Old Home’s Design Staying True

Architects who leave an indelible mark on their projects are fre- quently the ones who garner fame. There’s I.M. Pei’s Pyramid du Louvre, Frank Gehry’s Stata Center at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and almost anything by Frank Lloyd Wright.

But Frank Shirley, an award-winning Cambridge architect who has worked on several Cape and Islands homes, takes a completely different approach to renovation projects. He makes every effort to make it “seem as though I wasn’t there.”

old home design

Shirley, whose projects have been featured on PBS’s “This Old House” and who received first prize last year in the national Traditional Building Design Challenge, has focused much of his career on restoring and renovating old homes while staying true to the original designs. He shares his techniques, ideas and secrets in a coffee-table book, “New Rooms for Old Houses – Beautiful Additions for the Traditional Home,” published last fall, which includes a Cape home and styles similar to those seen throughout the area as examples.

Shirley also lectures about his methods, hoping to reach out to people who love old homes as much as he does – and there are a lot of older homes on Cape Cod. He shared that wisdom last winter at Snow Library in Orleans at the suggestion of satisfied clients Douglas and Angela Parker.

Shirley is a youthful-looking

42-year-old graduate of the University of Cincinnati School of Architecture and Interior Design. Although restoring and adding on to old homes is now his passion, the western Pennsylvania native says he grew up “in a modern sub-development, and when I came to Boston, with architecture degree in hand, the housing stock just overwhelmed me.”

He adds, “My background didn’t expose me to American classic architecture. … I was just floored.”

Shirley began his career with large-scale civic projects as a designer with Moshe Safdie & Associates in Somerville. After he realized he was much more inter- ested in the residential side of architecture, Shirley switched to Design Associates, a small residential firm in Cambridge, where he was project manager. He was there for nine years, before starting his own firm, Frank Shirley Architects, in 2001.

Old interior home design

Shirley first gained attention while at Design Associates: Two of his projects were featured on PBS’s “This Old House.” He was also project manager in 1994 to restore an Oak Bluffs Victorian mansion owned by Peter Norton, who created the Norton Antivirus computer protection program. For his work on this project, known as the Corbin-Norton House, Shirley won the Boston Society of Architects’ Excellence in Architecture award.

Unfortunately, a massive fire destroyed the house in 2002. Shirley, on his own by then, says, “It was almost like losing a child. The contractor called me while it was burning.”

(Norton set about rebuilding almost immediately, though Shirley was not involved.)

The right interpretation

By the time Shirley was on his own, he had a reputation for treating renovations and additions to antique homes with a soft touch, respecting an old home’s bones.

“I believe in being sensitive to the house. While that doesn’t mean you have to replicate it, you need to interpret it within the original language.”

He hates to see people making “wrong” choices when it comes to making changes to their homes, he says.

“Almost everybody is well-intentioned, they truly love their house,” Shirley says, but they often make a misstep by making “a change to their home that undermines the essence of the house.”

Shirley has worked on about a half-dozen projects on the Cape, plus “coastal work” on Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard and in Marblehead.

The Marblehead property, built in 1883 at the top of a 60-foot cliff overlooking the water, had been battered by storms and suffered through ill-conceived renovations. Shirley was hired to bring back a sense of grandeur. A striking tower had been destroyed by a storm 50 years ago, stripping the house of its focal point. The owners researched and photographed other houses before deciding on how to enlarge the home.

Shirley’s plans called for the front wall to be bumped out 6 feet, allowing for a dramatic entrance more in keeping with the original style of the home.

He believes the house looks just right now.

“I love that house,” he says. “It’s the very best I can do, and I’ve never been better.”

Writing it down

That self-proclaimed best work is featured in an eight-page spread in Shirley’s book.

Apparently having his own firm, a wife and two young children, whom he refers to as “adorable, of course,” wasn’t enough to keep him busy. He found a gap in architectural information that needed filling.

“I had looked for a book about … how to add on to an old house, and the book just wasn’t there,” he says. Although he’d never thought about writing, Shirley quickly pulled together a book proposal and sent it off to Taunton Press, a publisher that specializes in home-related products.

“I knew I had touched on something, when I heard back from the Taunton Press in two weeks,” Shirley says.

Not all projects featured are his. Shirley advertised in professional journals and got more than 100 submissions. He narrowed those down to 17 properties – eight of his own projects, including one on Cape Cod – in multiple-page spreads with large glossy photos.

The book was released in October, and Shirley speaks of it like a proud father.

His Cape design in the book had been a small cottage like those from area Methodist campgrounds. He expanded the structure through what he called a telescoping addition: smaller and then even smaller sections built off the original structure – similar enough in design to the main structure that where the old ends and the new begins is not glaringly apparent.

When Shirley flips through the book he poured so many hours and passion into, and starts explaining his projects, he doesn’t use the word “I” or “me” very often. He talks about respecting the integrity of what a house already is.

“I don’t want to see a big ‘Frank Shirley was here’ house,” he says.

He has a similar self-effacing attitude about the book, which has his name centered on the front cover. “I really hope the book helps homeowners love their homes.”

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