Your Home | Makeovers

Statement-making angles and passageways give 21st-century flair to a Chestnut Hill Victorian

A couple with a blended family of five children reenvision a stately home for modern living.

Matt Delphenich
The initial kitchen design called for one long island, but homeowner Sara Cornell thought she would feel trapped behind it. Architect Isamu Kanda split it into two sections. “One is for eating and the other for straight-up function,” Cornell says. “I love that two activities can happen simultaneously.”

Sara Cornell and David Southwell considered buying a funky downtown loft. For about a minute. “Although we’re practically empty nesters, with five children between us, someone’s always back for food, laundry, or parking,” says Cornell.

Instead, the couple chose an 1893 Victorian in Chestnut Hill. It hadn’t seen improvements in many years, but “when we opened the door, angels started singing,” Cornell recalls. “Then we realized how much work it needed.”

They hired Misty Gray of Grayscale Design and architect Isamu Kanda of I-Kanda Architects to transform the three-story house. They wanted a combination of styles — “I favor Rothko; he loves Rembrandt,” Cornell says — that maintained the home’s Victorian essence. And it had to function for them as both a couple and a family. “We have grown-up dinner parties and after-prom parties,” says Cornell.


In addition to a new kitchen, renovated bathrooms, and cosmetic enhancements throughout, the home needed a new layout, especially on the first floor. While the formal rooms off the central foyer were beautifully proportioned, there was no clear path from the front of the house to the kitchen, mudroom, and laundry at the back. It was an old-fashioned setup unsuitable for modern living. “They were spending all their time in the back of the house, which was essentially the servants’ quarters,” Kanda says.

Establishing a clear axis from front to back was a simple fix. Kanda removed the pantry and added a window in the kitchen at the back of the house, creating an unobstructed view from the front door to the backyard — and admitting much-needed light.

The vestibule, covered in a playful faux boxwood wall treatment, opens into a gracious foyer with original dentil molding. From there, a new passageway with mustard-colored, lattice-patterned wallpaper leads to the sun-drenched kitchen punctuated by a tall picture window with a leafy view.

To address other flow-related issues on the first floor, Kanda introduced dramatic blackened-steel-lined passageways, which he likens to “surgical incisions,” at the corners of rooms. The first connects the living and dining rooms and replaces French doors that had been eating up valuable wall space. From the dining room, a second such passageway leads to the sunroom and a third to the kitchen.

Matt Delphenich
Thanks to a revised floor plan that created new passageways, the sunroom flows into the dining room, which flows into the living room, where Cornell sits with the family cat. “Sunlight shoots into the rooms through angles like light passing through the facets of a diamond,” Kanda says.

Upstairs, another chamfered cut links the master bedroom to the new dressing room, formerly an extra bedroom. This one is wrapped in smoky mirror. “We intentionally made them different,” Gray says, “celebrating them by applying unexpected new materials.”


With the existing wainscoting, heirloom furnishings, and Southwell’s old masters art collection, the living room, dining room, library, and dressing room share a new-meets–Old World feel. The kitchen, by contrast, is unapologetically contemporary. The base cabinets and a pair of trapezoidal islands that Kanda likens to faceted icebergs — again, he played with angles in the design — are wrapped in rift-cut quartersawn oak to blend with new white oak floor planks. The sculpted Corian countertops and backsplash allow the upper cabinetry to disappear. Handblown glass pendants draped with natural rope are a contemporary nod to Southwell’s penchant for the nautical.

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Upstairs, too, old and new coexist. The sexy, light-filled master bath sits on one side of the airy master bedroom. On the other, the angled passageway leads to the dressing room. Kanda designed another trapezoidal island here, Gray hung a cluster of lights, and Southwell added a marble sculpture of a reclining nude. And then there’s the original fireplace that Gray refurbished with metallic gold cheetah-print tile. An 18th-century English marine painting hangs above.

Says Gray, “It went from dark Victorian to a modern home with a bright mix of old and new, edgy and classic, that truly represents Sara and David.”


tamara Flanagan
The living room is both practical and plush. The Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams sectional is upholstered in Perennials indoor/outdoor fabric, and the Moroccan rug feels luxurious underfoot. The West Elm steel coffee table, which is virtually indestructible, echoes the steel-lined passageway at the right.

tamara Flanagan
Dead space in the back stairwell became a reading nook.

grayscale design
BEFORE: This bedroom was repurposed and became a dressing room in the renovation.

Matt Delphenich
AFTER: The new dressing room, formerly a bedroom, has Stark antelope-patterned carpet. Osborne & Little wallpaper covers the ceiling. The island is similar in shape to the pair in the kitchen.

Matt Delphenich
The dressing room connects to the master bedroom through the new smoky-mirror-clad passageway.

Marni Elyse Katz is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to Follow us on Twitter @BostonGlobeMag.