Designer Meghann Van Dorn resurrects an old Victorian in Dorchester

Features, Home Design, In the Magazine, Spring 2012, Style

By Leslie MacKinnon


Interior designer Meghann Van Dorn renovates a dying classic Victorian in one of Boston’s most exciting neighborhoods. Her love for old houses drew her to Ashmont Hill in Dorchester — as did the opportunity to find fixer-uppers with backyards, tree-lined driveways and original period details. Over lunch at The Ashmont Grill one spring afternoon in 2009, she and her husband, Will, soaked up the local atmosphere and found it to be “diverse and welcoming of newcomers,” she said.

Discovering a lonely foreclosed property on Ocean Street, they took note of the many challenges, including the porches in need of repair and the vinyl siding requiring removal. It also needed a new roof and new gutters.

Ultimately, the couple was able to “look past the ugly finishes,” she explained, and focus on the beauty found in the three-story turret, side piazza entrance and built-in cedar closet. They purchased the property, packed up their South End apartment, and quickly devoted their time and energy to restoring the historic house. “It felt like we had the entire community behind us,” she said, “rooting for us to be the ones to take on this forgotten lady, pick her up, dust her off and bring her back to her original glory.” Built in 1894 for the Rowbotham family, the house on Ocean Street remained in that family until the 1920s, when it was sold and converted into two apartments. Servant quarters were on the third floor.

Meghann’s Picks

1. Restored Ashmont Hill Victorian seen from
the street.

2. Necklace found at The Beauty Bar in Dorchester.

3. Turquoise Dansk Paella Pan found at

4. Antique galvanized tub found at Dark Horse Antiques in Dorchester.

5. Vintage seamstress model discovered at The Annual Ashmont Hill Yard Sale.

6. Block print. 1930’s hand-chiseled block used to print posters for a traveling circus, discovered by Van Dorn at a garage sale in Buffalo, N.Y.

7. “King’s Chair” seat from Cote d’Ivoire in western Africa.

8. Scent: Tea Rose by Perfumer’s Workshop, been wearing it since high school!

9. Restaurant: Neptune Oyster — the Ciopinno is my fave.

10. Upholsterer: Melo & Sons in Somerville.

Forty years later, the property became a boarding house during a time of great change in the ethnic landscape in Dorchester. During the 1960s, the neighborhood was transitioning from a primarily Irish-American population to a more diverse one.

In the 1990s and through the turn of the millennium, the house was purchased and sold several times with each owner rehabbing it slightly. Unfortunately, some of those owners removed many original details — and then the house was up for foreclosure. Moving into a home in need of repair while eight months pregnant with their first child brought it’s own unique challenges for Meghann. But she and Will were able to quickly do much of the repair work to make it livable for a young family.

After the birth of their son Garrett or “Rett,” in early June, they added a new roof and gutters. Over the past two years, they’ve slowly stripped away the layers to reveal original elements and restoring ones that have been lost, like the original shingles.

Meghann’s trademark modern, vintage and antique design style appears throughout her home. Items found at yard sales, or even on Craigslist live a second life via reupholstering or a new finish. Her savvy eye brings in 21st century pieces to easily coexist with the older antiques. An interior designer for the commercial firm Architectural Resources in Cambridge, Meghann grew up in an antique-loving family in rural Pennsylvania. According to Meghann, her mother was a real collector with a great eye. She brought Meghann to her first antique show when she was seven years old.

Her husband’s family also offered a distinct style. Her in-laws’ mid-century home in Wellfleet on Cape Cod employs the “simplicity that really calls to me.”

She says she finds inspiration in design mentors like Duxbury native DD Allen, who always offers a “sense of humor to the space.”

Walking around Meghann’s home, it becomes evident that many pieces are highly personal and tell a story about her family’s history. Meghann’s older brother, Matt Sullivan, is an artist who created the shadow boxes that adorn her walls. An intense, intelligent man who rode motorcycles and “oozed cool” in the eyes of his younger sister, he started making the boxes as a hobby while living in Chicago, where he was a builder of movie sets.

He moved to Uganda, Africa, with his partner and their 10-month-old daughter, and it was there that he suffered a massive stroke in 2004. His speech and cognitive abilities were affected as was the right-side of his body — but she says he was still “thinking in much the same way as he did before, but was unable to communicate what was going on in his head.”

Now living in Dorchester, he has turned back to his boxes to create a visual interpretation of his view of the world. “They are like tiny windows into his mind — something that I’ve been fascinated with since I was a little girl who idolized her big brother,” she says. Reflecting on her labor of love, Meghann says, “Since moving into the neighborhood, there isn’t a spring or summer day that goes by without someone stopping one of us to say ‘thanks’ for putting some love back into our old gal as they pass by. And that is so gratifying … not only do we love what we’ve done, but they do, too.”

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