Act three

A restored Beacon Hill home mixes old with new for high drama.

By Ingrid Abramovitch
November 22, 2009

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The 1835 Greek Revival town house on Mount Vernon Place could be the setting for a Henry James novel, and, in fact, the author used to live around the corner on a street he once declared the most respectable in America. The house has three sunny exposures and five bedrooms and is thought to have been designed by architect Alexander Parris.

The town house would once have been decorated with fashionable furniture and fabrics imported from Europe, and a sizable household staff would have attended to the care and upkeep of the residence’s almost 10,000 square feet. It’s a lifestyle that few today can replicate, and, indeed, the building lost many of its decorative flourishes in the years it served as offices for the Unitarian Church’s Beacon Press. When a family bought the town house in 2001 and hired interior designer Heidi Pribell to oversee the renovation, Pribell knew she had a rare opportunity to bring a classic space back to its original grandeur.

Pribell sought out antiques appropriate to a Boston home of the early 19th century. She found a rare pair of English crystal chandeliers (circa 1830) for the front and rear parlors. A set of classical gondola-form chairs from the estate of Fred Hughes, Andy Warhol’s business partner, was purchased for the dining room. Anything that couldn’t be found was custom designed.

The renovation took three years and incorporated modern amenities, too, from a media room to a gym and elevator. Still, much of the original house was saved, including the interior window shutters and seats as well as four marble fireplaces. The few salvageable floorboards were recycled into tabletops and beams.

The town house’s most spectacular feature is also original: a spiral staircase that coils from the foyer to the attic. If that were not eye-catching enough, the stairwell’s walls, which are 25 feet tall in the foyer, are papered in a lavish hibiscus print by the French firm Boussac. For a final flourish, Pribell covered the foyer floor in black and white cushion-cut marble tile. Henry James would surely have approved.

Excerpted from Restoring a House in the City, by Ingrid Abramovitch (Artisan Books). Copyright 2009 by Ingrid Abramovitch. Photographs by Brian Park. Send comments to

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