Christmas in Salem House Tour celebrates historic preservation and sustainable design

I make a living poking around people’s homes.  As a residential architect in New England, I often find myself exploring antique attics, basements, and living spaces with a tape measure in tow.  I carry the same curiosity about houses into my personal life.  When I visit friends’ old houses, I’m not shy about tapping on a chase to hear if it’s hollow or peering into a fireplace to check out the firebox.  So, naturally, house tours suit my proclivities.  Especially the Christmas in Salem House Tour, which celebrates its 30th anniversary the first weekend of December 2009.  It’s always a treasure trove of intriguing historic properties. 

This year it’s even more.  Presented by Historic Salem, Inc., the tour features 12 homes from the 18th and 19th centuries in the Salem Common neighborhood, as well as several nearby, non-residential, historic properties which the tour identifies as “legacy” sites.  Each home is decorated for the holidays by regional floral and/or interior designers.  The event has grown to include a number of related festive activities across town, including a Christmas tea, wine tasting, event boutiques, lectures, and musical performances.  Plus, tour ticket-holders can receive discounts and promotions at select local restaurants and shops.  Visit the Christmas in Salem website  for details.  A portion of the proceeds from the event will fund interior restorations of the Nathaniel Bowditch house.

Joseph Story HousePerhaps most remarkable, the 30th Annual Tour includes the Joseph Story House c. 1811 owned by Neil and Martha Chayet.  It is a National Historic Landmark Federal-period home and has Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for Homes Silver Certification.  The Chayets have achieved what many antique home owners aspire to – a renovation and addition that is simultaneously mindful of historic preservation and sustainable design.

Martha and Neil ChayetBoth Neil (CBS radio host of “Looking at the Law”) and Martha (a Peabody Essex Museum Trustee) brought their expertise to the Joseph Story House renovation and addition.  Neil helped secure legislation for 30 percent federal tax credits benefiting homeowners installing certain environmental energy systems between January 2009 and January 2016.  He and Martha shepherded their project through the Salem Historic Commission and Salem Zoning Board of Appeals hearings as well as the LEED for Homes certification process.  “We had an excellent experience with the Commission.  Things they suggested were really improvements… It was a model process in a city,” says Neil.

dining room The original 9000 square foot home is said to have been designed by Joshua Upham.  Mantels in the living and dining rooms, as well as the living-room chair rail and crown molding include authentic carvings by Samuel McIntire, a well-known Salem wood carver and architect.

The house has a storied (excuse the pun) past, beginning with Joseph Story who sat on the U.S. Supreme Court.  Dr. Amos Johnson who purchased the property in 1860 was an early practitioner of “preventive medicine” and as such was ahead of his time.  family roomThe Vaughan family succeeded the Johnsons in 1901.  George Vaughan was an inventor and his children were adventurers: one an explorer and the other an aviator.  The Vaughans implemented a number of upgrades to the home including adding oak paneling and a bay to the family room and improving balustrades.  Pulitzer Prize-winning author Katherine Anne Porter lived in the house in the late twenties.  In 1975 John Ward had the property listed on the National Register of Historic Landmarks, and in 2006 the Chayets acquired it.

new kitchenIn 2007 they began to address an extensive list of improvements to what is now a three-family home.  They removed a 1950s garage, and added a brick addition to house a new kitchen, media loft, and garage.  They renovated their living space and two attached apartments, including introducing steel structural components where necessary and adding an elevator.  They assembled an invaluable team comprised of Richard Long Architects of Newport, R.I.; land planner: Beals Associates, Inc. of Boston; LEED consultant and inspector: Conservation Services Group of Westborough; geothermal heating and cooling system designer and installer: Bill Wenzel Heating & Air Conditioning, Inc. of Merrimack, N.H.; contractor: DeIulis Brothers Construction Co. of Lynn and a myriad of specialized subcontractors.

McIntire mantelThe Chayets appreciate that one of the keys to a sustainable environmental strategy is reusing historic properties and local products.  “We effectively recycled a three-story brick building,” says Martha.  The team was careful to protect historic mantels, wood paneling, trim, and flooring when removing plaster in order to install closed-cell insulation in the exterior envelope.  Though the original windows weren’t salvageable, the Chayets replaced them with custom windows manufactured by JB Sash and Door Co., Inc. which have true-divided, insulated lites with putty profiles that met with the Historic Commission’s approval.

Since energy efficiency is also critical to sustainability, they incorporated a geothermal heating and cooling system which involved digging seven, 500-foot deep wells beneath the front yard to create a closed loop system that takes advantage of the earth’s 55-degree temperature below the frost line.  The renovated courtyard and modest lawn conceal the system.  The Chayets use a geothermal water-to-air system to heat or cool the house, and a geothermal water-to-water system to provide radiant heating in the first floor main living spaces and to provide domestic hot water.  A fresh-air energy recovery ventilation system provides required air changes, and glass fronts on the fireplaces improve indoor air quality.  There is no supplemental gas or oil-burning system.

Though Martha admits that the LEED for Homes certification process can be very complicated, she believes it’s gotten easier since the Chayets enrolled in the pilot program.  Now LEED uses interactive documents and provides the rationale behind the point system.  There are more people to ask for advice and more products.  Short of LEED certification, there are “little things that people can do,” she explains.  Things like putting a bathroom fan on a timer, or sealing windows and doors.  Still, Martha notes, “‘Green’ is in a baby stage.”

guest roomLike their predecessors at the Joseph Story House, the Chayets are pioneers.  They’re leading the way toward adapting sustainable practices to historic homes.  Experience the results for yourself on the Christmas in Salem House Tour.  The main floor living spaces and second floor bedrooms of the Chayets’ house will be open to tour goers.

by Katie Hutchison for House Enthusiast and North Shore Art Throb