A Chinatown Home offers sunlit serenity to a family of Manhattan transplants.
Sam and Leslie Davol are the kind of couple that cities like Boston are working to attract. Hip and smart (he went to Harvard, she to Barnard), and sweethearts since their days at Concord Academy, they settled in New York, where he practiced law for the Legal Aid Society by day and played cello for eclectic pop band the Magnetic Fields by night. Meanwhile, she started a career at the New York Historical Society, later working on the World Trade Center redevelopment effort. In 1997, they married and bought an abandoned building in West SoHo with other adventurous New Yorkers, transforming part of it into their dream loft with views across a dynamic, emerging neighborhood.
But in 2005, as their children approached school age, Leslie began to think fondly of her Boston upbringing—in particular, her grade school years at Shady Hill in Cambridge. So the couple cashed in their 3,400-square-foot condo and returned to New England (and to two happy sets of grandparents). "SoHo had changed a lot since we first bought the building in 1997. There were many more luxury lofts, which gave the neighborhood a different feel, and also made it a good time to sell," says Leslie. They purchased side-by-side apartments in Boston's Chinatown. "The area has incredible potential; there's lots of energy here now that the Greenway is finished."
"We took the move as an opportunity to change how we lived," says Leslie. Looking for a young, experimental firm to realize what she calls their "new paradigm" by combining the two units, Leslie found H öweler + Yoon Architecture through a mutual New York friend. Eric Höweler and Meejin Yoon, both 35, were also recent transplants from New York, having landed academic positions at MIT and Harvard. The partners are best known for their interactive installations, including a felt display at the Guggenheim and a fiber-optic landscape for the 2004 Athens Olympics. But the Davols were particularly impressed by Yoon's book, Absence, an abstract response to the World Trade Center architectural competition. "We were into the idea of working with someone just starting out," says Leslie, "and I'd seen Meejin's book in New York. We just hit it off."
The centerpiece of the Davols' chic Boston condo is an unexpected 8-by-8-foot courtyard that Höweler calls a "cube of nature" in a "clean, modern space." When it was first proposed, Sam's friends had doubts. "Everyone said, 'You're crazy. You're giving up square footage.'" But the gamble paid off. The courtyard hosts water fights between their children, Malcolm, six, and Eleanor, eight; al fresco breakfasts; drying laundry; chilling beverages; or stargazing. Leslie and Sam also use it as a private outdoor phone booth when taking important calls. And an inflatable enclosure is in the works—a giant vinyl-coated polyester balloon with embedded LED lighting that, much like a bottle stopper, will roof in the courtyard to protect it from wind and rain.
Sam categorizes the apartment as "transformable" because it falls somewhere between a loft and a traditional room-by-room plan. Between the work and living rooms, two sliding translucent Panelite screens can divide spaces to create a temporary recording studio or a private office. The panels can be opened if Malcolm and Eleanor (also budding cellists) want to put on a performance for guests. Working, living, cooking, and play spaces form an open circuit around the perimeter, while a host of clever devices define space without walls. Just a single step distinguishes the kitchen from the dining room. And although the courtyard separates the kitchen from the playroom acoustically, there is still a strong visual connection. The sparely furnished rooms reflect both a modern aesthetic and a more practical concern: "A small elevator helps you curate your furniture," Sam wryly admits. Of the condo's final design, Leslie says, "We're really using every inch, and we're pushed out to the windows, to the views of downtown Boston and the Greenway."
As soon as they moved in, the Davols got involved with their new neighborhood. From their loft, you can see the empty Chinatown lot where they help run an outdoor Chinese-language movie series known as "Films at the Gate," now in its second year. "It was exciting to do something outside of an organization," says Leslie, who launched the project with Jeremy Liu of the Asian Community Development Corporation.
Could this be the new Boston in creative transformation? "There are big questions that remain to be answered about downtown Boston," Sam says, "and it's great to live in that kind of place." Leslie adds, "We originally left Boston at a convenient time, when the city was doing the Big Dig. We came back at this moment when it's done, when there's a sense of potential, and a new city on the horizon."