Sound barrier

The Anderson family in Cambridge, Mass., is a musical bunch. Eliza Anderson sings, her husband Mike plays piano, and their four sons play guitar, piano and drums. The Andersons’ 6,000-sq.-ft. home, which they’ve owned for three year, includes a large music room where the family likes to perform and entertain for themselves and their friends. 

But sometimes, a family member or visitor might want or require a little privacy and quiet. So about 18 months ago, the Andersons converted a 600-sq.-ft. carriage house, which the previous owner had used as an artist’s studio, into living quarters where guests can stay and relax, and where their 20-something sons, when they visit, can hang out, watch TV or jam without disturbing other people in the two-story main house that’s connected to the smaller suite by a breezeway.

“The biggest challenge was getting the existing space to work the way the owners wanted it to,” says Julie Palmer, president of Charlie Allen Renovations in Cambridge, which designed and executed this project, which took from January through March of 2013 to complete.

Six months before this project got started, the Andersons had met Charlie Allen, the renovation company’s CEO, during a fundraiser at the Cambridge Historical Society, where Allen currently serves as vice president. 

The Andersons’ home is known as Asa Gray House, so named after the famous botanist who lived there from 1842 to 1888, according to historical records. The first known design of Ithiel Town and built in 1810 in what was known at the time as Federal architectural style, Asa Gray House had been on the grounds of Harvard University’s Botanic Garden until 1910, when it was moved to its current location at 88 Garden Street in Cambridge. Asa Gray House was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1965, and the following year was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in Massachusetts.

Its landmark status, however, did not impose any restrictions on the Andersons’ renovation plans, recalls Eliza, primarily because the previous owner had gutted and rebuilt the carriage house 10 years earlier to serve as a commercial pottery studio, so its exterior structure was in good shape.

The redesign of the inside space as a combination guest suite/music room retained its dramatic vaulted ceilings, skylights and wood support beams. Track lighting also illuminates this all-white room, which offers guests a hotel-quality living experience: there’s a full bathroom with double sinks and a shower, a kitchenette, a sleeping area, and a sitting alcove with large windows that look out onto what Palmer describes as “a beautiful garden” that the Andersons completely refurbished a few years earlier with a sunken lawn, granite work, a fountain and pavilion.

Custom-ordered floor-to-ceiling shelving takes up one wall of the interior space. The shelves are mostly lined with books, but also display musical instruments as well as mementos of the Andersons’ travels, such as a bowl they brought back from Tibet. One flourish that Mike says he “really wanted” for the space was a library ladder that slides along this wall, navigating a standup piano along the way. 

Neither the Andersons nor Palmer would disclose the project’s budget, although Palmer says cost was not “the primary concern” for the owners. (Mike is an executive with an executive search firm, and Eliza runs the household and is a board member with the Community Charter School of Cambridge. Both are 50 years old and Harvard alums.) The Andersons and Charlie Allen Renovations preplanned the renovation several weeks in advance of construction, which kept change orders to a minimum, Palmer notes. 

“They were delightful to work with, and very available,” says Palmer about the owners.

While the project came in on time and on budget, it did present one major challenge. The ceiling height made installing walls to compartmentalize this space impractical. So the family and renovation team came up with a solution to separate the sitting and sleeping areas with a prominent wooden console that has a retractable flat screen TV inside. The TV faces the sitting area and the console, says Palmer, “creates a very visual block.” 

One problem, though: The Andersons didn’t want the power lines to the console to be exposed.  So that meant drilling holes through the cement floor, in which are embedded radiant heating coils. Palmer says her company needed to call in a thermal imaging expert to locate the coils so subs could work around them during the wiring installation. 

The coils also led to another unexpected consequence of the Andersons’ decision to give the room some warmth by painting the floor in a light-blue-and-gray checkerboard pattern. The polyurethane coating unfortunately didn’t respond well when heated and began to yellow almost immediately. Palmer says the yellowing was a “product defect” and the problem was remediated by using a different finish.