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Living in a Steampunk Time Machine

This Boston homeowner transformed a Victorian house into a steampunk time machine. 

New England is a treasure chest of 17th, 18th and early 19th-century houses. With more Boston, Mass. residents buying historic properties and renovating them, rather than building brand new ones, the trend has set a new standard for living in the city and its suburbs.

Bruce Rosenbaum, president of ModVic LLC in Sharon, Mass., 20 minutes outside Boston, and his wife, Melanie, an interior designer, make up one contracting team that answers the needs of a niche high-end market by authentically restoring historic Victorian homes back to their original beauty, while integrating modern technologies for the families of today. Licensed as a home improvement contractor and a contracting supervisor with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Bruce Rosenbaum manages a team of subcontractors to completely transform a house.

“The people interested in buying a home of this price (around $900,000) make up only 10 percent of the house buying market,” Rosenbaum says, “and out of that, it’s an even smaller portion of people who want a modernized Victorian house.”

Although supplying a select audience, the Rosenbaums’ work combining Victorian items with modern ones custom-designed to appear as period pieces, appeals to a loyal set of “steampunk” enthusiasts.

“‘Steampunk’ was a phrase first coined in the 1980s that describes, in essence, an alternate reality where the Victorian period coincides with the modern technology era,” Rosenbaum says. “The term can refer to a subculture (think ‘renaissance’) or fashion (think ‘goth’) or a design aesthetic (think Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea).”

The Rosenbaums’ own home at 36 Pleasant Street — a 1901 craftsman style home previously owned by John Goddard Phillips, a founding member of a shipping merchant business in Boston — features period fixtures, antique furniture, stained glass and more. Some of their favorite pieces include an antique printer’s bench that has been transformed into a kitchen island surrounded by cast iron bar stools, and a WWII battleship telephone.

“There’s a romantic notion of what a Victorian kitchen would look like in today’s world,” Rosenbaum says.  “Everything has some tie to the past and the future. For instance, I found a copper water tank that I changed into a water purification system. We also have an antique double oven that used to be a wood stove; transformed by Erickson’s Antique Stoves into an electric stove.”

The Sharon Historical Commission recently awarded the Rosenbaums with the Preservation Award 2009 for their work on the historic John Goddard Phillips house, which, Rosenbaum says, is in a constant state of renovation. “Everything is unique and customized,” he says. “I’ve built up a network of hundreds of salvage and antique companies where I can search for Victorian pieces. E-Bay also helps.”

In 2007, after successfully renovating their own residence, the Rosenbaums decided they would tackle a similar project for commercial purposes. They bought the Benjamin Stanley Freeman house in North Attleborough at 390 Mount Hope Street, about 25 minutes outside of Boston, for the purposes of renovating and selling it.

“We bought it for $400,000 and ended up putting $800,000 back into it — much more than we had expected,” Rosenbaum says. “It still had its original marble fireplace and wood floors, but it soon became apparent that there was more work behind the walls and ceilings. There was a 60-foot tower with missing supports that had been worn away by years of water damage. We structurally updated the house with new steel beams, posts, expanding foam insulation, plumbing, electrical, cabling and A/C. Fortunately, North Attleborough loved what we were doing and pretty much left us alone. The town just wanted to be sure we didn’t demolish anything or alter the outside of the home.”

After one year, the Rosenbaums finished the house, but by then, the real estate industry had already fallen through the floor due to economic downturn. “The home is still for sale,” Rosenbaum says. “We’ve dropped the price from $1.2 million to $898,860.”

Rosenbaum remains optimistic that the house will sell, but if it doesn’t, he has alternate plans for its use. “We’ll turn it into a steampunk museum, selling custom-made items,” Rosenbaum says. Already including his own home in a historic tour of New England by the Sharon Historical Society this May, Rosenbaum says he’s also redesigning his own basement into a steampunk showroom, which he will open up to the steampunk community. “We’re also putting on educational architectural and design workshops at the Steampunk World’s Fair in New Jersey,” he says.

Because of the economy, the Rosenbaums are also investing in smaller projects, like steampunking clients’ kitchens to resemble their own. “We recently designed plans for a Victorian Brownstone in Brooklyn, N.Y.,” Rosenbaum says. “Once we have a design and a layout plan, we can form estimates. If a client specifically wants ‘smart technology’ added to their home, we can add special cabling for a home theatre system. Most importantly, we want to give permanence and aesthetic beauty to every piece, so our custom work can change as technology changes. For example, I have two 60-gallon water tanks that I created skins for that resemble antique water tanks. When I need to replace the tanks, I can use the same skins.”

To top it off, in the spirit of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, each of the Rosenbaums’ custom homes come with a time capsule secretly buried in one of the walls, strategically placed so it will remain hidden until the next major restoration is performed another 100 years in the future. The time capsule includes floor plans and architectural drawings of the home, articles about the home and its creator, stories from some of the builders and more.

“Everyone wants to leave a mark,” says Rosenbaum. “The homes we leave will be our legacy.”

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With help from the Rosenbaums, it’s now possible to bring history to life in the 21st-century.
Photos by Jake von Slatt of SteampunkWorkshop.com:

For more information, visit:
ModVic LLC: modvic.com
Tour the Benjamin Freeman Stanley house: www.youtube.com/modvic111
Steampunk Workshop: www.steampunkworkshop.com

The Steampunk World’s Fair, May 14-16, 2010 in Piscataway, N.J.:
http://steampunkworldsfair.com/

Sharon Historical Society’s tour of the Rosenbaum’s steampunk house at 36 Pleasant St. and other homes, Sun., May 2 in Sharon, Mass.:
http://www.sharonhistoricalsociety.org/

By Leslie Benson, for Angie’s List magazine

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