An Eclectic Rental In A Second Empire Home

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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

  1. Tara says:

    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.

  2. Robin D says:

    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!

  3. Shannen-K says:

    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

  4. I love the mantels and the window nook but my favorite is that armoire from India. What a treasure!

  5. stephanieZ says:

    Where are the bookcases in the 3rd photo from? lovely house by the way!

  6. oltyrrell says:

    wow—–love her space. the neutrality, how eclectic and warm, and the greige Eames chair…..gorgeous.

  7. sunshine says:

    *warm and fuzzy sigh*

  8. 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.

  9. Rae says:

    The photos are great, Carmel! So happy to see Chlo-Chlo got glamour shot.

  10. Ariel says:

    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!

  11. Becca says:

    I want more info on that gorgeous cowhide rug!! This whole house is a dream.

  12. Caroline says:

    Totally in love. What a home! Physically and spiritually. Thanks.

  13. Carmel Chisholm says:

    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! :)

  14. meg says:

    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!

  15. Felix Terreyre Saint-Cast says:

    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.

  16. Nitsan says:

    Hi, anyone knows of sources for 2nd empire decor?


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