Amherst couple make the most of a modest old home
Most of the outside of the house remains unchanged, except for new windows and an addition on the back. The ornamental grasses were added by Jane Thurber. Purchase photo reprints »
The upstairs bedroom in Stephen Schreiber and Jane Thurber's Amherst home has unfinished floors, a bay window and antique sconces. The wood collage over the bed was created by Schreiber. Purchase photo reprints »
Stephen Schreiber's wood collage in the guest bedroom. The couple decided to keep two antique sconces as a nod to the house's history. Purchase photo reprints »
Stephen Schreiber and Jane Thurber in the new downstairs living room of their Amherst home. The mobile and pillows were made by Thurber. Purchase photo reprints »
The master bedroom features pillows with geometric designs, made by Thurber. Purchase photo reprints »
Jane Thurber made this rug that is in the upstairs hallway, leading to the master bedroom. After painting geometric designs on a canvas, she added polyurethane and wax. Purchase photo reprints »
Stephen Schreiber and Jane Thurber in Thurber's studio on the top floor of their Amherst home. Purchase photo reprints »
Thurber created this mobile using rectangles of heavy-duty paper. “They change color in the light,” Thurber says. “They live in the light, light and wind.”
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The top-floor studio gets "wonderful east light," Thurber says. Purchase photo reprints »
Stephen Schreiber uses “random woods, poplar, pine, birch, a lot of it left over from the house," to make wood collages. This one is over the mantle in the house's old dining room. Purchase photo reprints »
The old fireplace room can be seen from the kitchen. Under the Thurber's drawing "Wind at Dusk," seen on the far wall, is a vase of dried oats from Thurber's garden. One of her floor cloths is in front of the fireplace. Purchase photo reprints »
This view of the kitchen into the new living room shows how the renovation opened up the entire house. Purchase photo reprints »
The couple have included items with geometric patterns, like these curtains in a guest bedroom, throughout the house. Purchase photo reprints »
Committed to living in a downtown neighborhood, where they could walk to work, school and shopping, a couple moving to Amherst from Florida in 2005 found a modest 1890 house that they planned to remodel.
“We saw a lot of potential in the house,” said Stephen Schreiber, now head of the architecture department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His wife, landscape architect Jane Thurber, explained, “We saw not only what it was, but what it could be.”
The farmhouse-style structure had a small front parlor, a dining room with a fireplace, an outdated kitchen, only one bathroom, two small bedrooms, an un-insulated three-season addition and an unfinished attic.
The couple, who lived in the house a year before renovating, decided their main goal was to open up interior spaces. “We wanted separate rooms, but an open feeling,” Thurber said.
As artists, as well as architects, Thurber and Schreiber wanted a light-filled living space. They planned to keep the design simple, and painted all the walls white.
Schreiber designed the extensive renovation with the help of Thurber, who revamped the outdoor areas. They hired Peter Radke of Florence to be their contractor. Radke, who has worked on a number of houses on the street, was recommended by neighbors.
Radke ripped out walls, tore down an old chimney flue, which was once used for coal stoves, demolished the rear room that probably had been added in the 1960s and built a full basement under the new two-story replacement addition. He upgraded the old knob-and-tube electrical system and changed the heating from an oil-burning hot-air furnace to gas-fired baseboard hot water heating.
Let there be light
When the couple moved into the house in 2005, there were just two bedrooms and a bath upstairs that had been created from an original third bedroom. Radke added a large master bedroom, along with a second bath and a dressing room. A new living room and a half-bath were added downstairs. Finally, Radke finished the attic, creating a spacious studio for Thurber, complete with a sink for easy clean-up of artist’s paint brushes.
“It gets wonderful east light,” Thurber said.
The project took about nine months and from October 2006 until January 2007 the family moved into a neighbor’s vacant apartment.
Most of the outside remains unchanged, except for new windows and the addition on the back. In the stairwell, they kept two square windows with stained-glass borders, a style popular in the late 19th century. They also kept the bay windows in what is now the dining room, and also upstairs in the guest bedroom.
A bank of windows in the addition provides light, which reflects off the white walls. Thurber creates colorful mobiles from tiers of small rectangles of paper. “They change color in the light,” she commented. “They live in the light, light and wind.”
The downstairs rooms now open into each other but, as planned, remain separate entities. The room with a working fireplace added several decades ago has displays of art but no seating area near the fire. It is open to the updated kitchen.
Nate Waring, formerly of Amherst and now of Brattleboro, Vt., built the new kitchen cabinets and installed Corian countertops. The cabinets are light maple, with a water wash so the wood won’t darken. The counters are off-white. All the appliances, including the gas stove top in an island, are stainless steel.
Throughout the house are modern lighting fixtures, chosen with the help of a lighting designer. Upstairs, however, they kept two antique wall sconces in recognition of the house’s history.
Schreiber said he did research at the Jones Library in Amherst, poring over municipal directories to learn about previous owners. From 1955 to the early 1990s, the house was owned by the Sarna family. They evidently added the rear sitting room and the working fireplace. Other owners were service people for the town or for nearby Amherst College, Schreiber found. One of the original occupants was listed as a teamster, probably meaning he drove a team of horses, not that he was a union member.
A great deal of storage space was added during the renovation. Radke crafted built-in cabinets in the new living room plus storage in the mud room, and lots of closets upstairs, including a walk-in dressing room closet for the master bedroom suite.
In addition to mobiles, Thurber created colorful floor cloths.
“I started to make them when we lived in Florida,” she said. “It’s an old technique. They used to make them out of sail cloths.” The simple canvas rugs added color and warmth to older homes. After painting geometric designs on the canvas, Thurber polyurethanes the rugs and waxes them.
“I’m interested in patterns.” she said.
Schreiber, too, is interested in patterns.
“Moving to New England, we are very aware of the change of seasons, where the snow patterns change,” he said. His most recent work is geometric wood collages, made of small sticks, which are displayed throughout the house.
“They are random woods, poplar, pine, birch, a lot of it left over from the house,” he said.
Thurber designed the gardens with a stone patio and low stone walls, which she helped build with Domian Masonry of Deerfield. A bed of deciduous shrubs and ornamental grasses close to the patio provides privacy without walling off the yard from the neighborhood. She uses ornamental grasses extensively, along with sedums that add winter interest.
Thurber and Schreiber say the neighborhood is important to them. Their daughter, Kate, 15, can walk to the high school and they often walk to work at UMass, as well as into town for shopping and dining.
The houses on the street are a mixture of family homes and rentals.
“We want to keep that diversity along with a sense of neighborhood,” Thurber said. They participate in potluck get-togethers twice a year with others on the street.
Schreiber and Thurber said they enjoy living close to downtown on a compact property. The only thing they covet — that they can’t have on the small lot — is a garage.
Cheryl B. Wilson can be reached at email@example.com.