Entertaining Tradition: Conversation with Patrick Ahearn

A home that balances the historical with the contemporary — it represents a perfect marriage for many architectural minds.

Humans are creatures of habit, after all. We find comfort in spaces that feel familiar, that envelope us in warmth, that root us to our pasts. At the same time, we also want our homes to reflect our 21st-century lifestyles — not the way our ancestors once lived. This philosophy has defined Boston-based architect Patrick Ahearn for the last 42 years. His namesake firm has roused his clients’ most deeply held family traditions and modern sensibilities through historically inspired architecture and interiors that draw from the “rich and fertile background” of New England.

Thumbnail for 284661As the holidays near, traditions become the center of our lives at home. We will host our annual turkey feast in our dining rooms that open from the kitchen. We will plan winter fundraisers in our party barns. We will kick off the new year in our grand living rooms. Who better to consult about designing entertaining spaces and homes that celebrate these traditions than an award-winning architect who is known for giving classic forms and timeless sensibility a contemporary twist? We recently spoke to Ahearn about his past-meets-present approach.

Previews Inside Out How do you typically balance designing a historically inspired home while adapting to the way modern families live today?

Patrick Ahearn I typically base it on the floor plan and the flow of the house. I try to develop the organization of the house by creating spines that traverse through the house with rooms attached to them as opposed to having to move through a living room or dining room to get outside. We use the character theme and scale of a historic house, but adapt the house to a different kind of flow and more open indoor/outdoor living spaces.

Previews Inside Out What is the biggest challenge when striking the balance between the past and the present?

Patrick Ahearn It has to do with using materials that recall the past through the things you touch and feel. These are the things that give you pleasure in terms of your daily experiences. But we always want to work toward following the light patterns of the house and indoor/outdoor opportunities.

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Previews Inside Out What is the biggest challenge when striking the balance between the past and the present?

Patrick Ahearn It has to do with using materials that recall the past through the things you touch and feel. These are the things that give you pleasure in terms of your daily experiences. But we always want to work toward following the light patterns of the house and indoor/outdoor opportunities.

ahearn_coastal_new_england_harbor_house_441Previews Inside Out What can historical architecture teach us about creating a home for entertaining?

Patrick Ahearn We can learn from grand homes and their significant entertaining spaces. What we tend to do now in new houses is design spaces that have intimate scale and flow into each other, as opposed to designing a giant ballroom that sits empty 99% of the time.

Previews Inside Out For so many people, the holidays are about tradition and family. Do you think a historic home gives them even deeper roots to the past?

Patrick Ahearn Absolutely. Our collective memories are always based on the past. Growing up as a child, my holidays were always geared around family and toward the New England idiom of hearth. The traditional New England vernacular really pulls at the heart strings and the collective memories of people throughout the country. I believe that traditional New England architecture appeals to a much larger audience than just the local population.

Previews Inside Out In what ways have you witnessed our ideas of entertaining change over the decades, and how has that impacted your architecture?

Patrick Ahearn A number of things have changed. For example, the idea of a media room in the basement as a dedicated place to watch TV or a movie has changed significantly. We very rarely design those for homes today, thanks to the advent of high-definition televisions that are thin and only an inch-and-a-half deep. They can be placed anywhere, and people really want to live above ground and enjoy the sun and indoor/outdoor opportunities. Also, in the 1950s, people would have a bar in the basement; now, we have bars that are part of what we consider a living room. The idea is that owners do not have to go to a particular place to entertain guests and friends; they can entertain throughout their entire house.

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Previews Inside Out I imagine that there are a lot of modern families who want to see a harmony of different kinds of entertaining spaces. You know, a balance of grand spaces — for big parties — and more intimate spaces that inspire socializing and conversation. Is that the case in your work?

Patrick Ahearn Absolutely. We tend to provide intimate family spaces, larger spaces for entertaining, adult spaces, kid spaces, quiet spaces for reading and, again, the overriding idea of indoor/outdoor living opportunities. And of course, following the light is one of the most important criteria in my homes.

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Previews Inside Out What are some of the most unusual spaces you’ve created for entertaining?

Patrick Ahearn We have done a lot of party barns recently. Basically, these are separate, freestanding barns on a property where people can host parties or a cocktail party. There’s also the ultimate man cave that can either be attached to the house or freestanding. We’ve also designed a lot of garages that look like entertaining spaces. The advent of the Jay Leno super garage is something that a lot of men are looking to create for themselves in their own homes.

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Previews Inside Out How much do the holidays, or the way a family entertains during this season, impact your design on average? Is it a consideration for a lot of your clients?

Patrick Ahearn Absolutely. For example, I had to design a dining room that could hold 20 people on Thanksgiving or special holidays, yet still feel intimate. It’s a challenge. The homeowner recognizes that for the bulk of the year, these spaces will be used for more intimate and smaller gatherings. So we tend to design more spaces that can flow into each other for those special days or annual events — particularly Thanksgiving and Christmas — and can have a multiplicity of uses.

Previews Inside Out What are some of your favorite historical elements to draw upon when designing a home for a client who loves to entertain?

Patrick Ahearn Obviously, fireplaces come to mind immediately. As well, I like to design multiple tall, Rumford-type fireplaces that are large enough that you can almost walk into them. They become a major focal point in the house. Also, the use of paneling and beams in ceilings can also convey the historical imagery that is memorable for many people.

Previews Inside Out In your opinion, is the kitchen still the heart of the home?

Patrick Ahearn Yes. The kitchen is the heart of the home, but also the spaces that integrate with the kitchen, including the breakfast areas, mudrooms, man cave, a secondary laundry room, powder room and even the access from a garage that has doubled in size to accommodate sports equipment, an automobile collection, etc. All of these other elements that work off of the kitchen are equally important for the overall ensemble of the house.

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Previews Inside Out Do you think there is a backlash against the open kitchen — or are your clients still requesting this as a feature?

Patrick Ahearn I would say 50% of our clients still like this idea. Many people are saying they like the kitchen to be adjacent to a gathering space but not necessarily wide open. The idea of the great room, I think, is gone. I think people are looking for a more detailed, higher level of refinement. The idea they are supposed to just live in one room and ignore the rest of the house is passé.

Previews Inside Out We hear the outdoor room is a common request among high-end architects — but it’s not necessarily practical for use during the cold holiday season on the East Coast. Have you ever designed an outdoor room that could be used in the winter?

Patrick Ahearn Yes. Features like outdoor fireplaces, fire pits and covered porches with fireplaces that also have removable storm panels and radiant heat under the floors all lend themselves to a multiplicity of year-round functions. Also, creating ice-skating rinks and pool cabanas that can be converted to warming huts is another way in which we can extend the season for these outbuildings. The party barn concept is also another outdoor space that lends itself to outdoor entertaining in the colder season.

Previews Inside Out Or, perhaps, you look for more subtle ways to bring the outdoors in during the winter?

Patrick Ahearn Yes, that’s a consideration as well. Elements such as floor-to-ceiling glass and southern orientation allow the sun to filter in and warm the interior space, yet also take advantage of the views to the outside. In this scenario, the orientation of the house becomes really important because the sun is lower in the winter.

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Previews Inside Out How do you like to bring a sense of warmth into the entertaining spaces you design?

Patrick Ahearn Again, materials: beams, paneling, finishes, antique flooring, fireplaces, an antique bar that we restored and placed in the living space. These are the things that create these memories and a sense of place that people are looking for today.

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