woodwork, millwork, stairs

Historic Woodwork

A traditionally styled premier suite – which features a mile of moldings – was created at an historic luxury boutique hotel in Boston, MA.

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In 2007, Boston, MA-based THEREdesign transformed an outdated office at The Lenox Hotel into a premier suite. Construction supervisor RJ Davisson of Davisson + Associates of Sterling, MA, installed the moldings and millwork.

The old office space had been remodeled many times during the hotel's 100-plus-year history and had no cohesive style or design. The rooms were gutted. All photos: Davisson + Associates

By Hadiya Strasberg

When The Saunders Hotel Group moved its chairman’s offices out of its flagship Lenox Hotel in Boston, MA, it decided to renovate the space to create a premier suite. A 1900 Colonial Revival-style building located in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood, The Lenox Hotel maintains much of its original style and was meticulously restored in 2003. So it followed that the new Back Bay Suite would complement the hotel’s history.

Boston-based THEREdesign was the architect for the project. While the firm had done previous work in the hotel, most notably the Azure Restaurant and the City Bar, both of which are off the lobby, it was in a contemporary style. “We had also designed the finish work of the hotel’s banquet halls,” says Aishah Farooki, project designer at THEREdesign. “That was in a more traditional style so by the time we were working on the Back Bay Suite I had gained an appreciation for traditional design and was better versed in it.”

THEREdesign worked closely with construction supervisor RJ Davisson of Davisson + Associates in Sterling, MA. With a specialization in fine finish carpentry and design, with a special focus and expertise in historical renovation and remodeling, Davisson was a true asset. At The Lenox Hotel, he served as construction supervisor, finish woodworking design assistant to the architect, general contractor responsible for all the woodworking and cabinetry and onsite supervisor of the other craftspeople who provided final finish work in the suite.

In place of the office, which was gutted in mid-2007, THEREdesign planned a sitting room, bedroom, bathroom and wet bar area. The hallway entrance was relocated, and an existing special entrance to the suite was elaborated on with thick jambs, a recessed doorway, a foyer and another door beyond the main one for extra soundproofing and privacy. “This also served as a way to distinguish the entry to the suite from all the function room entries surrounding it on that floor of the hotel,” says Farooki. Guests enter from the foyer into a sitting room, which contains the wet bar and a hidden closet. The bedroom, with a built-in wardrobe, a working wood-burning fireplace and a custom-made four-poster bed, is beyond that.

Moldings from Cotati, CA-based Windsor Mill’s WindsorONE Molding Collection were chosen for the new suite. The molding line, developed in 2004 by Windsor Mill in collaboration with preservation carpenter Brent Hull and licensed contractor Gary Katz, celebrates historically accurate Classical detailing.

Davisson was involved in the initial design meetings, in which he made sure that the placement and layout of things such as drapery pockets, soffits and electrical outlets were taken into consideration in the early stages. “It may seem straightforward,” he says, “but implementing the interior design in the suite was complex because with every design detail change, even for something as simple as a moved electrical or sound-system switch or sconce placement, the layout had to be checked, re-measured and often redrawn onsite on the walls. It was important that everything be planned out with precision and as much in advance as possible.”

THEREdesign relied heavily on moldings and trimwork for its overall design vision and to bring the suite together. There had been existing woodwork in the room, but only the fireplace mantel was salvaged. “Most of the existing stain-grade woodwork was poorly stained maple, and it was not in the best shape,” says Davisson. “There was also a mix of various other species and styles, which reflected previous changes and repairs, and we couldn’t use those either.”

Davisson chose moldings from Windsor Mill, a Cotati, CA-based manufacturer of moldings, millwork and specialty lumber with additional operations in Virginia and Chile. Founded in 1972 by Raymond A. Flynn, Windsor Mill began as a producer of clear heart trim boards and moldings in redwood, Douglas fir and various other species predominately on the West Coast. In 1996, it launched the WindsorONE finger-jointed, pre-primed radiata trim product line. The company took another step in 2004 when it collaborated with nationally recognized millwork expert Brent Hull of Hull Historical Millwork and master craftsman Gary Katz of “The Katz Road Shows” to develop a line of interior moldings, the WindsorONE Classic American Molding Collection. “It offers four interior base-to-crown solutions – Classic Colonial, Greek Revival, Classical Craftsman and Colonial Revival,” says Kurt Williams, product specialist at Windsor Mill.

Davisson created valences above the windows that seamlessly transition into trim.

While the initial drawings specified one solid piece of 9-in. crown molding, Davisson chose a different option: He used a combination of picture and WindsorONE crown molding build-up and picture molding.

The WindsorONE Collection “provides a unique line for the industry,” says Williams. “Brent researched pattern books such as Asher Benjamin’s "The American Builder’s Companion" to identify the more common themes early American architecture reflected. Katz played the role of contributing consultant from a trim carpenter’s standpoint. What separates these moldings from other companies’ products is that each collection has a common theme that can be used throughout, taking out the guesswork for the architect or carpenter.”

Working exclusively in radiata pine sourced from sustainable-yield forests on the Chilean coast, Windsor Mill is an environmentally conscious company. “The fact that WindsorONE moldings were from sustainable-yield forests with certified chain-of-custody procedures was highly interesting and desirable for owners of The Lenox Hotel,” says Davisson. “The owners and the hotel have been on the forefront of hospitality environmental issues since before it was trendy, and they apply sustainable and green products to every aspect of their properties.”

The WindsorONE moldings come triple-primed - an economic benefit. “Using Windsor Mill moldings instead of custom moldings definitely saved the hotel money,” says Davisson. “The product eliminates the priming step by the painting contractor, yet the cost for the hotel was no more than unprimed poplar.”

Davisson and Williams express similar ideas about the design of moldings. “True molding detail is represented in a Greek pillar,” says Williams. “It is structured at the base, the support, which should be robust, and then becomes more detailed as you go up the column. Our WindsorONE Collection takes that into consideration to give the perception of scale and proportion.”

Davisson argued for more robust moldings than THEREdesign had originally specified, believing that the architects would be in favor of them if they were introduced. Davisson built several 2-ft.-wide x 10-ft.-tall full-scale models of the potential molding and trim solutions – those specified by THEREdesign and a few other options. “I’ve always found mock-ups to be key in getting ideas across,” says Davisson. “What was extremely interesting to me was how the ‘show and tell’ progressed. Without much prodding on my part, the architects, owners and hotel management all came to the same conclusion and selected the entire WindsorONE Colonial Revival Collection. I might have influenced the direction a bit, but not to the extent that it came out.” A few other molding profiles from other collections were also used. Elegance was one of the key factors behind choosing the WindsorONE Collection. THEREdesign was looking not for a specific historic style but, says Farooki, “for something elegant but not too ornate and something with a clean profile.” The WindsorONE Collection emphasizes crisp, clean lines. “Most moldings tend to be rounded, because knives aren’t sharpened often enough or so many layers of paint have accumulated,” says Williams. “We also felt that it was important to restore the moldings to their original size so our minimum base thickness is 3/4 in.”

Instead of replicating the applied molding that was installed above the chair railing, for the wall below the chair rail Davisson built recessed panel wainscoting consisting of chair rail, apron, rail and stile frames with panel molding that wraps the inside of the panel recess, plus baseboard. This has the visual effect of adding weight and support to the room and its upper design elements.

As with most historic buildings, it was a challenge to install the moldings because the floors are out-of-level. To make the elements work together and within the room, Davisson had to subtly change chair rail heights to match established window heights and increase and decrease baseboard dimensions.

The Colonial Revival Collection, which includes chair railing, casing, window stool cap, apron, panel molding, baseboard and wainscoting, has another piece that was integral to the project – a four-piece crown molding. “This was a key decision not only for the Colonial Revival look,” says Davisson, “but it enabled us to more easily realize the crown-wrapped valence design integral to the windows and window treatments that THEREdesign and the hotel wanted to achieve.”

While the drawings specified one solid piece of 9-in. crown molding for the room, to match the height of the window valences, Davisson recommended an alternative option that was more easily implemented. It used a combination WindsorONE crown molding built up with a picture molding. “To the eye, it still reads as one large crown,” says Davisson, “so I achieved what the architects wanted.”

Another modification to the design concerned the wainscoting. THEREdesign gave Davisson a few options. He could replicate the applied molding design that was installed above the chair rail by adding an apron, the applied molding and a baseboard; he could install a true raised-panel wainscoting; or he could create a recessed-panel design with rails and stiles and wrap the inside perimeter of the panel recess with panel molding. Again using full-scale mockups, he, along with the architect and hotel owners, opted for the third option. “We all agreed on that option,” says Davisson. “It provides the proper gravitas to support the height of the room.”

Other additions included plinths at the bottom of the door casing, which were required because of thicknesses of materials as they came together at this juncture. One of Davisson’s favorite additions is a “secret” closet to the right of the wet bar. “The space was limited, because the hotel needed to put the HVAC units there,” he says. “There was a typical closet drawn in the plans, but we decided to create something that would allow for the seamless continuation of the wall, the molding pattern and the wall covering treatment. The 'wall' pulls out and guests access the closet from one side instead of from the front.”

There were additional “secret” doors, such as the panels that Davisson designed for HVAC servicing to the right of the “secret” closet, and the steam unit for the shower, which is to the left of the fireplace. “We were working with a very small space,” says Farooki, “which was challenging in terms of the placement of the moldings and finding room for the HVAC and electrical. We needed to be very economical and creative.”

Davisson says that one of the most difficult parts of this project was working with out-of-level floors. “The hotel, like many buildings in Boston’s Back Bay, has settled over time, and the shifts and settling created some interesting layout, mathematical and carpentry issues,” he says. “Finish carpentry is tricking the eye in many cases and that’s what we had to do here.”

The Back Bay Suite at The Lenox Hotel was completed in early 2008. Everyone involved on the project agrees that the moldings make the room. “I really enjoyed working collaboratively with THEREdesign as well as having the opportunity to work with the WindsorONE Molding Collection,” says Davisson. “Everyone worked together and traded ideas for a wonderful result.”