The eldest of five kids, Jim Burke grew up in South Boston. His grandparents and his uncle’s family lived in a three-decker next door; another aunt and uncle and several cousins had a home across the street. “There was something like thirteen of us cousins [nearby] ten years apart,” recalls Burke. “It was pretty nuts sometimes.”
By the time he entered high school, his family had relocated to Milton. His parents held onto the 1920s three-decker in Southie, though, renting it out from time to time. As an adult, Burke lived in the Washington, D.C., area before returning to Boston more than a decade ago. He and business partner Randy Milburn own Cambridgeport Construction, which specializes in high-end historical restorations and renovations.
“I started renting the house in Southie from my parents,” says Burke. His wife, Emily, moved in when they married five years ago. After their daughters, Georgia, 3, and Mairead, 1, were born, the couple decided they were settled in—they live on the upper two floors and rent out the first level—for the long haul.
Making the house their “forever home” would take some work. “The place was in decent shape, but it was showing its age,” explains Burke. “The house hadn’t been touched in decades. My dad had renovated it himself 35 years ago on nights and weekends when he was a surgical resident at Mass. General.”
On the second floor, an updated kitchen and a more modern layout were essential. They found their solution in custom Mission-style cabinets made by Salmon Falls Woodworks and a striking walnut-topped island.
On the third floor, significant structural work — completed by Burke’s own company, of course — was needed to accommodate a master suite, two more bedrooms, and a bathroom. Richard Levey of RBL Architects in Newton drafted the plans.
“Since we couldn’t go outside of the existing footprint, the only way to expand was to make the cramped third floor larger,” says Burke. By removing the obsolete chimney and rebuilding the roof, they were able to install full-length dormers on both sides, essentially doubling the usable square footage of the third floor.
Though they wanted to make the house their own, the couple didn’t want to go too far. “There was a lot of reluctance on my part to redo what my dad had done to the house because he had put so much of himself into it,” says Burke. Several elements the senior Burke had installed remain, including the built-in shelves and cabinets he crafted in the living room. “We just painted the oak white to make it look more up-to-date,” says Burke, who added his own handcrafted elements to the house as well. “While Cambridgeport did the renovation, I built certain things for the house after hours,” including the walnut dining table and the built-in window seat and coffee table in the living room.
Uniting Jim and Emily’s tastes took some thought, too. Interior designer Sarah Scales helped with that. “Jim is very into Mission and Arts and Crafts-style elements, while Emily veers toward more beachy, soft, and serene things,” says Scales.
Arts and Crafts style wins out in the dining room wainscoting and the handmade coffee table. The color palette centers on calming gray, blue, and white tones that Emily favors. In some cases, Scales found furnishings that satisfy both spouses, such as the West Elm capiz light fixture in the dining room. “Since it’s made of shells, it has a beachy, more contemporary feel while also feeling connected to the leaded-glass elements often associated with Arts and Crafts style,” Scales says.
The home now feels comfortable and personal for a young family, yet very much connected to its past. At the foot of Emily and Jim’s bed is a large wooden hope chest with brass detailing “made for my mother by my dad 40-plus years ago,” says Jim. “It’s very special to now have it in our bedroom.”