Living Room Design

This past weekend, four generations of the Wilson/Kelsey clan gathered at the Inn at Castle Hill in Ipswich for a weekend of fun and relaxation.

inn at castle hill, source unknown

 The weather was so delightful, much of it was spent on the Inn’s large wrap around porch that overlooks the backside of Crane Beach and island.

four generations; photographer, John Kelsey

While many of you may have visited Castle Hill to see the beautiful summer home and grand allée designed by David Adler for the Crane family, on this visit my objectives were different – jettison the car and walk.

But before we walk together, let’s spend a few moments at the Inn. The Crane family purchased the property in 1910, ultimately accumulating 2,100 acres of land including Choate Island, located in the salt marshes behind Castle Island. The family lived in the inn (known as the Brown House) while the estate was being built on the top of the hill. Two structures were actually built, the first being done in the Italianate style. David Adler was retained to design both the exterior and interior of the second English style structure we see today. The family continued to occupy the inn thru the 1950’s. Ultimately, much of the property was deeded to the Trustees of Reservations. In 1998, the Ipswich based architectural firm, Carpenter MacNeill, was retained to help guide the renovation and conversion of the Brown House into a small luxury inn. It’s accommodations are wonderfully warm and elegant. Listen carefully, you can hear echoes of the house’s rich history.

The cozy lounge. We would all linger here in front of the warm fire after returning from dinner.

Inn at Castle Hill Lounge; photographer, John Kelsey

It’s welcoming foyer.

Inn at Castle Hill Foyer; photographer, John Kelsey

The view toward the sunny breakfast room.

Inn at Castle Hill view to breakfast room; photographer, John Kelsey

The breakfast room.

Inn at Castle Hill breakfast room; photographer, John Kelsey

But as I said, my objective was to walk slowly to see what the grounds revealed. Honestly, I only scratched it’s surface…

I began by following the resident flock of turkeys as they crossed the yard in front of the Inn.

Turkeys at Castle Hill; photographer, John Kelsey

When you follow a flock of turkeys, you definitely slow down…

I found myself admiring the root structure of  several old, old beech trees, thinking, “There’s a custom rug here.”

beech tree roots; photographer John Kelsey

The tree’s folds of bark reminded me of the skin of a wise old elephant and I thought,”If this tree could talk, the stories it could tell.”

beech tree bark; photographer John Kelsey

I found myself on my hands and knees, admiring tiny fall asters in all their glory.

fall aster: photographer John Kelsey

The counterpoints to the detail and intimacy were the vistas that would slowly unfold before my eyes, the change in scale making them all the more beautiful and breath-taking.

Inn at Castle Hill vista: photographer, John Kelsey

Fox Creek behind the Hill. (I’ve had some amazing striped bass fishing in this little creek in the spring.)

Fox Creek behind Castle Hill; photographer John Kelsey

Overlooking the old garden plot and farm buildings.

Castle Hill Garden plot and farm buildings; photographer, John Kelsey

The garden called to me and I heeded it’s call. Aspects of the garden reminded me of Ashintully Gardens and Naumkeag, other Trustees of Reservations properties Sally and I had visited earlier in the summer. Note the trellis on the right and small tower structure in the far right corner of the garden.

castle hill garden plot; photographer John Kelsey

Loved the rustic stone cobble columns!

castle hill garden trellis, photographer John Kelsey

The trellis was made of cedar trees, carefully trimmed to fit. Note the copper cap on the column. Such attention to detail!!!

trellis detail; photographer John Kelsey

The small niche in the top of the back wall receive/hold the cedar logs in their proper place.

trellis detail; photographer John Kelsey

Of course, there is a fountain!!!

Castle Hill fountain under trellis; photographer John Kelsey

The old Lion’s head… Such wonderful patina!!!

Lion's head at Castle Hill; photographer John Kelsey

At each end of the Garden were towers built into the garden’s retaining wall. I’m sure back in the day, they afforded spectacular views of the surrounding country side.

Castle Hill Garden Tower; photographer John Kelsey

Tower stair… Elegant in it’s functionality and simplicity.

Garden Tower Stair; photographer John Kelsey

Mmmm, rustic gate and hinges…

Rustic gate and strap hinges; photographer John Kelsey

The trail continued to beckon and tease…

Peak of Castle Hill; photographer John Kelsey

The Italian Gardens are currently under restoration.

Castle Hill Italian Gardens: Photographer John Kelsey

Castle Hill Italian Gardens: Photographer John Kelsey

I was drawn to the play of light and shadow on the trellis.

Castle Hill Italian Gardens: Photographer John Kelsey

Across the road, the Rose Garden awaits it’s return to former glory.

Castle Hill  Rose Garden: Photographer John Kelsey

Take the time to look closely. Close your eyes… Smell the roses…

Castle Hill  Rose Garden: Photographer John Kelsey

Just around the corner, you cross the property’s Grand Allée that leads to the ocean. Look to the right, tucked into the hillside is the restored Casino. Earlier in the summer Sally and I attended the kick off concert for Castle Hill’s resurrected Summer Concert Series in the Casino. Wonderful, intimate, romantic. We will do more next year. Originally, where you see grass in the middle, there was a swimming pool and grass was where the stone walk way is today. The cost of that portion of the restoration was prohibitive… It must have been magnificent!

Castle Hill restored Casino; photographer John Kelsey

I leave you with the beautiful picture Sally took, looking back over her shoulder after walking the same circuit I had done. The sun shining gloriously, fall foliage coming into it’s prime. Food for the Soul…

Castle Hill restored Casino; photographer Sally Wilson



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I periodically post design sketches of the projects we’re working on on our WKD Facebook page. I thought I’d consolidate a series of sketches and mockups we have done on the interior renovation of the living room in an Antique Colonial/Federal Period Reproduction home to show the progression we go thru with a client when we’re working thru the design of the interior architecture of a room with them.

First it’s the ideas and inspiration.

Sometimes it comes from our own work, as in the paneling and mantel surround we designed for a home in Lincoln, MA several years ago.

Colonial paneling and mantel surround designed by Wilson Kelsey Design

Or it can come from from the traveling Sally and I do, as we continue to educate ourselves, learning about our profession and architectural heritage. These are pictures I took in the basement of the Swan House in Atlanta, Georgia last spring. They are of the paneling that was in Philip Trammel Schutze’s apartment, the architect of the Swan House.

Philip Trammel Schutze apartment, Swan House; Wilson Kelsey Design

Philip Trammel Schutze apartment, Swan House; Wilson Kelsey Design

We often turn to our library as a resource. For this project, I pulled Brent Hull’s, Traditional American Rooms off the shelf. It is a fabulous documentary of many of the Federal Period Rooms at Winterthur. I referred to this book recently as I worked on the mantel and cabinetry design for a project we are doing in Wellesley and Charlestown.

The Marlboro Room

Marlboro Room Winterthur

The Hampton Room

Winterthur, The Hampton Room

I reviewed these and other images with our client, went thru their own extensive library with them and began sketching, quickly coming up with 4 ideas.

I call these little sketches/doodles “cartoons”. They don’t communicate much detail, rather they express Gestalt – feel, emotion, a sense of place.

first Federal Period paneling/mantel sketches; Wilson Kelsey Design

Our client pounced on the bottom left because of the mantel. They asked that we keep the door frame assembly simple, as shown on the right of the sketch.

We then moved into more detail and larger scale, reconfirming the selected mantel design in the process.

Yes, the walls will be green – not this intense…

living room mantel elevation, WIlson Kelsey Design

Too leggy…

Federal style paneling and mantel; Wilson Kelsey Design

Next we drilled down to the panel trim.

This shows the panel trim within the confines of the stiles and rails of the paneling. Note how the door trim/assembly has been pulled forward, proud of the paneling, emphasizing it’s verticality, giving the room “lift”. (Lesson learned when visiting Paris last January.)

Federal Period Style Panel; Wilson Kelsey Design

Here the trim sits proud of the stile/rail assembly by about 1/8″. We liked the shadow line created by the difference in height.

Federal Style Paneling Study; Wilson Kelsey Design

We moved on to mock ups and what I call the “eyeball design” phase, confident of the outcome…

Six different mockups were done. I”ll keep it simple.

Here are the two finalists.

Trim proud of stile/rail; Wilson  Kelsey Design

Trim within the stile/rail; Wilson Kelsey Design

We got fooled. What we thought would be best was not. The trim that sat proud of the stile rail called too much attention to itself. You saw a series of picture frames as opposed to an integrated whole, which is what we saw with the trim that sat fully within the stile/rail assembly. it was softer, more delicate – in balance with the room.

Repeat after me.

Pencils are cheap. 2×4’s are expensive.

Mock ups, mock ups, mock ups!!!

Fractions of an inch actually matter – tremendously!!!

And so, the unfinished room awaits it’s final assembly.

federal style paneling and mantel in construction; Wilson Kelsey Design

Take a close look at the flu assembly – how it corbels to the right to pass steel beam supporting the second floor.

I wonder what happens on the second floor…



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Our work pace has slowed sufficiently that I’ve taken a few hours each of the past two days to sort and organize images for an update to the Work in Progress section of our website. At one point the realization came to me, “So, this is why there’s been no time to blog these past 5 months!” The sorting and organizing should make it easier to write more blog posts as well.

I thought I’d start with a kitchen/bath and “Oh by the way, I’ve never liked the way the fireplace and closet doors by the fireplace looked.” project that is just ramping up in Charlestown. The kitchen and bathrooms are relatively simple, while the fireplace/closet door problem is more challenging. (And more fun…) Right now, the fireplace elevation looks like two doors in a wall with the fireplace in-between. Overall, the room lacks focus and has no organizing/interesting architectural detail to speak of. The client’s taste leans toward Late 1700’s French Neoclassical and English Georgian (with a little New England sea captain thrown in for good measure…). “Casual elegance” were the descriptive adjectives written in their programming form.

The obvious solution is to build a mantel surround that ties together and conceals the two doors, thus bringing coherence to the elevation and creating a focal point for the room.

With that in mind, I began to cast about for ideas and inspiration. One source I always turn to when paneling is involved is the work of my Belgian friend Greet Lefevre and Lefeve Interiors. What I’m seeing here is how the paneling frames and bridges over the mantel as well as the finish, which is saying casual elegance to me.

Lefevre Interiors, living room paneling details

Here, Greet steps the formality down even further.

Lefevre Interiors, mantel surround paneling

We can’t forget the Georgian, New England sea captain. What a contrast in styles!!! This is an example of the work of American architect Phillip Trammell Shutze.  I can see a connection is aspects of the paneling between this and the image above.

Swan House, Phillip Trammell Shutze

Winterthur never disappoints. Typical of many early colonial homes, one wall would receive paneling while the rest of the walls in the room would be plaster. Both this image and the Swan House image give clues as to proportion and detail when dealing with a lower ceiling height. (My favorite reference book on Winterthur is Winterthur Style Source Book, Traditional American Rooms, by Brent Hull and Christine Franck.)

accent paneled wall, Winterthur

While not necessarily using specific details from any of these images, I created the first of two “cartoons”. The doors by the existing stone fireplace are concealed as full height “wall panels”set within flat stock door jambs. the existing stone mantel is deep enough that I can pad the wall around and above it such that this paneling sit slightly in front of the plane of the door jambs. The full height doors and the long shadow lines created by the trimmed fireplace give vertical lift to the room and create a focal point for the room.

French Neoclassical fireplace surround A, Wilson Kelsey Design

Adjacent to the surround is the kitchen, which will be opened up so it is visually connected to the living/dining room. I have designed the living/dining side of the counter to feel/look like a kitchen island to which one can pull up chairs.

Cartoon 2 illustrates my premise that sometimes you need to draw an idea simply to prove to yourself that it isn’t as good an idea or is an inappropriate solution. The idea was to study the effect of further panelizing the doors and to see what would happen if the counter were to be de-emphasized. Too busy and too weak…

French influence fireplace surround B, Wilson Kelsey Design

The contractor LOVES cartoon 1. The client feels #1 is the best choice, too, but is concerned that it may be too formal. My feeling is with the proper trim profiles (simple and not fussy) and the right paint color (a warm griege with a glaze) the room will snap together fulfilling the goal of casual elegance.

What say you?


John Kelsey, Wilson Kelsey Design

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