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Living in a 17th century house has its tradeoffs

Restoring Boston home built in 1661 has been a constant struggle

The exterior of the James Blake House, located in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood. The house, built in 1661, listed as the oldest in Boston. (Tracee Herbaugh/AP)

The exterior of the James Blake House, located in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood. The house, built in 1661, listed as the oldest in Boston. (Tracee Herbaugh/AP)

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This 2017 photo provided by Sarah Cole shows the central fireplace in the kitchen of the James Blake House in Boston, which dates back to 1661. (Sarah Cole/AP)

BOSTON — What does it take to make a 17th century house livable today?

Ask Barbara Kurze, who lives at the James Blake House, which the Boston Landmarks Commission says is the oldest house in Boston.

The five-room, two-level house was built in 1661 by Blake, an English immigrant, in Dorchester, now a neighborhood of Boston. Kurze was offered the chance to become live-in caretaker of the property, owned by the Dorchester Historical Society.

Keeping the house both livable and historically authentic has been a constant struggle over the centuries, Kurze said.

Like many municipalities, Boston has strict rules about making changes to historic buildings.

“There’s always a balance, what to preserve and what modern touches are appropriate,” said Paul Hajian, an architect and professor of architectural design at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Still, he added, “people in old houses don’t want to live like they’re in the 17th century.”

Kurze, 58, a preservation planner, moved into the Blake House four years ago and brought a renewed ambition to restore the home to splendor. She enlisted the help of Boston-area interior designer Sarah Cole.

Despite significant restoration work over the years, “It was clear when I first saw the house that it was in need of some serious maintenance and repairs,” said Cole, owner of design firm Sarah C. Interiors. “The paint was peeling everywhere and the plaster was crumbling.”

To start, Cole and Kurze needed approvals from the Boston Landmark Commission and the Massachusetts Historical Commission to make interior changes. They received permission to restore the plaster on the walls and ceilings, and add a new layer of paint. They could choose the color of paint so long as it adhered to the commission’s guidelines.

Nothing could be hung on the walls, to prevent damage.

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A specialty craftsman repairs plaster on the walls at the James Blake House in Boston in 2017. The house is one of the oldest structures in Boston and dates back to 1661. (Sarah Cole/AP)

Cole prioritized the house’s unique old charm when it came time for refinements. “If you look at the walls, they aren’t smooth, and our goal was not to make it look new,” she said.

The Blake House’s floors are slightly uneven, and it has low ceilings and drafty, single-pane windows, all common characteristics of buildings from that era.

Indoor plumbing and electricity were installed in the 19th century and have been updated since. There’s heat, but no air conditioning.

Storage has proved problematic for the home’s occupant. The Blake House has only one closet.

Until the early 1900s, most people simply didn’t have as much stuff. There wasn’t the need to store extra clothes, shoes and sporting equipment, as there is today.

Another difference is a lack of overhead lighting. “It can get pretty dark,” Kurze said.

The stairs leading to the second floor are narrow and steep.

“I couldn’t bring most of my furniture because it wouldn’t fit up the stairs,” she said.

After the plaster and paint were finished, Cole began looking for furniture that would fit — both physically and aesthetically.

“We looked for things that came in pieces,” she said. “It was pretty difficult finding nicer furniture that could be assembled but still look right in the space.”

Accessories help give the rooms a modern feel. Cole chose a floor rug with natural, tan and terracotta hues to complement the wooden beams and floors in the living room, for instance.

For Kurze, the biggest surprise about living in such a historic home has been the number of visitors who stop by to look at it.

“Several Blake descendants have come by,” she said. “I’d say one comes by every month or so.”