerson practiced medicine for 17 years, but she always dreamed of being an artist. In 2010, she enrolled in Lesley University’s MFA program, which allows students to earn degrees mostly from afar — in her case, Bloomington, Illinois. In June 2016, three years after getting her degree, Emmerson moved into a live/work loft in the Savin Hill section of Dorchester, beginning her re-imagined life.
Emmerson hired Cindy Larson, principal of Somerville-based Centrepoint Architects, to redesign the 1,060-square-foot condo, which has 12-foot ceilings. The space, in a former warehouse, had been a yoga studio in front and artist’s workshop in back; its transformation to contemporary dream home was no small feat. “Susan shared a definite list of ideas.” Larson says. “This was to be her last stop; it was important that it be just as she always imagined.”
The goal was to create an open living area with a loft-like feel while carving out two bedrooms — the guest room doubles as Emmerson’s auxiliary studio, where she works in mixed media — and plenty of storage. Emmerson, who has two grown sons, had purged most of her belongings in Bloomington but moved with her many books as well as artwork, a grandfather clock given to her and her late husband by his sister as a wedding gift, and her pet snake, Steve. Each precious possession figured into the design. A full wall of built-in bookshelves was the starting point for the space. “I’ve always wanted every book I own to have a spot.” Emmerson says.
Larson positioned the kitchen next to the underside of a staircase. Then she designed a rectangular box — an ingenious coat closet — in front of it, turning a pesky flaw into a cool feature. The closet also creates separation between the entry and kitchen, hiding the fridge and Steve’s terrarium. Dark cabinetry recedes into the white space, framing the digitized design of the mosaic tile backsplash.
The loft’s overall aesthetic relies on hard-edged lines, with earthy, industrial touches for contrast. The stained concrete floor boasts an epoxy finish with irregular patterning that lends depth. An existing steel beam with a gorgeous rusted patina runs across the living room ceiling, and an exposed-brick niche holds the grandfather clock.
The element Larson and Emmerson are proudest of is the live-edge wood slab topping the breakfast bar. It was sawn from one of hundreds of antique live-oak logs discovered at the Charlestown Navy Yard by crews working on the site of the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. There’s even an inventory number stamped on one end.
The home’s private spaces — powder room and laundry, studio/guest room, and master suite — lie beyond the kitchen. The catwalk above is a feature Emmerson considered essential to the loft vibe. To create the master closet, Larson closed up one end of a narrow hallway.
Since there are no windows in the back of the unit, Larson “borrowed” natural light from three small side windows by inserting 4-foot-high glass panels along the top of the bedrooms’ interior walls. In addition, the sliding barn door to the master bedroom is translucent. “When I awaken each morning,” says Emmerson, “there’s the feel of sunlight streaming in.”
All in all, the relocation and renovation have been a success. Emmerson has embraced urban living and its walkability, culture, and diversity. “There’s good and bad, but it’s exciting,” she says. “And it’s definitely enriched my work as an artist.”
MORE PHOTOS FROM THIS PROJECT:
EVERYTHING IN ITS PLACE
THREE STORAGE SOLUTIONS in Susan Emmerson’s loft are central to the overall design, devised as much for aesthetic appeal as for function.
Bookshelves in the living room are its visual anchor and create a wow moment. But what about when the shelves aren’t filled? To combat blank fields of white space, architect Cindy Larson designed wooden inserts to add visual interest. They also allow Emmerson to display small-scale objects and artworks in spaces that are otherwise too large. A sleek library ladder runs across the entire expanse and folds up flat.
Emmerson’s vision of an artist’s loft included a catwalk, and thanks to 12-foot ceilings, Larson could comply. It became as much a practical element as an ornamental one once Larson carved a trio of storage niches at the top of the wall above the kitchen. An industrial hydraulic lift mounted to the wall allows Emmerson to easily transfer heavy items.
In the master bedroom, woodworker Stephen Maurer of Salem-based North River Design Group crafted an artistic arrangement of built-in cabinetry for clothing, jewelry, and linens. Primavera wood cabinets are trimmed with fumed eucalyptus, also used for the tops of the dresser and bench portion as well as the interior. The patterned doors are book-matched royal ebony veneer. “Stephen adapted my initial concept into a signature piece,” Larson says. “It warms up all the white minimalism.”