Eager to start renovations on their newly purchased historic Boulder house, Alexandra and Grant Besser began the herculean task of clearing out the previous owners’ belongings. The home had been in the same Boulder family for 90 years, and it was sold to the Bessers with everything in it. Knee-deep in clutter, they made an exciting discovery. Tucked under a heap of dusty artifacts, in a loft above the garage, was a worn leather suitcase filled with family portraits dating from the turn of the century. “It was like opening a time capsule,” Alexandra says. “The photos had been there for decades, forgotten.”
Turns out, the house had once been home to the mayor of Boulder, among other interesting characters. And as the Bessers used the photos to piece together the home’s past, they found a new perspective on the renovation. “We didn’t want to lose any of the history,” Grant says.
Grant took on the job of sifting through the history, which included an 1880s Brunswick pool table, mining tools, vintage radios and clocks, and cases of family papers. Alexandra spearheaded the remodel with the goal of “taking something that is already wonderful and updating it to make it our own.”
The Bessers, Southern California transplants, describe their move to Boulder as an effort to live “a more simple way of life” with their boys (ages 13, 11, and eight). They spent nearly two years scanning Boulder’s limited housing inventory for the ideal home to put down roots. With walkability and sense of community at the top of their list, they selected the Edwardian fixer-upper (circa 1905) just two blocks off Boulder’s Pearl Street Mall. While other prospective buyers were intimidated by the home’s neglected state, the Bessers saw a masterfully designed house brimming with original details—like the ornate fireplace mantel, Douglas fir floors (never sanded), dark-stained molding, old-growth paneled doors, and steam radiators.
Still, it lacked some of the basic amenities that their modern family desired: easy access to the backyard, a kitchen that could double as a social hub, and more bathrooms. To solve these spatial problems, the Bessers hired architect Lisa Egger and contractor Joel Smiley of Smiley Inc. The pair shared the Bessers’ vision for stewardship of the home’s original layout and detailing and brought a sympathetic approach to updating its outmoded wiring, plumbing, and heating systems and essential living spaces.
The back of the house was the one place where the historic character had been lost (thanks to old renovations), so Egger removed a narrow service stair and opened up a bearing wall to make room for a spacious new kitchen, pantry, mudroom, and powder room on the first floor. She used the reclaimed space on the second floor for a guest bathroom and swapped a spare bedroom for a luxurious master bath.
“We tried to choose materials that are reminiscent of the past, so hopefully there is a blurring between what is old and what is new,” Alexandra says of the finishes, which feature Carrara marble on the floor and classic subway tile on the kitchen and bath walls. In the office hang black-and-white portraits left behind by the home’s previous residents. And with very little evidence of the interventions required to resuscitate the property, it’s possible the original owners would feel right at home in this updated version.