A Labor of Love in Downtown Portsmouth
A complex refurbishing of a 200-year-old home revived its period charm while also introducing eye-catching color, detail and flourishes.
The brick home anchoring a busy corner in the heart of downtown Portsmouth has been put to many uses since its construction in 1816. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was a confectionary. Later, in the ’60s and ’70s, it was a grocery market with two apartments above. Ultimately, it was reverted into a single-family residence, which is how it was configured when the current owners first laid eyes on it in 2019.
“We were looking for an older home in the Seacoast area, and we were charmed by Portsmouth after a couple visits,” says the homeowner, a California native who was living with his husband in Singapore for business at the time of the sale. “I’ve always been drawn to the character of old houses,” he says, adding that, other than during college, he has never lived in any place newer than 100 years old.
He was immediately taken by the Federal style home’s unique features: its curved corner at the meeting of Chapel and Daniel streets as well as an unexpected oculus on the third-floor landing. The couple brought in builder Randall Emmett of NE Cornerstone Home & Property Maintenance to renovate bathrooms, level floors and tweak layouts.
Including the finished basement, there is about 3,200 square feet of living space on four levels. “I always tell friends that it’s a tall house, not a big house,” says its new steward.
First and foremost, the couple wanted to move an awkwardly placed stair just off the front door leading down to the basement. “Having done a number of remodels over the years, I thought we’d just cover that over, move it back in line with the main stair and recapture that space for the living room,” recalls the owner.
Considering the investment, and how the refresh would have to satisfy building codes as well as rigorous historical commission guidelines, the owners brought on Portsmouth-based TMS Architects Interiors. Firm principal Timothy Giguere, AIA, was instrumental in problem-solving how best to revive the structure’s period charm while repairing its old-age problems and infusing it with modern convenience—all in a challenging urban setting.
“We wanted to pay homage to the home’s Federal style, which incorporates elements of Greek and Roman architecture,” says Giguere. “The design intent was to make the home and its spaces appear original and well kept.”
However, once construction opened up walls and ceilings, the modest renovation transformed into a much more comprehensive, and expensive, endeavor. “Cracked and decaying support beams led to the second and first floors being condemned,” explains Emmett. “Very quickly it became a gut project with only the outer shell remaining.”
“It was certainly more than we ever expected to get into,” reveals the owner. “Originally, we wanted to improve the livability of the ground floor, and potentially make larger improvements to the kitchen and primary bathroom down the road. Instead, eight months after closing on the house, we found ourselves with a four-story empty brick shell.”
Together, architect and builder accomplished a laundry list of updates, including new windows with operable wood exterior shutters; custom exterior (mahogany) and interior (white oak) doors; modern electrical, HVAC and sprinkler systems; and the application of historically appropriate millwork befitting the house’s 19th-century Federal bones.
Taking advantage of TMS Architects’ full-service offerings, the owner worked with firm interior designer Cristina Johnson, AIA, NCIDQ, to ensure a comprehensive flow of style and color from room to room and story to story. “The owner wanted a historically accurate interior,” says Johnson. “He didn’t shy away from color and had a passion for collecting antiques and artwork.”
Both client and designer embraced the implied story of the home’s heyday: “As a West Coaster, Federal houses of this period were foreign to me originally,” says the owner. “But I researched the style and how Portsmouth evolved from a scrambling colony into a port city populated by wealthy merchants, their
residences decorated with treasures from Europe and abroad.” His own antiques rein-force this storyline.
“That was part of the process, imagining what type of house a merchant with worldly attitudes and belongings would have built for his family,” agrees Johnson. “The exterior is decidedly Federal, in keeping with neighboring buildings of the same time period. We took certain liberties with the interior, incorporating some of the client’s leanings towards Georgian flourishes and detail.
“The Lady Pepperrell House (c. 1760) in Kittery, Maine, was one notable project that provided a lot of helpful visual reference,” she continues. “It guided me on how to treat fireplaces and millwork and approach color.”
In the home’s back alley, the design team executed a multi-story, 10-by-10-foot addition.
To blend this new construction with the historic mass, NE Cornerstone used reclaimed brick from necessary demolition on the addition’s veneer. “We preserved and cleaned thousands
of bricks from the main home,” recalls Emmett. “At the end, we needed only a handful of new ones. It worked out pretty perfectly.”
This bonus room gained the home an informal side entrance, where a new closet and powder room lead to the kitchen. “Because the kitchen is in a darker section of the home, backing up to the alley, we wanted to keep it light and bright and avoid any heavy color,” says Johnson, who paired white-painted cabinets with marble countertops. The La Cornue range—from the French company’s Château Series in a “Roquefort” hue—contributes a subtle dose of color akin to a Wedgewood blue.
Off the front entrance lies the living room, formally outfitted with millwork in a historically appropriate putty hue. A neutral Phillip Jeffries grasscloth wallpaper lends warmth and texture, and refurbished antique sconces draw the eye. Before the demolition, the main staircase was dark and encased inside full walls. The new iteration looks like it always belonged, with beautifully turned balusters and acanthus leaves in relief on the stringers.
The second story houses a guest suite and formal parlor. Sconces by famed New York lighting designer and manufacturer E. F. Caldwell sparkle like jewelry on the parlor walls. “The trim throughout the house had decades of paint applied; it wasn’t salvageable,” explains the architect. “But one of the original details that we reintroduced was extending all the window casings down to the ground.”
Ceiling heights were limited except on the third floor, dedicated entirely to the primary suite, where the reframing of the roof allowed for extra volume. In the primary bedroom, the architect expanded the ceiling upwards but could not adjust the small three-over-three double-hung windows.
“To give the illusion of height, we kept these window casings tall and topped them with a wood appliqué,” notes Johnson. “The appliqué’s motif is a combination acanthus leaf and shell, which both fall in line with Georgian style.” Anglo-Indian antiques brought by the owner from Singapore stamp this well-appointed bedroom with purposeful worldliness.
Antique lighting is another of the client’s passions—his period finds on Ebay and 1stDibs lend authenticity to the new-old interior. Each treasure was shipped directly to the builder, who in turn relayed it to his lighting restorer, Acu-Bright in East Kingston, a specialist in historic conservation and rewiring.
One of the owner’s wish-list items was a home office: Giguere eked out just enough room for this in the primary suite. Johnson enlivened the modest workspace with a “Lotus Garden” wall-covering by Schumacher, its pattern an ode to Japanese natural motifs, and matching emerald green trim. The built-in desk saves on space while contributing storage. Overhead, a Wedgewood chandelier punctuates the tray ceiling with recessed cove lighting.
Continuing the design team’s attention to detail, an artisan was called in to hand-paint concrete panels for the office’s fireplace surround. The finished effect emulates the intense green and intriguing banding of malachite.
A soaking tub was a must for the primary bath—and the addition allowed just enough space for a dedicated “tub room.” The room’s Schumacher “Cloud Toile” wallcovering encourages relaxation. “I wasn’t sure about it at first, but I think it was the perfect choice,” says the owner, who likens the effect to being on a flight rising through the clouds. Marble tile in varying patterns and sizes adds to the luxurious, spa-like feel.
Another destination for relaxation is the finished basement. Its built-in bar and TV area are ideal for unwinding and entertaining. Here, another guest bedroom and bath enhance the couple’s hosting capabilities.
The two-and-a-half-year project—completed during the pandemic and within a strict historic district—was a true labor of love. Now, the owners get to enjoy their own personal chapter in the building’s impressive 200-year history.