The Art of a Remodel
An Exeter Victorian showcases artwork amid period details
When you are the daughter of art professors, when you and your husband collectively are the grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nephew, and friend of countless painters and sculptors, it is no surprise that the result is a home full of artwork. That is the case for Exeter, New Hampshire, homeowners Steve Jones and Kate Miller, whose recent remodel showcases the tremendous art collection they have amassed and inherited over the years.
The Jones family moved into the 1885 house 14 years ago when the old, nearby Exeter High School was in use. After more than a decade they decided that they were not making use of their expansive front parlor and living room area. “This whole space was like a bowling alley,” says Jones, a family and informatics physician.
Enter William “Bill” Soupcoff of TMS Architects. While the homeowners paid two architects to bid on the job, “Bill clearly was just brimming with ideas,” Jones says. K&S Contracting was brought in to oversee the project. They “worked intensively with me to ensure the myriad details of the project were carried out to our liking,” Jones says.
Now, where there were once pocket doors between the two rooms, a striking archway separates the spaces. A wood-burning fireplace anchors the living room; it was previously the remains of a coal-fired chimney but is now surrounded by carved limestone and crowned with a mahogany mantel. In the front parlor, large built-in desks serve as generous workspaces for their two high-school-age daughters (an older son is in college).
Jones’s uncle, the eminent Maine sculptor Clark Fitz-Gerald, made the wooden sculptures in the front parlor and living room. The Maine Maritime Academy, Colby College, and the University of Maine have Fitz-Gerald’s sculpture in their collections. “When [his town’s] department of public works cut down an elm that was diseased, they would bring it over to him,” Jones says. The weighty pieces that resulted provide natural elements to the rooms.
Artwork is all around the living room. “My parents taught art history at Colby, so they collected. My mother knew Robert Motherwell in graduate school,” says Miller, an attorney, of a print by this abstract expressionist that hangs on one wall. Miller’s father was a prolific calligrapher, and several works by him are also in the living room, along with a radish still life that Miller believes was done by her great-great-grandfather.
The built-ins and arched walls of the two rooms lead many visitors to admire the original features preserved during the renovation, except none of these Victorian-style features is original. About the only items preserved from the 1885 home were the radiators, strikingly ornate pieces that were removed, sandblasted, painted, and reinstalled.
Soupcoff had a vaster vision than the homeowners, who initially planned to redo part of the first floor. “The architect said, ‘Don’t you want a whole-house plan?’” Jones says. They chose to renovate the entire home, from the mudroom to the master bath to the roofline to the number of windows. “Old Victorians had such specialized rooms,” says architectural project manager Tim Giguere of TMS Architects. “We tried to open those up with more light and make the rooms flow more openly into each other.”
Although the house already had many windows, the homeowners and architect wanted to add more. The extra windows provide additional light, especially on the first floor. “They’re avid art lovers and they have a great collection, so we introduced some things to highlight their art better,” Giguere explains. “Each piece of art has a story; you can tell they are passionate about it.” In addition to the windows, Giguere says that the arches used to separate spaces also allow for more light.
The windows also help during the summer: the couple decided against adding air conditioning during the remodel. They did have aluminum foil put on the inside of the attic roof and blown foam used for insulation. “That was one of the big changes we noticed after the remodel,” Miller says. “The house is no longer drafty.” Part of getting there involved taking out the original wide-plank pine floors, which were allowing air to flow up through them, and replacing them with quartersawn red oak floors. They also had a solar hot water tank installed. “One of the goals of our renovation was to be able to survive in the event of a power outage,” Miller says.
Husband and wife are both dedicated cooks. On a recent visit to the house, a guest saw a pumpkin pie waiting to be cut in the dining room, while roasted acorn squash was coming out of the oven. While TMS designed an initial kitchen, Scott Purswell of Portsmouth-based Dovetailed Kitchens got involved in the final project. “Scott spent a lot of time talking with us about how we use the kitchen,” Miller says. “For example, we probably spent 20 minutes talking about the recycling bin.”
A granite island was installed with room for two to work. The piece came from Boston Granite Exchange; beautiful, deep greens flow through the piece, with a streak of orange in the corner. “We wanted something that was an accent,” Jones says. Sunny yellow walls, large windows, and white cabinets further brighten the room, while green tiles in the backsplash tie into the island.
The homeowners were also willing to admit what many are not: the kitchen is where the papers pile up and bills get paid. Without a dedicated space, those items become clutter. Open shelves teeming with cookbooks, a desk, drawers, and pullout filing cabinet give the couple the organization they need.
A Tom Higgins landscape in the kitchen was a wedding gift from Miller’s father. Almost all the home’s artwork was reframed and rehung after the renovation. “It was a marathon session deciding where to hang them,” Jones says. To save money following the extensive remodeling project, the couple went to Michaels Stores armed with a “really great” coupon. “Once they were reframed, they were like new pieces of art,” Miller says.
From the kitchen, an archway with a center keystone leads into a small butler’s pantry and connects with the dining room. The pantry area was once an isolated space—a “hallway to nowhere,” Miller says—but a new window and arched entries opened it up.
Beyond the pantry is a cozy dining area, which also connects to the living room through an opening in that room’s built-ins. The Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, artist Ann Schroeder, who is the partner of Miller’s sister, made the modern quilt that dominates one wall of the dining room. Its title, “Fire in the Kitchen,” references a recording by The Chieftains done in collaboration with Cape Breton musicians. Cebula Design of Newburyport, Massachusetts, helped select a wall color that the couple did not expect—a burnt orange that echoes the vibrant colors in the quilt. “We wanted the quilt to be the focal point of the dining room,” Miller says. “Cebula picked a shade that lets it pop without competing with it.” The table in the center of the room was designed by Jones and constructed by Exeter, New Hampshire-based furniture maker John Sanborn.
Along with art by the couple’s children, another quilt by Schroeder, a blue-green piece entitled “Wait an Hour and the Weather Will Change,” is on display in the master bedroom, which was gutted to the studs during renovation. “I like the way her quilt titles are very evocative,” Miller says.
Soupcoff also made slight changes to the roofline of the farmer’s porch in order to align better with that room. “There was kind of a hodgepodge of additions,” Giguere says. “The slope of the roof was very flat. We could lower the farmer’s porch and add a little bit of a slope—it’s a lot sounder.”
In the foyer, light green grass cloth covers the walls and runs up the stairs, adding to the home’s period feel. Two paintings of Miller’s parents, William and Margaret Miller, gaze down from the staircase; one is by William Darr, the other is a pastel by Mary Preble.
The home’s brightly colored front door may seem like part of the remodel, but the hue was actually chosen 14 years ago, when they first moved in. “We were inspired by the ‘painted ladies’ in San Francisco,” says Miller, referring to famous pastel homes lining one city street. “When we bought the house it was gray with black shutters.” Today a purple door contrasts with the light blue house, and pink corner pieces along the deck’s roof create an additional color accent. The doors are original but had to be fixed, with new latches and holes for door handles.
The architect and builders managed to keep the homeowners on their toes. “There were some details we didn’t know we’d signed up for, such as the mahogany windowsills,” Jones says. “When they went in I was at once delighted and taken aback. I would not have thought of it.”
The couple is extremely happy with the entire result. “We wanted [the downstairs] to be functional, beautiful, and usable all at the same time,” Miller says. Now the bowling alley is gone, and the space is exactly that.
Ann Schroeder Studio, 902 945-2744
Boston Granite Exchange, 978- 372-8300
Cebula Design, 978 462-6984
Dovetailed Kitchens, 603 433-9918
John Sanborn Woodworking, 603 772-2249
K&S Contracting, 603 964-3800
TMS Architects, 603 436-4274