Preserving Historic Home Features

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 57% of Boston's housing stock was built before 1939. That means that we have more older homes than any other city in the country. Even outside of Boston, we have a wonderful supply of period homes. Over the years, Morse Constructions has been privileged to work on many of them and we've even published a guide on how to breathe new life into older homes

Some homeowners want to preserve the period details and look of the original home, while others are all for bringing a contemporary flair to old spaces.



There is a lively debate on Houzz about whether you should modernize a historic home (read it here). Whatever side of that debate that you take, we've found that most homeowners are sensitive to preserving distinctive old features, but may be unsure about what they should save. The answer depends upon the age of the home, condition of the architectural details and the homeowner's priorities, but here is a useful slideshow from Houzz to provide some general guidance. Just click any of the images to go to the full article on Houzz.


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Tags: historic renovation, Boston living

Renovating a Kitchen in an Old Home

Kitchens were once workplaces designed to be hidden from living and entertaining areas. Today, parties often gravitate there.  

Kitchens have undergone a transformation to become open, airy hubs of the home. Owners of older homes often put a kitchen renovation at the very top of their wish lists because their outdated spaces no longer support modern lifestyles or cooking/food prep technology.

We have built many wonderful, modern kitchens in old homes (including our own). Many of the factors that give old homes character can create some unique challenges. Just a few of the special considerations include:
•    Out of level floors and walls that are not plumb
•    Framing members making it difficult to accommodate venting
•    Inadequate insulation, plumbing and electrical systems
•    Very low or very high ceiling heights
•    Unusual floor plans

Here’s how we met those challenges in a recent renovation for a family of four living in an 1850 home in Arlington, Massachusetts.


Arlington MA Kitchen Renovation

The kitchen was part of a wing that was separated from the main home. The room was quite small with numerous doors and openings breaking up the floor plan. Storage was very limited.

MA kitchen renovation before floorplan resized 600

Before Kitchen Floor Plan

Our client wanted an open layout to unite the dining room and kitchen, as well as the front and back of the home. The family wanted the look of the kitchen to be consistent with the rest of the house.


Renovating MA kitchen

Space previously allocated to a basement stairway and back pantry was incorporated into the kitchen. The new kitchen straddles a new addition and the existing home, creating an interesting challenge.

Modern framing sizes are different from those used a century ago. A new addition must adhere to current framing requirements. This means that the kitchen would have a different ceiling heights in different parts of the space unless we were clever with design. Instead of meeting in the middle of the kitchen, where the old and new sections of the house abutted, we decided to drop the existing ceiling down 2”, where the flooring surface changed in the foyer of the existing house. This way, ceiling height and flooring made a logical transition at the same place.

Arlington MA first floor plan after resized 600


Historic home kitchen renovation

kitchen remodeling progress photo

These shots were taken while we were finishing the kitchen and don’t fully capture the island with ample seating or pocket doors to the living room, but we hope they give you a sense of the finished space (professional photography will be coming soon!). We used traditional 6/6 (number and pattern of the lites) windows; a farmer’s sink; classic white cabinetry; Cambrian Black Antiqued Granite countertops and a Montauk Black Slate floor “runner” between the island and sink counter. These features help us to maintain the traditional comfort and character found throughout their home.

Our clients were happy to report the addition and renovation exceeded their expectations and fully met their goals: to build a home that fits with their current lifestyle with the traditional look and feel of the past.

Coming soon! Paul and Karen Morse’s personal story of their traditional to modern transformation.

Tags: Massachusetts remodeling, kitchen renovation, Massachusetts renovation, historic renovation

Arlington, MA Home Renovation Update: January 2014

This is the third installment in our monthly chronicle of a major historic home renovation and addition project in Arlington, MA. Our goal is to go beyond "Before & After" photos to outline the many steps that go into a major renovation behind-the-scenes. The first installment laid out the scope of the project. If you missed it, you can read it here.

Arlington, MA historic renovationIt’s been a busy month on site, though major changes are less visible to the untrained eye. The interior framing is complete. We passed the engineer’s and Arlington building department inspections with flying colors.

Arlington, MA framing for home renovationton

Arlington, MA framing new stairway to third floor

Arlington, MA master bedroom framing


Rough plumbing is in and inspected, along with the electrical rough installation and inspection. Venting for the exhaust fans and dryer ducting is installed. Both HVAC systems are installed and running, keeping the workers warm during this frigid winter period.

Arlington, MA renovation HVAC system

Final design decisions were made and the tile is on order along with the bath vanities and medicine cabinets. The homeowners have picked the counter slabs and cabinet handles. Lighting placements were tweaked to accommodate framing and the wiring for them is all installed.

Arlington, MA first floor renovation

Arlington, MA bathroom renovation

On Monday, 1/27 we began blowing closed cell foam insulation in all the exterior walls, rafters and in the basement rim joists. We will also insulate bathroom walls and pipes for sound. During these three days, we pull all workers off site to avoid potential dangers during the quick curing period.

Immediately after insulation (and insulation inspection) we will begin hanging blue board and applying a smooth skimcoat plaster finish. We are on schedule to complete the project as planned in April. Stay tuned for the next installment when we discuss interior trim selections and flooring options.

If you have any questions about the renovation process or are planning to update your home, please contact us!

Tags: remodeling project photos, historic renovation, Boston home renovation, Arlington MA home renovation

Project Update: Arlington MA Historic Home Renovation & Addition

This is the second installment in our monthly chronicle of a major historic home renovation and addition project in Arlington, MA. The first installment laid out the scope of the project. If you missed it, you can read it here.

The construction phase of the project began with demolition of the existing one-story addition and deck.

demolition before building addition

old addition demolition

At the same time, we’ve virtually gutted the entire interior of the home, retaining the exterior walls, most of the upstairs floors and some original woodwork. The old heating system has been entirely removed and will be replaced with a high-efficiency alternative.

remodeling historic MA home


We were delighted to find that the 1850 home features post-and-beam construction, which means that force is on the outside walls. This gave us greater flexibility to open up or eliminate interior walls without adding costly additional structural support.



Since the home is on the Arlington Historic Register, exterior changes are limited. The homeowner needs to retain a chimney in its original location, despite the fact that it will no longer be used by the new HVAC systems. Originally, we were going to support the chimney at the third floor level, but eliminate it from the floors below. Instead, we are eliminating the chimney in its entirety and replacing it with a wood and brick veneer substitute that is aesthetically identical, but non-functioning. This solution eliminates the need for chimney support on the third floor.

When completed, the renovation will retain the historic character of the home while opening up the floor plan for living spaces that are more suited to modern lifestyles. The home will feature:

First Floor

  • Spacious open kitchen and dining area
  • Living room
  • Rear hall with 3/4 bath, laundry area, closets and basement access
  • Front porch and reconfigured hallways

Second Floor

  • New master bedroom suite with master bath
  • Two bedrooms with bath
  • Sitting room
  • Reconfigured hallways and new stairway to the attic

Full Basement and Attic
The full basement will be the future home of an exercise room.


Stay tuned for future installments. Feel free to call us with any questions.

And by the way, may we help you with your renovation? Please contact us for more information.

Tags: remodeling project photos, historic renovation, Boston home renovation

Client Story: Back Bay Boston Home Renovation

Boston Kitchen Remodel Morse Constructions

Just a few years ago, Morse Constructions completed improvements to a lovely Wellesley home. As the owners looked forward to their retirement years, however, the city lights beckoned. They bought a floor in a co-op building on Berkeley Street in Boston’s Back Bay and asked Morse to do a major renovation.

The 3,600 square foot home is located on the fourth floor of a building constructed in the 1920s. The space had been renovated in the 1980s. Not only were the renovations dated, the floor plan did not work for a couple who loved to cook and entertain. Public areas needed better traffic flow, while family areas needed greater privacy.

“We made changes in every room and redesigned sections of the main spaces, touching 85% of their home,” explains Paul Morse, founder of Morse Constructions. 

In many cases, the footprints of the rooms did not change, but access to them altered dramatically. For example, a coat closet was relocated to create a kitchen entrance through a butler’s pantry adjacent to the foyer. A bathroom and a laundry room were switched to place the bathroom in closer proximity to the spare bedroom. Meanwhile, access to “his and hers” master bathrooms was reconfigured to maintain privacy.

Among other improvements, Morse also:

  • Updated kitchen and butler pantries, incorporating extensive food preparation and wine storage areas, multiple sinks, a bar area, professional grade range and range hood, and a large refrigerator supplemented with refrigerator and freezer drawers;

  • Replaced dated dining room bookshelves with elegant molding and sconces;

  • Preserved distinctive carved and arched doorways and historic architectural features;

  •  Created walk-in “his and her” closets adjacent to the master bedroom

  • Added built-in cabinetry in several rooms including the study and master bedroom

  •  Converted large cast iron radiators to smaller steam radiators

  •  Completely updated all bathrooms

According to Paul, the project’s Back Bay location posed some unique challenges. “Just getting materials up to the fourth floor was a trick. We had to crane things in through the windows,” he explains.

Ventilation also required some creative thinking since the Back Bay Architectural Commission prohibits exterior penetrations. The commercial grade range hood in the kitchen is so powerful that makeup air needed to be brought back in to the kitchen to maintain pressure. The solution was change windows to incorporate  transoms that could accommodate louvers to hide the ductwork from the street . Ventilation now occurs through the transoms, and an elaborate soffit system carries the air throughout the home.

Morse provided design/build services on the project, working in conjunction with interior designer Nancy Allen.


To view photos: Scroll through the slide show using the arrows at the very bottom of the image or click the image to go to our Houzz site to view images at full size.

Tags: Boston renovation, Kitchen remodeling, historic renovation, whole home renovation, condo renovation