Your Home | Makeovers

A South End triplex goes from bland to beautiful

Color, texture, and upgraded finishes make a generic space feel like home.

michael j. Lee for the boston globe
Kate McGovern sits on a Cosse sofa from Ligne Roset in the living room with her kids. The smoked-glass top of the Gabriel Scott coffee table echoes the back of the bookshelves. Husband Mike uses the Vitra “Repos” lounge chair from Lekker Home when he listens to music.

Dee Elms had last talked to Mike McGovern, a friend from Boston College, in 1999, so she was surprised when he called in March 2015 to say he and his wife, Kate, were interested in hiring her Boston-based firm, Elms Interior Design. Elms and Kate quickly bonded, and by the end of the summer the McGoverns were ensconced in their newly made-over 2,500-square-foot South End triplex.

The McGoverns, who have two children, ages 3 and 1, purchased the condo from a developer. Though fully renovated, the place was devoid of personality. “We loved the location, layout, and outdoor spaces, but it felt very generic,” Kate says. “We knew with Dee’s vision it could feel like home.”

In addition to choosing fun, family-friendly furnishings, Elms focused on replacing the home’s sub-par finishes with layers of color, pattern, and texture. The main living space, which includes a dining area and the kitchen, had high ceilings and crown moldings but felt flat and sparse. It also lacked a focal point. Elms swapped out the existing inexpensive gas fireplace with a high-quality insert by Sparks and designed a tall, sleek travertine surround with built-ins to one side. “It has the mass to anchor both sides of the room, bringing the space from bland to balanced,” she says.


The built-ins, wired for Mike’s turntable and complete with vertical supports to prevent the shelves from buckling under the weight of his record collection, are backed with smoked glass for drama. Walnut-and-brass pulls and a Flos light fixture, hung high so it need not dictate the placement of the dining table, add sparkle.

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Leaving the kitchen cabinetry and backsplash intact, Elms replaced the peninsula’s unremarkable countertop with a thick slab of highly veined Bardiglio marble with a waterfall edge. Another trick was to paint all the doors, including the one leading from the kitchen to the back deck, glossy gray. “Dee told us we’d never want a white door again,” Kate says, “and she was right.”

Similar strategic decisions went into redesigning the downstairs family room, which is the main play space for the kids and where the adults watch TV. After persuading the homeowners to abandon the gas fireplace unceremoniously stuck into an oddly angled wall, Elms designed what she calls a “workhorse” of a built-in. The custom piece covers the wall, yet its simple lines keep it from feeling imposing. “We fit all the toys in the drawers, with room to spare,” Kate says.

On the wall behind the comfy sectional sofa, the wet bar, which resembled a misplaced kitchenette more than a sophisticated entertaining feature, was replaced with clean-lined cabinetry and floating shelves against a mirrored back. Elms even incorporated a dishwasher, especially convenient when the family entertains on the adjacent patio. Neutral grass-cloth wallpaper with a nubby texture adds to the cozy feel.

The baths and three bedrooms didn’t require significant fixes but benefited from some spicing up. The master bedroom now has a grass-cloth feature wall and brass light fixtures. Orange crosshatch wallpaper enlivens the nursery, satisfying Kate’s love of peppy patterns. And rather than pursuing costly bathroom renovations, Elms added custom wood-framed mirrors, fun sconces, and high-quality hardware to all three.


Most important, the rooms function perfectly in every situation, whether Kate is hanging out with a group of moms and little ones in the family room, Mike is listening to music in his high-backed lounge chair in the living room, or the kids are playing atop the soft rugs in their bedrooms.

“The details are simple changes, but in the end they are what make a home special,” says Elms. “I think we turned this blank box into a family home with soul.”


michael j. Lee for the boston globe
Unafraid of color, the McGoverns love designer Dee Elms’s choices to punch up the dining area — a yellow bombe chest and orange Wishbone chairs. A round table works best for flow.

michael j. Lee for the boston globe
The wet bar cabinetry in the family room is painted Benjamin Moore’s Hudson Bay.

michael j. Lee for the boston globe
Boston photographer Tess Atkinson’s dreamy Parisian scene hangs over the bed in the master bedroom.

Before the renovation, the living room, though blessed with high ceilings and tall windows, lacked character.

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