Dorchester Triple-Decker Reveal: All in it Together
TOH’s Kevin O’Connor, Jenn Nawada, Richard Trethewey, Tom and Charlie Silva, Mauro Henrique, and Mark McCullough join homeowner Carol Wideman and her sister Willie (in red) in front of the renovated house. | Mike Casey
The TOH team gives a fire-damaged triple-decker in Dorchester, MA, some long-overdue updates—and its owner the safer, more comfortable home she and her family deserve
This article appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of This Old House Magazine. Click here to learn how to subscribe
Walking past the tidy new fence and neat foundation plantings, climbing the refinished concrete steps, and pushing open the old oak entry door, now brightened with high-gloss burgundy paint, Carol Wideman was filled with emotion. It had been nearly two years since the fateful July Fourth night in 2019 when a stray firework that ignited her neighbor’s house caused her home in Dorchester, MA, to catch fire. For many months afterward, Carol wondered whether her family home of four decades—where children were raised and countless memories made—would ever be livable again. “Before This Old House came in, I wasn’t sure we’d be able to put the house back together,” she recalls. Today, the 1905 triple-decker is transformed. “There’s a lot of history in this house,” says Carol. “It’s been a fixture in our family and this community for a long, long time. I’m so happy it will be here for another hundred years or more.”
Mike CaseyBefore: After the 2019 fire, the house was uninhabitable. | After: A blue-and-gray paint palette, accented with red, reflects the house’s Colonial Revival–era origins. Siding contractor: Diogenes “G” Porto, US Siding & RoofingnThe project, part of This Old House’s 42nd television season, was a homecoming of sorts for the show as well: The inaugural project house, renovated in 1979, is just up the road. “It was a rush of memories every time I drove by that old Victorian on the corner,” says TOH plumbing and heating expert Richard Trethewey. “Our work back then helped change the neighborhood,” he says of the area, which then suffered from urban blight exacerbated by discriminatory housing practices. “There was a similar goal this time around, not only to get Carol back in her house but also to do our part to keep the community strong and vibrant for years to come.”
Mike CaseyLeft: The rear porches were badly damaged in the fire, which caught on the side of the house, shown here. In repairing them, the team beefed up the inadequate existing floor joists with 2×8s. The ground-level enclosure creates ample storage space for garden equipment and outdoor furnishings. | Right: The rebuilt back staircase descends onto a new brick patio, laid in a herringbone pattern to add to its charm. In addition to creating a level surface for the patio, the retaining wall is a place for guests to perch or rest a plate during backyard barbecues. Retaining wall system: Unilock; Patio wall delivery: Landscape Depot; Patio pavers: Pine Hall Brick; Lawn equipment: Kubota; Landscape plants: Wagon Wheel NurseryA happy ending was hardly guaranteed when TOH home builder Charlie Silva first showed up on the scene. Damaged by fire, smoke, and the water used to extinguish the flames, the building was uninhabitable, leaving Carol and her sister Willie, who shared the first-floor unit with a nephew, displaced in nearby rentals. The original contractor had dropped out of the project, in part because of hardships brought on by the pandemic, from labor shortages to product delays. Then there were the vagaries of the insurance claims process, which put a major crimp in Carol’s budget. For one, the insurance company required that the house be brought fully up to code but did not cover the full cost, so there was little to spend on appliances, fixtures, and other finishes. On top of that, Charlie’s inspection revealed additional problems, including extensive asbestos on the existing ductwork. The house’s worn wood floors and paint-encrusted trim also needed attention.
”It was important to me to save certain features of the house—like the original front door—even though I knew insurance wouldn’t cover it.” —Charlie Silva, TOH home builder
Mike CaseyGray-stained decking and blue-painted railings coordinate with replacement vinyl siding in a silvery gray. Siding: CertainTeed; Exterior paint: Benjamin MooreAt least the crew didn’t have to worry about knocking down walls or moving plumbing and electrical lines, since the building’s basic layout would stay the same and much of the demo—such as opening up the third-floor ceiling and walls—had already been done. So they could get right to work restoring the triple-decker and overhauling its major systems, including replacing all the hot and cold water supply lines and drains. TOH master electrician Heath Eastman ended up rewiring the whole house; much of the electrical had been damaged by fire and water, and some remnants of old knob-and-tube were uncovered. Richard worked closely with HVAC contractor James Bouchard on a high-efficiency hydro-air system to deliver separate hot water, heat, and air-conditioning to each level of the house. Ronnette Taylor, a local plumber and fire protection specialist, installed a code-mandated sprinkler system. Insulation followed—mineral wool for the walls and spray foam in the roof.
Though their exterior features vary, triple-deckers almost always have the same floor plan: a center hallway with a foyer and living room out front, middle bedrooms, and the bathroom, kitchen, and dining room in the back, along with an additional bedroom, which historically would have been rented out. Willie’s ground-level apartment, which she shares with a grown nephew, retains this layout, along with original porches at the front and rear.
Floor plans: Ian Worpole
Mike CaseyLeft: Just inside the original oval-light front door is the door to Willie’s apartment; a bank of windows looks onto the front porch. Windows: Marvin; Door moldings: Anderson & McQuaid Co.; Interior staging: Instant Interiors LLCRight: Carol (right) and Willie Wideman take a seat in the apartment’s light-filled window bay.Normally these behind-the-wall upgrades happen first, then the kitchen, baths, and finish materials go in. But on this project the timeline was tight, since the insurer would only pay Carol’s and her family’s rent for a limited period, and the work had to be completed within two years of the fire. As a result, carpenters, painters, and tilers were jockeying for position alongside plumbers and electricians from the get-go. “I’ve never had to share a job site with so many other trades,” says TOH painter Mauro Henrique—a situation made more difficult with Covid-19 safety protocols in place, which mandated social distancing.
Mike CaseyIn the living room, a trio of original windows showcase the distinctive casings.Still, the TOH team knew what a deserving homeowner they had in Carol, who has given much to her community over the years. “Everyone fell in love with Carol and Willie,” says TOH landscape contractor Jenn Nawada. “They’re two of the most authentic people you’ll ever meet. The budget might have been small, but when the homeowner is so kind and respectful of the process, that goes a long way.”
Mike CaseyLeft: The kitchen cabinets and countertops, installed just two years before the fire, were able to be salvaged. Cabinet specialist: Samantha Elfland, Metropolitan Cabinets & Countertops; Countertops: Boston Granite Exchange; Appliance expert: Jay Ponte, Doyon’s Appliance; Appliances: GE; Sinks, faucets: KohlerRight: A large window with frosted glass allows filtered light into the rebuilt bath. Bathroom design: Amy Lynn Allard, Amy Lynn Interiors; Bath vanity, medicine cabinet: Kohler; Toilet and shower: Sterling Plumbing; Bath vent fan: PanasonicAs the job progressed, nearly every surface in the home ended up being touched. “Many of the plaster walls were falling apart,” says Mauro, “and that was before the electricians started punching holes to fish the new wiring.” He and his eight-person crew often worked from dawn to dusk—forgoing overtime—and spent weeks rehabbing the stacked front porches, a defining feature of the triple-decker’s facade. Each of the fluted columns and hand-turned balusters had to be scraped, puttied, and painted; the finish coats’ soft mid-blue hue was chosen to coordinate with the new silver-gray vinyl siding.
Mike CaseyAs on the other floors, the dining room’s period details include a built-in hutch, a wraparound plate rail, and a centerpiece stained-glass window—all now restored and refreshed.
Before the fire, Carol lived on the top floor with her sister Dorothy, who has since moved away. Post-reno, she decided to take over the middle apartment, in part because it means fewer stairs to climb. The only floor-plan change is the addition of a laundry room tucked into a hallway closet; a washer and dryer in the basement serve the other units. The spare bedroom at the back of the house will provide a guest room for the stream of friends and relatives who come calling.
Floor plans: Ian Worpole
Mike CaseyCarol chose a neutral palette for her apartment, with creamy-white walls. The living room is filled with natural light from the bank of south-facing windows. Interior paint: Benjamin MooreThrough TOH’s partnership with YouthBuild Boston, a nonprofit that helps young people learn job skills in construction and other high-demand fields, a pair of local apprentices arrived to pitch in: Yeren “Jay” Rivera Cruz and Bobbi Jones. The two got a lesson in repairing hardwood floors alongside TOH general contractor Tom Silva, patching holes left behind from the old radiators. They also helped Tom and Charlie install new fire doors in the back on all three floors. “It was incredible to be part of an actual job site and see how everyone has to work together,” says Jay of the six-week experience. “I learned how to use a paint gun, patch holes in walls, run plumbing. Every day there was something new.”
Mike CaseyThe window trim throughout much of the second-floor apartment, including in Carol’s bedroom, is stained a deep walnut, rather than painted.”Carol and Willie were so happy every time they saw that another room was done. It motivated everyone to keep going.” —Mauro Henrique, TOH painter
Mike CaseyThe existing kitchen was destroyed in the fire, so it was rebuilt from scratch, with new honey-colored wood cabinets, granite countertops, wood floors, and stainless-steel appliances.With improvements to the front of the house nearly complete, Jenn brought in fence installer Dan McLaughlin to replace the old chain-link with simple black aluminum panels—an affordable, rust-free alternative to the wrought iron that might have originally graced the street. The new fence sets off simple foundation plantings, including lilacs and Japanese hollies.
Mike CaseyThe light-filled kitchen features honey-toned cabinets and granite countertops, as well as all-new appliances, including a French-door refrigerator with an extra drawer in the middle.In the backyard, a Norway maple that had been severely damaged by the fire came down, creating a roughly 350-square-foot blank slate. Jenn decided the space was perfect for a patio, even though it wasn’t part of the project’s original scope. “We wanted to create an outdoor dining and entertaining area for Carol and her family,” she says. “Her backyard has views of downtown Boston in the distance, so we tried to capture the historic feeling of the city by using natural brick pavers, which have an old-world charm.”
Mike CaseyThe built-in hutch in Carol’s dining room still had its leaded-glass doors, though several panes had to be replaced by Cathryn Blackwell, an antique-glass expert.
Mike CaseyStained glass that was salvaged from the first-floor bay window had been sitting in storage for years. Antique-glass expert Cathryn Blackwell restored it and turned it into a piece of decorative artwork for Carol’s dining room.Since the budget and schedule were both depleted to zero at this point in the project, Jenn corralled donations, including a modular concrete-block retaining-wall system from Unilock and traditional clay-brick patio pavers from Pine Hall Brick. Getting everything installed required one last burst of communal can-do, with the TOH team pitching in to help lug and lay pavers, including Jenn, carpenter Nathan Gilbert, Mauro, Mark McCullough and his masonry crew, and landscaper Fred Pendleton, who put the finishing touches on the job. Of course, Carol and Willie were on hand at every step, assisting Jenn in choosing shrubs that promise three seasons of interest—spring-blooming fothergilla, hydrangeas that flower all summer, and viburnum, whose deep-green foliage turns cinnabar red in fall. The landscape plan leaves room for raised vegetable beds, which Carol and Willie will install and use to grow the collard greens and tomatoes they knew as kids growing up in Alabama farm country.
Mike CaseyLeft: Carol chose large-format subway tiles in a stacked pattern and a mosaic tile accent for her bathroom. Tile installer: Mark Ferrante, Ferrante TileRight: A hallway closet was converted into a laundry room. It’s located next to Carol’s bathroom, so it was easy for the plumbers to tie into the existing water and sewer lines. Laundry baskets: Steele CanvasFrom an area scorched by fire, a new place to grow food and gather with family and friends has emerged. The satisfaction of making that transformation a reality is the reason Charlie was happy to take on the project, and why he went the extra mile to get it done, asking his community of longtime subs and suppliers to chip in extra time and materials.
Mike CaseyLeft: The center hallway leading to the kitchen at the back of the house shows off the refurbished pine floors, as well as the dark-stained moldings and trim that run throughout much of the apartment. | Right: A door casing with fluted sides frames the entry into the pantry, which has additional granite-topped cabinetry.
The top floor, which served as Carol’s apartment before the fire, will become a rental unit, which will most likely be occupied by a family member or close friend. Swapping solid doors for French doors in the living room created a more open floor plan and allows natural light to filter into the adjacent bedroom, which might also serve as a home office. The rear porch offers the best views of downtown Boston, about 10 miles to the north.
Floor plans: Ian Worpole
Mike CaseyThe top-floor living room shows off the original pine floors, which now gleam after being patched and refinished. The fireplace mantel is also original to the house, the firebox long since boarded up. Interior staging: Instant Interiors LLC; Electrical products: Schneider Electric; HVAC: The Unico System; Tankless water heaters: Rinnai; Insulation: Rockwool“When we first met Carol, she was behind the eight ball like nothing I’d ever seen before,” he says. “The only thing that mattered was getting her and her family back into their home.” With the house repaired and refurbished for another century of family living, that goal is met, and more. “I’ve gained a friend for life,” Charlie says. “We already have an invitation for a home-cooked meal.”
Mike CaseyIn the living room, abundant natural light streams in from the bank of windows. Comfortable, neutral furnishings will suit whoever occupies the space.
Mike CaseyThe kitchen is designed to be space-efficient, with the location of the stove, sink, and refrigerator creating smooth traffic flow around cooking, cleaning, and food storage.
Mike CaseyLeft: The cabinet hardware’s nickel finish coordinates with the stainless-steel range and microwave. | Center: The view from the back door frames the kitchen’s white Shaker-style cabinetry and wood-look vinyl plank floor. | Right: A restored built-in hutch, painted a crisp white to match the trimwork and six-panel door, serves up storage and display space in the dining room.
Mike CaseyLeft: The house’s original pine floors required significant patching and refinishing. When boards were too badly damaged, the crew replaced them with ones salvaged from a closet or another out-of-sight location. Floor refinisher: Josias Lainez, Quality Floor Services Corp.; Floor installer: Shawn McCarron, B&D House of Carpets & Flooring; Hardwood floors: Hunt HardwoodRight: The bathroom has a clean, classic look. Choosing an acrylic tub surround, simple subway tiles, and a basic vanity helped keep costs down. Light fixtures: House of Antique Hardware