×

Robyn and Arvid Nelson’s mid-century home in Northampton cuts a striking figure on Crescent Street

  • Plants line a windowsill in the kitchen at the home of Robyn and Arvid Nelson on Crescent Street in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • The linoleum in the kitchen fits the mid-century home’s style. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Plants provide the décor for the single-story home of Robyn and Arvid Nelson on Crescent Street in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS PHOTOS

  • Robyn Nelson says the home has had several owners over its lifetime who each took good care of it. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Plants rest on stands by the living room windows at the home of Robyn and Arvid Nelson on Crescent Street in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Kitchen at the home of Robyn and Arvid Nelson on Crescent Street in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • The Nelsons keep their home uncluttered. Above is the dining room. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • A shower in the bathroom at the home of Robyn and Arvid Nelson on Crescent Street in Northampton, Monday. The home has no bathtub. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Large windows provide lots of light throughout the home as they do in Arvid Nelson's office, above. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Headboard in the master bedroom that was made to fit by Fly by Night at the home of Robyn and Arvid Nelson on Crescent Street in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Backyard at the home of Robyn and Arvid Nelson on Crescent Street in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Front yard at the home of Robyn and Arvid Nelson on Crescent Street in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Backyard at the home of Robyn and Arvid Nelson on Crescent Street in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS



For the Gazette
Friday, May 04, 2018

“We can’t afford big pieces of art, but we can afford big pots from Ocean State Job Lots in Chicopee, where I just bought a huge clay pot for $9 and another for $7,” says Robyn Nelson, a special education teacher turned school administrator. “So we use plants as our art and tchotkes.”

She’s not kidding. There are at least 10 sculptural houseplants dispersed throughout the living room and a half dozen tiny succulents lining the windowsill in the kitchen in the 1949 architect-designed home she shares with her husband, Arvid, 40, 5-year-old son, Isaac, and 3-month-old daughter, Aurora. In fact, plants may be the only object this house has in abundance, because, as Robyn, 41, notes, “this place looks best when everything is put away.”

The low-slung black single-story mid-century house cuts quite the striking figure on Crescent Street, and four years ago when it came on the market, the Nelsons were far from the property’s only admirers. They’d been renting an apartment across the street, and every time they’d walk by, Robyn would gaze at the house longingly. As soon as the FOR SALE sign went up, she called her realtor to arrange a showing — only to discover that someone else had beat them to it. To her dismay, it seemed as though the house had sold before it was officially listed. Luckily for the Nelsons, however, that deal fell through. Arvid, a comic book writer, negotiated the price, offering pretty much all that they had to make the dream house their own.

The couple, who met when she was running for City Council in New York City and he was volunteering for her campaign, discovered Northampton when driving up to his mother’s house in Vermont. When they finally moved to Massachusetts, being able to walk into such a vibrant downtown was part of the fantasy.

For them, the three-bedroom house hit a particular sweet spot, explains Robyn: “It’s not 100 years old, but it isn’t brand-new, either.” The original owner had the house custom-built for her and her family, and in recent years, the property had changed hands several times. Miraculously, “no-one ruined the house,” Robyn says, marveling. The cedar exterior is clad not in paint but with linseed oil, she says, creating an almost tar-like effect. “I love dark houses. I’m drawn to them. Dark outside light and airy inside.”

By the time the Nelsons moved in, the place was turn-key — right down to the natural grasscloth wallpaper, and the Nelsons didn’t have to tweak anything aesthetically. Not even the paint. One owner, an amateur landscape architect, created a Zen backyard courtyard visible from almost every room. Another brightened up the interior by whitewashing the wood paneling. And a third installed top-of-the-line KitchenAid appliances. “Sometimes people add granite countertops even if they don’t go with the house,” she says. Here, they have linoleum floors in the kitchen, which Robyn says are not only appropriate, but beautiful and fun.

The couple who sold the house to Robyn and Arvid had purchased their furniture at the modern furniture retail chain Design Within Reach, but that didn’t jibe with the Nelson’s budget. “That’s like $2,000 per dining chair,” Robyn says. Their clever hack for low, mid-century-looking bookcases to house toys in the living room pairs shoe racks from Bed Bath and Beyond and bins from Ikea. For their bedroom, the couple worked with Fly by Night in Northampton to cut down a simple headboard for a more mid-century silhouette. “We’d seen something similar that was four times as expensive,” she adds.

Because their lot backs up to a steep hill, they also enjoy both peace and privacy. “But we’re worried about the Clarke School site, and what they’re going to build behind us,” says Robyn, explaining that the wooded hillside could be subdivided to accommodate two additional houses sure to loom over them and spoil their idyll. 

Otherwise, things are good on Crescent Street. The home’s open floor plan enables Arvid, a talented cook, to feel like part of the action while making his homemade fennel-and-onion pizza. This year, they used their wood-burning fireplace intensively, straight through April. “All it takes is kindling, wood, and the Gazette,” jokes Robyn. And while the house boasts tons of storage —with two closets in every bedroom — the Nelsons are vigilant about keeping clutter at bay. They adhere to a one-item-in, one-item-out strategy to maintain a sense of order   — all the more impressive with two little kids. “We use every room, so there isn’t any dead space, and every room has windows on two sides, letting in a huge amount of light. Every day I thank my lucky stars that I live here and that our first house is a forever house.”

Katy McColl Lukens can be reached at katymccollwork@gmail.com.