An Eclectic Rental In A Second Empire Home

by Maxwell Tielman

Ask any old home devotee—if you’re in the market for something prewar, you better brace yourself for a long, drawn-out search. The older a home is, it seems, the more opportunity it has had to undergo any number of horrific changes. Original fixtures might be ripped out for charmless “modern” ones, hardwood floors might be covered in mysteriously stained wall-to-wall carpeting, large rooms might be subdivided and misshapen into Frankenstein-like additions. If you’re planning on renting, the litany of potential renovation crimes only grows larger. When interior designer Carmel Chisholm began her own search for a prewar apartment over 10 years ago, she found the pickings discouragingly slim. “When I was apartment-hunting,” she recalls, “I had a list of must-haves (old house, decent trim, hardwood floors) and dealbreakers (wall-to-wall carpeting, low ceilings, lack of sunlight). Finding all of these at a price that was affordable to my 20-something self was hard.” Rather serendipitously, Carmel’s realtor called with an unlisted rental that fit the bill. Although the realtor described the home as “totally decrepit” and Carmel remembers it looking “hella haunted,” the home’s old world charm, 6-foot windows, and marble fireplace were enough to woo her.

Located in the quiet town of Arlington, MA, the house’s locale has a rich history dating back to the Revolutionary War. During her first month in the new apartment, Carmel recalls waking up to the sound of muskets firing on Patriot’s Day, a magical moment that cemented her love for the place. Over the years, Carmel has weathered a number of disasters that plague old home dwellers: invasive animals, bad leaks, a mysterious plume of black smoke emanating from her fireplace during a particularly bad rainstorm. Still, despite the apartment’s shortcomings (or, if one feels generous, “character”), Carmel has turned the space into a home, one that has seen her through her twenties and into her thirties. “I remember one of my exes’ moms who owned an old house telling me that ‘no matter what people do to it over the years, no matter how awful of shape it is in, if you put in the work, you can always get an old house back,'” Carmel notes. “That has stuck with me. I am open to living in newer homes, and of course I am a fan of modernist architecture and such, but old houses just have this appeal that I cannot describe. They are stunners. And they are worth the work.” —Max

The ornate marble fireplace in the living room is what originally sold Carmel on the apartment. She likes to change the decor on the mantel seasonally, noting that "my friends joke that, like Lady Mary, I 'do the seasons.'"
"I traveled from Massachusetts to New Jersey just to get this particular greige Eames Rocker," Carmel says. The pillow's fabric is Rogers & Goffigon. The coffee table is an antique trunk that Carmel purchased at the Harvard Flea Market when she was nineteen.
Carmel's Siamese cat, Chloe sits on top of a gold cowhide rug.
Detail of the mantel. "I have a thing for graphic design from the 1970's, such as this Rene Char poster. My little collection of mid-century studio pottery has become a bit of a habit now. I love the black acrylic "A" that I bought at a recent art show; I like to think of it as a very stylized anarchy symbol, as we all could use a little stylized anarchy now and then."
This collection of houseplants was inspired by the conservatory at Mark Twain's house. "Every house should have a little jungle, and this is mine," Carmel notes. Eames and Noguchi tables from Design Within Reach.
A detail of the living room's bookshelf. A small portrait of Carmel, painted by local artist Judy Greulich, sits atop a stack of books.
A Knoll Jehs + Laub chair sits in the middle of the living room. Behind it is a maple drafting table, gifted from Carmel's parents when she decided to go to architecture school. Above the radiator is a vintage Arne Jacobsen poster.
A Mohr & McPherson Indian cabinet houses the living room's television. The frame of the cabinet is painted Farrow & Ball's "Old White."
Carmel's collection of Buddha figurines.
The bedroom. "I am a Woody Allen fan 'til death, and love my 'Manhattan'" and 'Interiors' posters, two of my favorites of his," Carmel says.
Another one of the apartment's selling-points was this window nook. "One of my prized possessions," Carmel says, "is the Esparto grass donkey head from Spain, hanging between the windows."
"Saint Therese de Lisieux holds a special place for me," Carmel says, "as she did for my grandfather, who this portrait of her belonged to."
"The only piece of IKEA left in my house is this bookshelf in my bedroom," Carmel says, "which houses most of my fiction books, as well as this Harry Allen pig bank." Photo above by Helena Kvarnstrom.
On top of the bedroom's mantel sits two old photos of Carmel's parents as teenagers. Carmel's mother is depicted in her nun habit—she came to America from Ireland to join a convent. "I cherish these photographs of them," Carmel says, "as they show a youthfulness and innocence that we don't usually—but should—associate with our parents."
The kitchen. Above the sink is an oyster fossil collection.
The kitchen's fridge is home to various vintage postcards, polaroids of friends, and a "Vote Chisholm: Unbought and Unbossed" from Shirley Chisholm's 1972 election.
A view of the hallway from the kitchen. "I used to collect daguerreotypes," Carmel says, "but have sold off all except for this handsome hand-tinted couple that watch over my ironing board closet."

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  • Old homes do carry a mysterious charm. I’m a sucker for window nooks as well, so I see how that was a major selling point. Beautiful home.

  • Wait…What?…There’s an entire book in there somewhere! Carmel’s gorgeous Irish mother is pictured in her habit and that’s all we get??? Please, please, I need to know more!

  • beautiful….love the mix of art, light, wall colour, furniture that is old and new…plus pieces picked up from travels…the perfect mix for a great home

  • Old houses just do it for me. I feel like you can so do much more with them; make them modern, clean & simple or give it a more Mediterranean feel. You can go which ever way you like when decorating.

  • Do you mind telling me where did you find those bells that you hanging on the wall next to your singing bowl? Can we even find it in America? I know my friend found it in India.
    Thank you!

  • Thank you, everyone.
    The shelves are from CB2. The Indian bells I found at a flea market for three bucks.
    As for Robin’s comment about my mother: I’d say her life is definitely book-worthy! :)

  • what a beautiful space…you’ve done such an amazing job with it! i think that fireplace would have sold me on the place also! it’s gorgeous!

  • Hi Carmel !
    I love the atmosphere that you have successfully created in your home.
    The paintings are beautiful … Can I have the references of the color of the chimney wall please?
    Congratulations for this interior.