Liv­ing in a pro­tected 17th-cen­tury home takes hard work — and the abil­ity to ac­cept a lit­tle dis­com­fort

The Observer (Sarnia) - - HOMES - TRACEE M. HERBAUGH

BOS­TON — What does it take to make a 17th-cen­tury house liv­able to­day?

Ask Bar­bara Kurze, who lives at the James Blake House, which the Bos­ton Land­marks Com­mis­sion says is the old­est house in Bos­ton.

The five-room, two-level house was built in 1661 by Blake, an English im­mi­grant, in Dorch­ester, now a neigh­bour­hood of Bos­ton. Kurze was of­fered the chance to be­come live-in care­taker of the prop­erty, owned by the Dorch­ester His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety.

Keep­ing the house both liv­able and his­tor­i­cally authen­tic has been a con­stant strug­gle over the cen­turies, Kurze said.

Like many mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties, Bos­ton has strict rules about mak­ing changes to his­toric build­ings.

“There’s al­ways a bal­ance, what to pre­serve and what mod­ern touches are ap­pro­pri­ate,” said Paul Ha­jian, an ar­chi­tect and pro­fes­sor of ar­chi­tec­tural de­sign at Mas­sachusetts Col­lege of Art and De­sign. Still, he added, “peo­ple in old houses don’t want to live like they’re in the 17th cen­tury.”

Kurze, 58, a preser­va­tion plan­ner, moved into the Blake House four years ago and brought a re­newed am­bi­tion to re­store the home to splen­dour. She en­listed the help of Bos­ton-area in­te­rior de­signer Sarah Cole.

De­spite sig­nif­i­cant restora­tion work over the years, “it was clear when I first saw the house that it was in need of some se­ri­ous main­te­nance and re­pairs,” said Cole, owner of de­sign firm Sarah C. In­te­ri­ors. “The paint was peel­ing ev­ery­where and the plas­ter was crum­bling.”

To start, Cole and Kurze needed ap­provals from the Bos­ton Land­mark Com­mis­sion and the Mas­sachusetts His­tor­i­cal Com­mis­sion to make in­te­rior changes. They re­ceived per­mis­sion to re­store the plas­ter on the walls and ceil­ings, and add a new layer of paint. They could choose the colour of paint so long as it ad­hered to the com­mis­sion’s guide­lines.

Noth­ing could be hung on the walls, to pre­vent dam­age.

Cole pri­or­i­tized the house’s unique old charm when it came time for re­fine­ments.

“If you look at the walls, they aren’t smooth, and our goal was not to make it look new,” she said.

The Blake House’s floors are slightly un­even, and it has low ceil­ings and drafty, sin­gle-pane win­dows, all com­mon char­ac­ter­is­tics of build­ings from that era.

In­door plumb­ing and elec­tric­ity were in­stalled in the 19th cen­tury and have been up­dated since. There’s heat, but no air con­di­tion­ing.

Stor­age has proved prob­lem­atic for the home’s oc­cu­pants. The Blake House has only one closet.

Un­til the early 1900s, most peo­ple sim­ply didn’t have as much stuff. There wasn’t the need to store ex­tra clothes, shoes and sport­ing equip­ment, as there is to­day.

An­other dif­fer­ence is a lack of over­head light­ing.

“It can get pretty dark,” Kurze said.

The stairs lead­ing to the sec­ond floor are nar­row and steep.

“I couldn’t bring most of my fur­ni­ture be­cause it wouldn’t fit up the stairs,” she said.

Af­ter the plas­ter and paint were fin­ished, Cole be­gan look­ing for fur­ni­ture that would fit — both phys­i­cally and es­thet­i­cally.

“We looked for things that came in pieces,” she said. “It was pretty dif­fi­cult find­ing nicer fur­ni­ture that could be as­sem­bled but still look right in the space.”

Ac­ces­sories help give the rooms a mod­ern feel. Cole chose a floor rug with nat­u­ral, tan and ter­ra­cotta hues to com­ple­ment the wooden beams and floors in the liv­ing room, for in­stance.

For Kurze, the big­gest sur­prise about liv­ing in such a his­toric home has been the num­ber of vis­i­tors who stop by to look at it.

“Sev­eral Blake de­scen­dants have come by,” she said. “I’d say one comes by ev­ery month or so.”

It can get pretty dark.”

Bar­bara Kurze


It is clear just by look­ing at the ex­te­rior of the James Blake House that it is much older than any­thing else in Bos­ton’s Dorch­ester neigh­bour­hood.


The cen­tral fire­place of the his­toric Blake House is lo­cated in the kitchen.


A spe­cialty craftsman re­pairs plas­ter on the walls at the James Blake House in Bos­ton.


The James Blake House, built in 1661, is the old­est in Bos­ton, ac­cord­ing to the his­tor­i­cal so­ci­ety.

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