Couple bringing postmodern design to run-down Holyoke home

Pat J. Fraley

Nestled in a tight row of houses in the city’s Oakdale District sits an architectural anomaly. Covered entirely with black siding, and featuring no forward-facing windows, the small Victorian home has become a source of wonderment for passersby.

At first glance, the 850-square-foot, two-story house is unsettling and inefficient by appearance. However, a deeper look into the home itself and the mind behind it unveils artist and designer Kevin MacDonald’s knack for design innovation and eye for detail.

Once in shambles, the home has become a pet project for MacDonald, an artist specializing in modern high-end design architecture who spent the majority of his career in New York City and Los Angeles building furniture, homes and fine interiors. Eight years ago, he moved to western Massachusetts from New York, attracted to the artist community and architecture of the region.

“I am not in this to be status quo,” MacDonald remarks during a recent tour of the home.

MacDonald and his wife, Rosemary Barrett, also an artist, bought the 1920s home about a year ago and have been remodeling it to match his architectural concept — a progressive, modern design that he hopes will move the home from a “scant rental” to a dwelling that promotes creative living. The house, formally a rental property, is just across the street from the couple’s townhouse.

What’s immediately captivating about the property is the color. MacDonald characterizes his choice of black asphalt shingles as an attempt to give the home a sense of purpose. According to MacDonald, the color black encapsulates the qualities he was looking for — unifying strength and mystery.

Driven by a minimalist design approach and inspired by raw materials, MacDonald’s goal is to create a sense of movement in the house through design, while working with what’s already there.

In addition to its unusual exterior, the home’s interior is just as intriguing.

Carrying ideas rooted in deconstructivism — a movement of postmodern architecture that gives the impression of the fragmentation of a constructed building instead of symmetry or functionality — MacDonald strives to break the boundaries surrounding typical architectural design.

One way he’s accomplished this is through altering where windows are placed in the home. Rather than the customary front/back window axis usually found in American architecture, MacDonald shifted the windows to create an east/west diagonal axis to optimize natural lighting throughout the day.

In this, he also prioritized privacy and views, adding smaller windows at ground level he’s deemed “garden windows.”

With the intention of guiding movement, MacDonald has opted to stray away from the standard use of right angles in American homes. He’s added walls to help guide individuals through the home, while still maintaining a sense of openness.

One of the coolest attributes of the house is an art gallery built into the home’s foyer. The MacDonalds hope this space will promote a creative lifestyle for whomever ends up living there, and the couple plans on displaying their personal pieces, as well as work of artistic friends.

Deeming the exterior 80% finished, and the interior nowhere near completion, MacDonald’s goal is to have the project wrapped up sometime this summer. As for what will happen to it once he’s finished, he’s open to all avenues, whether it be renting, selling, or living in the home himself.

It is no secret this sort of progressive architecture is not frequently found in the area, as it is in Los Angeles and New York.

When asked about preserving the neighborhood’s current vibe, MacDonald says, “I think as artists and architects it is our responsibility to reflect and revolt; to create change and hence growth.”

Seeing the city’s active Urban Renewal Plan surrounding the preservation and simultaneous growth of Holyoke, this appears to be a good time for minds like MacDonald’s to be finding their place in Holyoke.

MacDonald has been interested in architectural design and woodworking from a young age. At 6, he watched a friend’s father build a ranch house one summer. He remembers being astonished by the process of the raw materials — the timber, concrete, plywood — all coming together to form a collective foundation.

He went on to create crude constructions throughout childhood using nails and scraps of wood provided by his grandfather.

In high school, MacDonald studied art and architecture, and went on to receive a degree in art and architectural history from Bard College. He eventually apprenticed for a master builder, a designer, and then an architect who worked on log cabins.

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