Down in front

Replacing awkward additions with a pleasing porch gives a Newton home a new look.

By Marni Elyse Katz
May 2, 2010

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Never mind the high ceilings, perfect proportions, and park across the street. What really attracted Marya Van’t Hul and Joshua Gahm to their Second Empire mansard house was the front porch. Or, rather, the promise of one.

When Van’t Hul, a former book editor, and Gahm, a software engineer, purchased the circa 1860s Newtonville home they share with their now 8-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter, the front of the house was smothered in funky extensions dating to the 1920s and 1930s. “It was like entering a cave,” she says. The add-ons were not just unattractive, they were unusable – hot in the summer and cold in the winter.

On the recommendation of a colleague, the couple hired Cambridge-based architect John Altobello to transform the facade. (They also got a new mudroom and second-floor study out of the deal by reclaiming space found through removing an unnecessary staircase.)

The couple, who were intimately involved in the design process, looked at a lot of Victorian pattern books for inspiration. “Detail was extremely important,” says Altobello, who custom-designed the columns, balusters, and brackets. The on-site contractor, Kevin Morrissey of Brighton-based Morrissey Construction Corp., turned out sample wooden brackets in varying thicknesses and heights. Then they all took turns holding up columns, balusters, and brackets on the porch while the others stood across the street in the park, to be sure the final design would look right. “We worked until the proportions were just right,” says Altobello.

The height of the railing was of particular concern. It shouldn’t be obtrusive, yet it had to be prominent enough to match the architecture of the house. It wasn’t just about aesthetics; it was about how the family would relate to the neighborhood. “A porch is a nice, intermediate area,” says Van’t Hul. “You’re in your own space, but you can still chat with your neighbors.”

The family makes the most of the new porch. Although Van’t Hul had imagined it as a quiet spot to knit, it has become a hangout for her daughter and her friends. And both kids do their homework out there. “Every house should have a front porch,” says Van’t Hul. “We met more people in the first two months we used the porch than we did in the whole five years we lived here.”

Marni Elyse Katz is a writer in Boston. Send comments to

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