Steeped in History
By Haley Gray
When her three children were small, Jennifer Centeno would often push them in strollers around her Mapleton Hill neighborhood. She’d pass the imposing Whitney-Holmes house, admiring its Richardson-style architecture, and dream of one day raising her family in just such a Victorian home.
Built in 1890, the Whitney-Holmes house went up for sale in 2005, and Jennifer and her husband, Dr. Chris Centeno, were determined to get it. It wasn’t easy. Since the property contains two legal lots, the Whitney-Holmes house was extremely attractive to developers. And the house itself was in deplorable condition. “The kids called it the big, red, stinky house,” Chris recalls with a laugh.
But the Centenos included with their bid a photo of their family and a letter explaining their intention: to build a safe, warm home for their family while preserving the home’s history. The Holmes family, the owners at the time, chose not to sell to the highest bidder and accepted the Centenos’ bid.
Working with Boulder’s Herbruck Construction and interior designer Barbee James of Details Design Studio, the Centenos wanted the home to reflect design elements of the late 19th century. The house had been updated over the years—appliances and wallpaper had been added in and swapped out. But for cosmetic and/or safety reasons, most of those changes needed undoing. “It’s a miracle this house didn’t blow up or burn down,” James says. The elegant Victorian-style kitchen, for example, had given way to aging, cherry-red 1950s décor, and the electrical wiring consisted of extension cords set into the walls that had to be carefully removed and properly wired. Several layers of decaying wallpaper clung to the kitchen walls, and when the Centenos removed them, the wall crumbled away with them, revealing an absence of insulation. The dangerous widow’s walk would have to be entirely redone. Worst of all, sewage was leaking from the upstairs bathroom’s ancient pipes into the kitchen.
But the Centenos were undeterred. “They did an excellent job in keeping the historic integrity of the home,” James says. As they redesigned and rebuilt in accordance with the city’s historic-preservation policies, they came to know the home’s past owners through their telling design choices. A wheelchair-accessible first-floor suite, for
example, had served a past owner’s disabled wife. A fire escape was added for the safety of the many children another past owner had cared for. As the Centenos reimagined the home’s unique features in terms of their own family’s needs, it became clear how their story would fit into that of the house.
Stories from the Past
Chris is a specialist in the new field of interventional orthopedics and a researcher who studies how stem cells can repair orthopedic injuries. He is one of a long line of Whitney-Holmes homeowners to specialize in health and science.
The home’s original owner, Frank Whitney, came to Boulder in the late 19th century and opened a pharmacy and general store on the small town’s main drag, Pearl Street. He built an impressive abode for his family on what was then a sparsely populated Mapleton Hill. With little else around it, the home rose like a beacon over the undulating hills between the foothills and the plains. The Boulder County Herald reported at the time that the glisten of the home’s windows could be seen clearly from Longmont (the canopy of maples that would block the sheen hadn’t yet been planted).
Whitney and his family lived in the home only a few years before moving back to Massachusetts, presumably in response to the untimely death of their small child. He sold the house to Dr. William Duane, a pioneering physics professor at the University of Colorado (the Duane Physics Building is named after him). Duane didn’t stay in the home long, either. He was granted a 15-month sabbatical to study radium in Paris with Pierre and Marie Curie, and sold the house to a hematologist in 1905.
The next owner, William P. Harlow, was a CU professor who later became the head of the CU School of Medicine. The Stapp/Harlow Endowed Chair for Cancer Research still honors him today. Harlow constructed a temporary hematology laboratory in the home’s basement. He also added the wheelchair-accessible suite on the home’s first story. It includes handsome oak floors, a master bath, a bedroom and a sitting room, allowing him and Mrs. Harlow to comfortably spend time together without traversing the stairs.
The Centenos had an important use for Harlow’s addition. More than a century after it was built, the addition now houses Jennifer’s mother. The Centenos are grateful that the piecemeal design has allowed her to maintain her independence under the watchful eye of the family. “The house is just filled with love,” Jennifer says, “and that’s what we always wanted. Its character is something that Chris and I just really needed in a home.”
For several decades in the mid-19th century, the era of health and science leaders owning the Whitney-Holmes house was interrupted. Then Horace and June Holmes bought the Whitney-Holmes house in 1940.
A prominent Boulder County judge, Holmes was known for his caring and lenient approach in trying juvenile cases. Holmes created Boulder’s continuously running Attention Homes program right inside the Whitney-Holmes house. Believing the troubled kids he saw in the courtroom needed attention, not punishment, he would bring home delinquent youth to stay and spend time with his family alongside his own children. The Centenos have fashioned a guest suite and children’s recreation room from the attic that once housed Attention Homes’ kids. Today, Attention Homes operates a youth shelter and residential treatment program at separate facilities in Boulder County.
June Holmes, an involved community member, added a wing onto the back of the house with space for dance parties and community meetings. Today the Centenos keep up the home’s tradition of welcoming the community by participating in an annual historic homes tour. “It’s a home, not a house,” Jennifer says.
Becoming Part of the History
For all its remarkable local history, the Whitney-Holmes house was in a state of disrepair by the time the Centenos moved in. The couple are avid antiques collectors and wanted to preserve the home’s historic elements. “We’ve bought lots of antiques over the years, so the concept of living in one was appealing,” Chris says.
Barbee James made the Centenos’ safety and comfort her first priority, realizing serious work needed to be done to make the house both functional and beautiful again. Her keen eye knew where to let existing elements shine, like the Dutch-style front door she left in place but painted black. She also saw what needed a complete makeover, like the kitchen. “She knew what I wanted aesthetically,” Jennifer says, “but she also designed it to be a functional kitchen. She’s so good at what she does.”
James repurposed many of the home’s most elegant design elements as well. She had the original gaslights cleaned, electrified and hung as functional light fixtures in the hall between the kitchen and foyer. And she gingerly removed and restored an original stained-glass, half-oval window from the upstairs and reinstalled it in the spacious downstairs family room to create a focal point. “It was Barbee’s idea to put it in the back [of the family room] to bring in more light,” Jennifer says. Repurposing items “helped preserved the history and what the past owners had done.”
Today, an elegant crystal chandelier and the original Richardson-style carved staircase greet visitors in the foyer, which used to be pink, James notes. A parlor to the right contains a period fireplace and mantel, and some of the couple’s antiques, a few of which date back to Renaissance Italy. With such varied décor, a palette of rich golds and deep greens typical in the Victorian era binds the room together.
Every step of the remodel was carried out under the critical eye of the city of Boulder Historic Preservation program, James says, and even minuscule changes required approval. In fact, the remodel earned James a 2006 Award of Merit from Historic Boulder Inc. The process was complicated, she says, but the Centenos happily complied, having a shared passion for the past.
For them, it was never about bending the house to their will. The Whitney-Holmes house has a life of its own, they say. The walls hold the stories of generations, and each family that moves in becomes a part of the life of the house—not the other way around.
That’s why Jennifer says she doesn’t see herself as the home’s owner, per se, but simply its caretaker. However, she laughs, “I think the kids are going to swing in the opposite direction and go totally contemporary modern!”
1BEFORE: The Kitchen
The inspiration for the new kitchen’s design was the original butler’s pantry.
2The Renovated Butler’s Pantry
The original butler’s pantry was scraped and painted, and original hardware from the kitchen and throughout the house was reused in the kitchen.
3The New Kitchen
The kitchen’s light fixtures are the home’s original gaslights, which were rewired for electricity.
4A New Master Bedroom
The whole house lacked bathrooms; there was only a chamber-pot room, located by the original servants’ quarters. James added a master bath in the master bedroom, and the Centenos brought the fireplace surround with them from a previous home. The bedroom’s diamond mullion windows are originals. James installed the diamond-shaped window in the new master bath after seeing it on original architectural drawings. The Boulder Historic Preservation program approved the window, even though it wasn’t original to the exterior, after seeing the drawings.
The Richardson-style oak staircase, constructed by hand in the 1890s, is original to the home. The chandelier is from Rosie New York. “That company had a lot of really good reproduction pieces that worked really well with the style of this home,” James says.
6BEFORE: A Unique Window
The half-oval leaded-glass window was originally in the enclosed sitting porch at the front of the house.
7A New Life
James removed and cleaned the half-oval leaded-glass window, and relocated it to the downstairs family room to let in natural light.
The Centenos brought the home’s original rose garden back to life.
9The Outdoor Room
The outdoor room was previously the site of the city’s first in-ground swimming pool, which the Centenos removed for safety reasons.