Your home: great rooms

Home stretch

One adventurous couple couldn't resist buying the crumbling Admiral Converse house in Vermont. But how to add on while preserving its Georgian charm?

Vermont house (Globe photo / Rob Karosis) Above it all: A library loft makes practical use of the addition's vertical space. In contrast, the sitting area has a high ceiling and sightlines that run both vertically and horizontally.
By Sarah Pinneo
December 5, 2010

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When the Voelkel family first laid eyes on the once-proud Admiral Converse home in Norwich, Vermont, “it was so derelict that we told the broker we’d have to be crazy to buy it,” recalls Pamela Voelkel. As coauthors of The Jaguar Stones, a Mayan-themed children’s adventure series, Pamela and her husband, Jon, are intrepid travelers who regularly explore jungle ruins in the name of research, their three children in tow. Even so, the crumbling 1815 house on Main Street seemed too daunting a project. It took six months and several consultations with the team at Smith & Vansant Architects, also in Norwich, before the Voelkels could be sure that the benefits – good bones, the old beehive fireplace, and 2 acres of gardens – would eventually outweigh the difficulties.

Here’s how the new great room neatly addresses several design challenges:

Problem: The cave-like 1950s kitchen at the back of the house would have to be scrapped. The Voelkels knew that adding on a great room would make all the difference to the 19th-century home, creating an open family space. But the previous alteration had already demonstrated the perils of tacking a modern addition onto a stately Georgian home.

Solution: “Originally, there were barns on the premises,” Jon Voelkel says. “But they’d been lost in the 1950s.” So a roomy addition was disguised by Smith & Vansant Architects as a historically appropriate barn rising up in back. In one stroke, the character of the exterior was saved and the family gained a double-height wing.

Problem: How do you create distinct zones and functions in a space that, by definition, has no interior walls? Soaring ceilings mean plenty of windows for much needed sunlight, says Pi Smith, a principal at Smith & Vansant. “But their scale often wastes vertical space and sacrifices coziness.”

Solution: “The simple barn building form – really a rectangular box – actually houses an intricate three-dimensional puzzle, with each space visually connected and yet functioning independently,” Smith says. “The kitchen and dining areas have lower ceilings, which are both comfortable for eating and working and practical for providing good lighting.” In contrast, the sitting area has a high ceiling and sightlines that run both vertically and horizontally. A boldly colored, dramatically vertical fireplace divides – without blocking – the main seating area from two other unique spaces: a generous screened porch and, above that, a loft area, which houses an art studio and library. Window seats and a media center are tucked under the loft, creating a low, cozy area along the edge of the room.

Problem: How could the comfortable 21st-century interior pay homage to the home’s 19th-century beginnings?

Solution: “That was the fun part,” says Jon Voelkel. “In deference to Admiral George Converse,” the home’s most famous owner, “we were keen to incorporate some of the lighthearted naval element.” And so there are porthole handholds on the sculptural ship’s ladder that leads to the loft. Lightweight steel-cable railings around the loft continue the theme without blocking the view between levels. The Voelkels found a ship’s figurehead from Genoa to hang above the fireplace. And a submarine-style hatchway leads from the loft to the master bedroom. To keep the industrial look, Voelkel wouldn’t let the painters touch the red-primed steel girders on the ceiling. “They look right the way they are. Industrial,” he says.

The result is a cheery, sun-filled family space, “at once bold and modern,” Smith says, “yet respectful to the home’s first 190 years of history.”

Sarah Pinneo is the coauthor of The Ski House Cookbook and the author of the novel Julia’s Child, coming from Plume in 2012. Send comments to