Time for a Change
New décor brings a Portsmouth condo to life
Downsizing. It is a liberating word, an opportunity to free yourself of too many possessions, and especially in New England to spend less time and money on home maintenance.
For one couple, relocating from a contemporary, 5,000-square-foot home overlooking the Great Bay in Greenland, New Hampshire, to a 1,200-square-foot, first-floor condominium in a Portsmouth house built in 1927 had many advantages but also numerous challenges.
With their children out of the home, Beverly and Ken Bellevue liked the idea of moving into a more urban environment. “Once the kids were gone, we said, ‘It would be nice to be closer to downtown,’” Beverly says. “It is so convenient.” In their new spot just blocks from restaurants and shops, her husband rides his bike around the city, they walk into town for dinners, and Beverly says, laughing, that she is ready to join “Keep Portsmouth Loud,” the group dedicated to allowing the city to continue with its plays, festivals, and movie nights at whatever volume necessary.
The home they purchased, however, was not an immediate sell. “When we looked at it, a lot of people were looking at it but they just couldn’t figure out how to make it work,” she says. “The colors were all different shades of green and the bedroom was red—everything was a mishmash.” The early twentieth-century home was originally built as a two-family structure; today it is a condo with owners on each of the three floors, plus a shared driveway and garage space.
After the couple purchased the home, they turned to Maine-based designer Anne Cowenhoven for assistance. “I’d never really worked with a decorator before,” Beverly says. “I wasn’t really sure what to expect, but I found her very easy to work with. She would let me talk and then narrow in on my ideas.”
Cowenhoven is more direct about the original state of the house. “I was sort of startled when they hired me,” she says. “When I first walked in, it looked horrible. The colors before were really kind of strange. The dining room was so dark.”
Beverly gave Cowenhoven free rein. “She pretty much said, ‘What do you think we could do with this space?’” Says Cowenhoven, who owns Accent & Design. The designer started by showing the Bellevues a palette of gray and turquoise, which became the dominant colors in the home. “I wanted to do it harmoniously so it felt bigger,” she says. Fabrics in the kitchen include a geometrical pop of blues, grays, and tans; they transition into the taupe rug and light turquoise material found in the dining room. “I wanted to give them something different from their previous home. I wanted to give them a modern feel. I tried to get very clean lines but gave them some punch with the fun fabrics.”
Those fabrics especially come into play in the two expansive window seats that were added by the new owners but which look like they have been a part of the home from the start. In the kitchen, a built-in bench along the driveway side of the room provides space for company to gather. Box curtains on the windows above it are done in the same fabric as the seat’s pillows.
The adjacent dining room also contains a spacious window seat, one that features a unique trick. Two-thirds of the seat—two big wide cushions combined—is the exact size of single bed sheets. In a small condo, it provides an extra bed for guests. Both the seat in the dining room and kitchen also lift up to provide a sizable amount of storage below.
Those guests? The Bellevues have two daughters and a son, none of whom live at home but all are close enough to visit. “We wanted to have space when they came back,” Beverly says. In addition to the dining room window seat, a guest bedroom/den in the rear of the home has a pull-out couch by American Leather, a furniture company that touts the lack of coils and bars in its sleeper sofas. Their son, who is in the Marines, is often home for visits and takes advantage of the comfortable bed. The homeowners modernized the room’s closet to create additional storage. Two paintings by local artist Lennie Mullaney hang on the walls, and shades of blue and gray in the rug and curtains harmonize the small room with the remainder of the house.
Space for adult children is one thing, but for the homeowners—renowned for their parties—the ability to entertain friends and extended family was also important. “It was good to help [Beverly] have a home she could entertain in,” Cowenhoven says. “It was fun thinking about the dynamics of where everyone could sit.”
In the dining room, which sits between the kitchen at the back of the house and the living room in the front, a table with two leaves allows for expansion during a party. Cowenhoven found the table with a metal base at Century Furniture in the Boston Design Center, but mindful of the budget, she mixed in items that were both attractive and economical: the patterned rug below the table came from Pottery Barn, while the dining room chairs were purchased at HomeGoods. Cowenhoven found four chairs and suggested to the Bellevues that they buy them. The couple then drove all over New England to find the last two matching chairs. An elaborate chandelier above the table came from Rockingham Electric.
The dining room walls also make a statement; they replace the dark colors that once made the space seem more closed in. To address a room with uneven walls and floors, Cowenhoven used Judy Dibble of Brookwood Designs, with whom she frequently works on more complex wall painting. “There wasn’t one wall that was level,” says Cowenhoven, who chose a light gray tint for the ceiling paint. Platinum vertical stripes on a cream background were meticulously painted around the room. The owners wanted the stripes to be straight and centered over the doorways. Dibble had to adjust the stripes on the uneven plaster walls to create the desired illusion. “It took Judy longer to tape it out than to actually paint it,” the designer says.
For clients doing a major downsize, Cowenhoven had to guide the homeowners and show them a little tough love. “I felt kind of cruel,” she says. “Their other home was so much larger. They showed me the furniture they wanted to take and I had to say, ‘It’s just too big.’” Of the original furniture the Bellevues owned, only two pieces made it into the new house. One is an inlaid Baker demilune table that also functions as a game table.
The other piece from their old house is in the master bedroom. It is a large credenza, which they won at an auction fundraiser for Portsmouth Christian Academy. Otherwise, Beverly describes the master bedroom as “perplexing” when they first purchased the home. The size of the compact room was increased slightly by removing a bulky radiator that sat on one wall. In fact, the Bellevues replaced the entire home’s heating system and added air conditioning when they moved in. The tiny closet was also widened to give the homeowners better storage in their bedroom.
The living room mimics the harmony of the kitchen and dining room, with shades of sand dominating the space but accented by turquoise lamps and pillows. The owners replaced the room’s wood-burning fireplace with a gas insert. Above the fireplace hangs a painting of their former backyard by New England artist William Gotha, a family friend. In the front entry, facing the street, “Gardenia” wallpaper from Harlequin’s Juniper Wallpapers collection enlivens the small area.
With room throughout the condo at a premium, the homeowners and their designer added details in the kitchen to maximize space. “Everything here is storage,” Beverly says. Ken designed an appliance garage that is vented, so kitchen equipment such as crockpots can be plugged in and used within the storage space. A stackable washer and dryer are hidden in a kitchen closet, and a drying rack for clothing is ingeniously tucked against a wall next to the oven. Stainless steel appliances, white cabinets, and a flowing gray-and-black granite countertop give the kitchen a clean and open feel.
Beverly is pleased with the home’s resulting flow, where guests move easily from the kitchen to the dining room and living room. “I wanted something that would feel comfortable, a place where people could come and relax, and one with some modern touches,” she says. Cowenhoven echoes that sentiment with an eye to the history of the Bellevue’s home. “I asked myself how can I tweak it to give a modern feeling without fighting the architecture,” she says. “I always feel the architecture of the home should be enhanced by what I do.”