Thursday, November 12, 2009

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Lydia Shire’s House
Featured on Weston’s Holiday House Tour

Lydia Shire’s home was built in 1847 for farmer Otis Train and purchased after the Civil War by Boston merchant George Milton.

Six of weston’s finest pre-Civil War homes, festively decorated for the season, will be open for the 2009 Holiday House Tour on Saturday, December 12, from 9:30 am to 3:00 pm. The biennial event, organized by the Women’s Community League, benefits the League’s Service and Scholarship Fund. Tour chairman Diana Chaplin has continued a tradition that began in 2007, to present houses from a specific time period–in this case from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War. Tickets are $40 per person for the tour, and can be purchased in advance at or by sending a check to the Women’s Community League of Weston, P.O. Box 125, Weston MA 02493. On the day of the event, tickets will be available at the starting point, the Josiah Smith Tavern barn, 358 Boston Post Road, across from the Town Green. Holiday greens will be available for sale at the barn.

Only a limited number of tickets will be sold, and participants may visit the houses in any order. After the tour, the committee will serve “period” refreshments at the Meetinghouse in the new Highland Meadows development. The Pralines, a Weston High School a cappella group, will perform Christmas carols and seasonal favorites.

Each year, the Service and Scholarship Fund awards both merit and need-based scholarships to Weston High School seniors, with over $30,000 distributed last spring. The fund also awards grants to Weston organizations such as the Council on Aging and Land’s Sake Farm.


Shire’s home is just one of six festively-decorated homes to be open for the 2009 Holiday House Tour

Addresses of tour properties are not disclosed in advance; however, one owner, award-winning chef Lydia Shire, agreed to be interviewed and to allow her unusual Greek Revival home to be photographed for WellesleyWeston Magazine.

Shire’s house is set on a slight rise, with a stone retaining wall in front. The fluted porch columns are typical of the mid-19th century, when Americans looked to Greek architecture as a model for their young democracy. Built about 1847 for farmer Otis Train, it was purchased after the Civil War by Boston merchant George Milton, who used it as a summer retreat. Milton owned the property for over 40 years before selling it to Marian Roby Case in 1912.

Miss Case was just starting her Hillcrest Farm (later renamed Hillcrest Gardens), which she operated as an experimental horticultural center and summer work/study program for local boys. Relatives occupied the house and boarded the occasional Hillcrest Boy. An old gray barn in back was demolished to make way for the up-to-date yellow brick barn, still part of the Case Estates. A vineyard, with 800 grape­vines, was laid out behind the house in 1914, followed a few years later by an orchard of quinces, peaches, plums, and pears.

At her death in 1944, Marian Case left the property to the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University. Along with the adjoining estate belonging to her sister Louisa, the Arboretum used the renamed Case Estates for plant propagation and experimentation until 1991, when it discontinued most Weston operations. Houses occupied by Miss Case and her staff were subdivided and listed for sale.


A wall of windows in the kitchen overlooks the Case Estates meadow and orchard.


In 1994, Lydia Shire and her husband, Uriel Pineda, were looking to move from Boston to the suburbs. Shire is one of Boston’s most celebrated gourmet chefs, known for her trend-setting menus and adventurous cuisine in such restaurants as Maison Robert, Biba, Pignoli, Locke-Ober, and, most recently, Scampo in the Liberty Hotel at the former Charles Street Jail. Shire remembers having trouble finding a place that suited her sense of style and taste. Finally, she asked her realtor, Melanie Totenberg, if she had a “fixer-upper on a nice piece of land.” When Shire saw the Weston house, she recalls thinking how wonderful it would be to own this quintessential New England house in a town like Weston. She felt it would be a great place for her son to grow up.

“Fixer-upper” was an understatement. The house had been abandoned for years. Squirrels were living in the attic and rain was leaking through the roof. She brought her husband out to see it and remembers how “he took one look and said ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’” She brought in the New York architect and contractor who had designed and built her restaurants and showed them around. The architect’s response was “Lydia, no way, it’s in bad shape and there’s nothing great about the architecture.” The builder added, “You will have to gut this house.” They recommended against buying it. “I called Melanie that day and said ‘I’m buying it,’ Shire recalls, “I just knew.”

She loved the back-to-back fireplaces, which were just about the only architectural feature left inside (even the original mantels had long-since been removed). “When these old houses were built,” she explains, “fireplaces were a central feature of most homes. I love fireplaces, and whenever I look for places to live, one criteria is always to have a fireplace.”


When Shire first purchased the long-abandoned house, the fireplaces were just about the only original architectural features that remained.


“I had a vision for the house and what it could be. Both my parents were artists, and art has always been part of my life.” At the time, her daughter, Lisa Shire, had just graduated from Pratt Institute in New York with a degree in architecture. Shire asked Lisa to do the design. It was her first commission. “She did an amazing job,” her mother declares with pride. “Her floor plan introduced curved walls and a dramatic freestanding elliptical staircase. Lisa wanted to be able to look straight through from the front to the back door, to see green. Many houses of this period are chopped up into small rooms and have no vista point.”

Shire chose the finishes, which are as bold and colorful as her cuisine. The living room is golden yellow, and the hall a deep red. All interior paint is high gloss with an oil base. Floors have an ebony stain. The dining room ceiling is “Dutch gold leaf” and transitions into the library with a series of “champagne bubbles” which are part of the decorative painting by Iris Marcus. The dining room mantel is made of lacewood, a honey-colored wood with a speckled grain.

Shire removed the existing kitchen ell and built one slightly larger, with a master bedroom above and stone patio out the back door. In both kitchen and bedroom, a wall of windows overlooks the Case Estates meadow and orchard. Not surprisingly, the kitchen is the pièce de résistance. To one side is a galley workspace–small but very efficient. “Most kitchen designers screw up the design,” Shire notes. “They take a large room and put appliances and cabinets all around the walls.” In her cooking area, everything is just a few steps away.


The dining room ceiling is painted “Dutch gold leaf,” and Shire waited 13 years to find the right chandelier that she calls “a little wacky, but perfect.”

And everything has a special story. The sycamore wood cabinets with ebony trim were custom-made by Newburyport woodworker Mark Richey. Daughter Lisa suggested that the cabinets not be uniform sizes. “She knows I don’t like symmetry,” laughs Shire. “I like everything to be a little off.” A glass-enclosed pantry doubles as a place to store dishes and display a mélange of culinary collectibles. The floor is polished concrete. The bright red gas stove is a 1942 Chambers. Owning a Chambers stove in the 1930s and ’40s would be the equivalent of a Viking today, and vintage examples in colors from white to powder blue are so well-constructed they are collector’s items. Shire recently bought a second Chambers, a 1950s example with a completely refurbished copper body and chrome handles. “I fell in love,” she explains, “It’s a work of art.”

Also a work of art is the poured concrete counter that separates the workspace from the rest of the kitchen. The elongated half-ellipse, some 12 feet long, was her daughter’s design. Visitors watching Shire cook can sit here on bar stools and admire the shapes and textures created by artist Tom O’Connor, who carved a Styrofoam mold and inlayed glass of all shapes and sizes.


Shire’s sycamore wood with ebony trim kitchen cabinets were custom-made by Newburyport woodworker Mark Richey.

Like the kitchen, the dining room is full of surprises. Shire insists that chairs be comfortable but she doesn’t like matching sets. “Too symmetrical,” she laughs. Four of the dining chairs are the same modern style but different primary colors. Two others are from Mexico, painted in the style of Paul Gauguin. On one wall is an antique full-length gilded Sheraton mirror. Again, there’s a story. For nine years, Shire recalls, she would go into Shreve, Crump & Low and admire this mirror, but it was much too expensive. Finally, one day they were having a sale, the price had been slashed, and she bought it. For the chandelier, she waited 13 years to find the right one. Walking into an antique shop in New York City, she spotted a 1950s copper sputnik-like chandelier with a central ball and copper spikes. It was “a little wacky, but perfect.”

The juxtaposition of the antique mirror and 1950s light fixture is typical of Shire’s eclectic tastes. The house is full of contrasts: antique and modern, plain and patterned, curved and straight, crowded and empty, exotic and commonplace, whimsical and serious. In some areas of a room she will have a collection of dozens of items, but nearby there will be a plain wall “to allow the eye to rest” she explains. “The eye wants to stop and take in things but then needs some peace.”

  On one wall of the dining room is an antique full-length gilded Sheraton mirror.

Shire’s collections are everywhere. A self-confessed “shopaholic,” she relishes browsing through antique shops. Her two major passions are glass and gollywogs. She collects Italian Murano glass and has works by artists like Alfredo Bardini, acquired over many years in Venice and all over the world. The gollywog was an English character, a children’s book hero. Vintage gollywog dolls can be found throughout the house.

Shire’s parents, Edmund Colgan and Winifred Coffin, were both illustrators, who specialized in book illustration and fashion ads for stores like Filene’s. Her mother was known for pen-and-ink depictions of women’s fur coats. One of the many examples of her parents’ work displayed in the house is a 1953 watercolor by her mother, showing Shire at age five, dressed in a pinafore, watching her mother cut her sister’s hair before a party. On the stair landing is her mother’s pen and ink sketch of children going to bed and dreaming of Christmas toys.

Fall is Shire’s favorite time of year. She is a huge football fan and likes to cook a big meal before Sunday football games. And she loves Christmas. After the holidays, “it is a bit of a letdown but I enjoy the winter and being cozy and warm in my house.”



© 2009 Elm Bank Media