boston.com: Hewing classic home into modern era

boston.com: Hewing classic home into modern era

By Vanessa Parks

 Globe Correspondent / March 30, 2008

NORTH ATTLEBOROUGH – Most couples finish a home renovation and think “never again.” But after spending several years renovating their Sharon home, Bruce and Melanie Rosenbaum wondered, “What’s next?”

“It’s like having a baby – once you’re through it, you kind of forget the pain,” Bruce joked. “We thought, ‘We’re pretty good at this. Let’s do it again.’ ”

They decided to go into the business of renovating Victorian homes and Modern Victorian Home Restoration Co. was born. But they also decided to take baby steps, focusing on just one house, at least at the beginning.

That house is the Benjamin Stanley Freeman house, a grand Italianate Victorian in North Attleborough that will be open for tours next weekend. And what a house it is – there’s a 50-foot turret, a staircase that winds through three stories to a stained-glass window, curved walls, arched doorways, intricately carved corbels, marble fireplaces, even gorgeous door hinges.

And while much of it is original, not everything is. There’s salvaged wood on some floors, church pews from Springfield resurrected as kitchen seating, a mahogany railing from a New Hamp shire house, and what was a built-in china cabinet in a Brookline home now serving as a wet bar.

The philosophy of ModVic, as the Rosenbaums refer to their company, is to be sensitive to a home’s history, but not a slave to it.

“We’re not really preservationists,” Bruce Rosenbaum said. “We’re restoring and renovating the house, but taking a fresh look. We’re adding modern conveniences. We feel that will give the home the best chance to survive another century, because people are going to want to take care of it.”

The Benjamin Stanley Freeman house, chopped up into four apartments in the 1950s, was lucky to get that chance. When the Rosenbaums set out to buy a Victorian, they had several criteria, including that it couldn’t be on a main street (as are many old homes), it had to have a decent amount of land (this one sits on nearly an acre), and “It had to have some drama; it had to have some history,” Rosenbaum said.

After ruling out a nearby house, their broker mentioned the Freeman house but thought they wouldn’t be interested because it wasn’t a single-family. The Rosenbaums knew this was the one.

“It had everything – location, price, drama,” Bruce said.

In contrast to the home’s dramatic exterior today, the house was built in 1830 as a simple 2 1/2-story home by Benjamin Freeman. His son, Benjamin Stanley Freeman, worked in a local jewelry factory, married the owner’s daughter, and later became a successful jeweler himself.

In 1860, he bought his parents’ home and, in 1877, added the soaring center tower, the cresting on the roofline, bay windows, porches, and the impressive portico at the entrance. The embellishments were fitting for a jeweler, and, as architectural historian William McKenzie Woodward writes in an essay on the house, “swaggering testimony to the entrepreneurial spirit that drove this community in the second half of the 19th century.”

While replastering walls – wet plaster, to replicate the smooth-as-glass feel of the original walls – workmen uncovered a board with the date 1877, probably left by workers who constructed the turret. In the extensive blog on modvic.com, Bruce Rosenbaum relates how workers removing old layers of wallpaper found the word “HELP” scratched into the paper’s glue backing, alarming some of them. Later, though, they found the word “LOVE” scrawled behind a bathroom wall.

The Rosenbaums gutted the entire house, though they didn’t expect to.

“We were really naive about what it would take,” Bruce said. “We thought we were going to limit the amount of demolition. That was a big lesson, that we should go in saying ‘All systems have to go.’ ”

The Rosenbaums’ home in Sharon is chock full of unusual items, some of which they stumbled upon, others uncovered in antique shops or on eBay.

Bruce Rosenbaum, who also runs a direct marketing company, said his strong suit is in building relationships with tradesmen and moving the project along on a day-to-day basis. Melanie’s forte is on the creative end – she was the mastermind of the home’s complex yet not over-the-top seven-color exterior paint scheme. Inside, ceilings are painted in tints that are 25 percent the strength of the wall color. The master suite has a series of colors, going from full strength to various gradations – 50 percent of the hue on one wall, 75 percent on another.

Though they’ve been asked whether they would consider doing renovations for other people, they’ve declined. “Part of the fun, really – and part of the risk – is not having a client,” Bruce said. “We really feel like the fun is going in and doing it the way we want to do it.”

He estimates that work will be about 95 percent complete for next weekend’s tours, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. A donation of $5 is being requested, with proceeds going to paint the historic Falls Fire Barn Museum. Members of the North Attleboro Fire Barn Preservation Society Inc., will be on hand to answer questions about the home’s history.

Melanie will be dressed in Victorian garb, while a “time machine” outfitted with digital photo frames will display “before” and “after” photos. And, for good measure, the old North Attleborough police jail cell that Harry Houdini reportedly escaped from in 1923 will also be shown – another find the couple got on eBay.

An open house is scheduled for the weekend of April 12-13. The asking price for the house has not been determined, but Bruce Rosenbaum said it will probably be about $1.5 million.

To view a photo gallery of the renovation project: Click Here

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