Resting Our Case: Touring the Renovated Case House
More than a year and a half ago, the renovation and upgrade of Case House, also known as the Weston Public School administration “club house” (not really) were completed. A town-wide coming-out party and open house was readied to show off the improvements in spring 2020. But then… Covid. Since that time, the building has been largely off-limits to visitors except those who needed to see school administrators. That is, until the Owl asked very very nicely if she could have a tour–a request that was immediately granted by the Superintendent’s Office (shout-out to Jake for setting up the tour).
On Friday, December 17, the Owl was met by Henry Stone, Historical Commission member, and Danielle Black, Member of School Committee, to hear about the renovation, creep around the basement and attic, and take photos of some of the 12 (!!!) fireplaces – each one different – and appreciate all the amazing work that went into the upgrade. One thing was clear from the get-go–both of these town volunteers love the old place, and loved making it shine again. Lucky us, Weston, because it is just gorgeous. The second thing that was clear was that the Owl is over her head when it comes to talking FFEs, quartered oak and flame birch. See glossary below. I’ll do my best, and say, as always, that all errors are mine. Please also note that photos have been carefully screened as the last thing we want is to invade student, employee or faculty privacy.
That all being said, let’s set the stage. Case House sits on the corner (curve, really) of Wellesley and Newton Streets (89 Wellesley Street). It is somewhat hidden by the gorgeous old trees which hang on through construction and climate change. It is a shingle-style house that was once the summer “cottage” of the family of James B. Case, who spent winters in Boston and then the warm summer months in Weston. Yes, Weston was once where people liked to summer–though now they prefer Maine or the Cape or some islands. While the story of the Cases (including daughters Marian and Louisa) is fascinating, at least to me, I will leave that to your own perusal of Pam Fox’s book, and the Historical Society website.
Built in 1889, the “cottage” was known as “Rocklawn” because there were, and still are, very large boulders on the lawn and designed by architect Ernest Boyden. It was donated to the schools department by the Case family in 1946 and has remained a school administration building for 75 years. Yes, this year is the Diamond anniversary–quick, you have 10 days to give a cake to your favorite school administrator. Too late, give it to me.
Now, flash forward to 2018 when it was more than abundantly clear that the Case House was falling into major disrepair with exterior and roof issues, ADA compliance problems, as well as needing upgrades to HVAC and fire prevention systems. Having visited the place several times before its renovation, the Owl can vouch for things being a bit…ahhh…rough around the edges.
Bringing a late 19th-century house up to code and repairing the deterioration of the historic exterior, is not a cheap or easy task. Town Meeting approved a budget of $8.5 million in November 2018, after prior asks for design funds in the $300K range.
The Case House dream team was assembled with an architect team, the town facilities department, the General Contractor Supervisor and project manager, Jim Polando from the Permanent Building Committee, Danielle representing the School Committee, and Henry representing the Historic Commission.
The team met weekly over the 14 months of construction, and more months in the ramp-up to the construction (also known as the design phase). I’ll be honest here: Henry sent me the 44-page Existing Conditions Report for my perusal and things were very very rough for that old House when the project was approved.
My tour started after walking up the long ADA-compliant path to the new porte-cochere that faces south towards the parking lot. The original porte-cochère, which is French for “hey, pull your carriage in over here” was removed in 1951, at the same time as the “kindergarten room” was added. The kindergarten room is also known as the School Committee room from when SC meetings were in person (Covid means zoom). Some evenings, the demeanor was about the same as kindergarten. Oh, just kidding, folks, get real. I do not love this room but we need the space and the renovation has made it brighter and less 1950s. We also now have a new refrigerator in the hallway that uses a different non-airplane engine to cool down. Anyone who has attended a meeting in that space knows exactly what I am talking about. Oh and nice bathrooms. You would think that would be minor but if you’ve ever seen Psycho and the shower curtain scene, that one bathroom under the staircase..well…don’t think about it.
Back to the entrance and the porte-cochère. Once you get out of your carriage, or Tesla, whatever, the entryway beckons you inside the double set of doors, where you arrive in one of my new favorite spaces in Weston. The entryway which is graced by a large fireplace, complete with wildcats on the sides (fine, they’re lions but close enough), gorgeous wood paneling, amazing light of open doors and Victorian-era paint colors (I could do without the aubergine on the third floor but no one asked) and the tile floors…wait, I am getting ahead of myself. Let me just note that the antlered dead beast that was on the wall is gone (it’s gathering dust at Case Barn), but the post boxes block the gorgeous symmetry of the stairs and I need someone to fix that. That is, in fact, my only complaint. Oh, also, the grammatical mistake on the fireplace–in a school building! The horror!
If you were not on the official tour like I was, you would not know the little secrets. The entryway wall sconces are not ADA-compliant (someone could bonk their heads) and so there are little custom-made exhibit boxes placed at their feet, hopefully soon to contain kid art. The tile floor which looks so much like the original is not–when the renovations started, investigations showed layers of other materials–plywood, carpet and then…asbestos. The floor was ripped up down to the concrete – the tile could not be salvaged, but a close replacement was found. You would never know. Except I told you because I am gossipy that way. The gas light fixtures at each end of the fireplace were found at the Yankee Craftsman store in Wayland (may it RIP) and mounted on the original gas pipes. No, they don’t work anymore, nor do any of the fireplaces, but you wouldn’t know to look at them.
The original oak panelling needed much stripping and care–if you are a wood floor, paneling, stair or door aficionado, get thee to Case House. There are truly incredibly beautiful wooden things there. I just want the huge oak roll-y doors in my house. What really struck me is how light the entire building feels–and there aren’t that many historic homes that capture lightness so well. The first floor Special Services area has giant windows to the outside, a wide open space, and a conference room that for privacy reasons (for students and families to get help) has high-up windows that allow you to see the beautiful lighting fixtures and restored trim…but not the people inside. Someone(s) has thought a lot about the practicality of the space–making it work for the schools–as well as keeping the integrity of this Victorian marvel. Guess who the someones are? Yes, my tour guides.
Now the fireplaces…I did not find all 12. I am pretty sure that Lee McCanne has hidden one somewhere behind all of his lovely photographs. I did not take a photo of one which was stuffed with reams of printer paper (okay, I have a second complaint–get the paper out of the fireplace, please, and thank you). Did you read that book Goodnight Moon growing up and look for the mouse on every page? Well, I recommend you head over to Case House and look for the fireplaces–a fun scavenger hunt except most of them are in private offices. Do not say that I told you to do it.
One office also has the old coal kitchen cookstove in it. Well, you never know when you’ll need to warm up the mac and cheese. Yeah, that doesn’t work anymore but the new and improved Case House now has a break room. How did we not let these folks have a break before? Hmmm. Two people even have nice little balconies but I am not telling who they are. They deserve them.
After the entryway, the room that wins the beauty prize is the octagonal room which Henry says is actually a lozenge shape not octagonal. I counted eight sides, so not sure where I got lost in geometry though I definitely do not remember discussing lozenges in math class. Flame birch walls, people. I have never ever seen anything like it. Flame birch steps. Extra points if you can figure out what the wood diamonds cover. By the way flame birch is red birch, just cut diagonally, or upside down, or some different way that makes it just…indescribable. I want the lozenge room as Owl headquarters. Alas, it seems I would have to give up my already-marginal neutrality. The Octagon Room (take that, Henry Stone) was a late addition to the Case House–it was added on in 1913 for Mrs. Case. It is the only room in the usable space (excluding the attic and basement) not ADA compliant so is used only for staff meetings. I have just found a reason to try to work for the schools.
So not to obsess about dead trees and flooring or anything but while the first floor gets oak and tile, and the second gets oak and flame birch, what does the servant level get? The third floor has yellow pine, yes it’s original, and it is the most durable of the evergreens. And valuable it turns out–these days you’re counting on fir, but those Case folks got their servants hard pine…and continued that gorgeous flying staircase all the way to the third floor, rather than enclosing it or forcing the servants to the staircase of doom.
Danielle explained that much of the furniture in Case House was repurposed from the prior iteration. One does wish we could get everyone some nice big wood desks. Ah well, we have to save costs somewhere. What’s amazing is that after the renovation, there was a net loss of usable space–turns out when you need to take a little bit here and a little bit there to fit the new HVAC into ceilings and floors…well, it adds up. The staircase of doom, aka the servant or back staircase, which was steep and dangerous, is now gone, and a large and wide metal one replaced it. And of course, there is now an elevator, which we did not use on the tour, but I will assume is nice and elevator-y. Bathrooms are now ADA compliant–and I have learned how you do that. You stand in the middle of the space and see if you can whack anything with a 2 ½’ pole everywhere in the 5’ radius–if no, it is ADA compliant. If you break anything, it is not.
The old porch nearest to the Field School field is now working space with giant windows–bookkeeping has moved into a nice light space which looks out on….a generator and machine-y stuff. Well, they have to go somewhere. By the way, the windows are all original except for possibly one–they were pulled out, scraped and beautified and they are back in place. As Danielle and Henry said, the most important in their work for Case House was keeping the historical integrity while allowing it to be a working office space. This was achieved in spades, with the additional bonus that it really is quite pretty.
Because the Owl is a bit of a dork, she did ask to see the basement and attic spaces, so when Danielle and Henry turned out to also be of the same bent, I got to check out the huge machinery, the stored paraphernalia for covid (filters and machines and gloves and wipes and STUFF). I can report that both the attic and basement are sadly very clean and neat with no moss-bonkers, creatures or even spider webs much around. All are up to code, which must make Chief Soar very very happy.
So, you will ask…maybe…did we go over budget? The answer is no. The renovation was completed without exceeding the budget–and there may even be some to give back. There are a couple of learnings along the way – like the small conference room off the main entryway is very echo-y from wood floors and paneling. Possible upgrades would be adding fabric panels to the tables, and maybe an area rug that will also muffle the sound.
What I will say to you taxpayers of Weston is that Case House is a gem. It has been polished, buffed, and cherished into a lovely space where people can work, and meet and take care of the extremely important school children and facilities of our town. Thank you to all the volunteers, and most especially Henry and Danielle, who made this the total win that it is. I hope you all can visit some day. Until then, enjoy the photos!
*FFE: Furniture, fixtures and equipment
*porte-cochère=entrance, sometimes for vehicles.
*quartered oak= a quartered oak floor is wood flooring made with timbers from white or red oak trees that have been cut using a quartersawn method. …the tree is first cut into quarters, and each quarter is then sliced at a 60° to 90° angle to the outer edge.
*flame birch = a rare lumber gem with “a wavy pattern that resembles glistening ripples of water in bright sunlight.” Credit for that lovely turn of phrase goes to Woodshop News