1700s House Gets Home Theater Update

A radical rehab introduces a state-of-the-art theater in a 1700s carriage house.


Photo by Scott Braman

It’s hard to believe this amazing entertainment space dates back to late the 1700s, not to mention that it once stored horse-driven carts. But the third-generation owners of this historic gem didn’t let the past prevent them from turning a portion of their renovated carriage house into a theater loaded with some of the newest audio/video around. There’s the Marantz VP11 projector that shoots out pictures at a resolution of 1080p, the highest of the high-def formats available. Then there’s the Kaleidescape server that allows the family to select a movie—jukebox style—from a collection of more than 600 DVDs that have been stored on the unit. There’s also a screen that alters its shape automatically to fit the type of program the family chooses to watch. Last but not least, a Pioneer Blu-ray high-def DVD player was recently added to the mix, giving the early adopters yet another cutting-edge technology to enjoy.

As it turned out, choosing the right assortment of components for the household of movie buffs would be the easiest part of the project. Actually installing them would be another matter altogether. Although the space chosen to serve as the theater had gone through several renovations over the years and was currently being used as a dining room, much of the original architecture had remained largely untouched. “The room still had its original plaster and bead board, and the 12 stone columns used to support the roof were still standing,” says E.J. Feulner, chief custom designer for HiFi House, the Wilmington, DE-based firm charged with the daunting installation task.

Although having a home theater was important to homeowners Tim Brewer and Chris Soleil, so was preserving their home’s historic flavor. The stone pillars would stay. So would the walls that hemmed in the room to a smallish size of 18-by 13-feet. HiFi House worked around these structural parameters, fitting two tiers of four chairs, a 100-inch screen, seven speakers and a hefty video projector comfortably into the space. One clever space-saving design HiFi House implemented was applying custom woodwork around the screen that protrudes just three inches from the wall. “A front cabinet with built-in equipment and speakers would have been too overpowering for the room,” Feulner explains. The team freed up floor space by stationing all of the audio/video components, including the Kaleidescape system, NAD preamplifier and amplifier, Crestron control processor and Tripplite battery backup units, in a different room. A Crestron control system lets Tim and Chris control the gear remotely from the theater as if all the components were right in front of them. The speakers would be the only part of the theater to eat up a portion of the space. The plaster and stone walls prevented HiFi House from building speakers into the structure, so they opted for floorstanding- and bookshelf-style speakers from Sonus Faber that “are so stunning, they look like works of art anyway,” says Feulner.

Although the room is small on square footage, it’s big on performance. The Kaleidescape server alone puts this space in a league of its own. The owners literally have an entire movie store at their fingertips. And the library keeps growing. “Every Tuesday (the day new releases hit stores), Tim goes out and buys a pile of new DVDs to add into the system. But even more remarkable than the capacious DVD server is the way the theater reacts to the new movies. The Kaleidescape server, the Crestron control system and a special motorized fabric masking system from Stewart Filmscreen work together to alter the shape of the screen automatically to match the movie format. For example, should the family choose a CinemaScope-formatted blockbuster (very wide), the masking material closes in the top and bottom of the screen. Then, if they decide to watch a recording of an old TV show, the masking shrinks the screen down to the dimensions of squarish 4:3 analog TV. In this arrangement the unused side portions of the screen are covered with the masking material. Should they select a high-definition TV show the masking opens up to reveal the full screen. As the masking system adjusts, the Lutron QED blackout shades lower over the windows, and the lights dim to a preset movie-viewing level.

All these alterations are set into motion by pressing just a couple of buttons on a Crestron ML6000 handheld remote. One tap pulls up the cover art of every movie in the server. From there, the family can sort by genre, artist or even movie duration. “If they only have an hour to watch something, they can pull up only the movies that are 60 minutes long,” Feulner explains. After entering their selection, the Crestron system engages the projector, masking fabric, window coverings and lights. The lights can be adjusted to a 25-, 50- or 75-percent intensity level at any time from the remote or by touching PAUSE, which brightens them just enough to guide someone into or out of the room.

The technology in this space may make the historic residence seem a lot younger than it is, but the systems still pay tribute to the old forms of entertainment. A READING button on the Crestron remote, for example, sets the lights near Tim’s favorite seat to a perfect level. Sure, the reading light may not evoke the nostalgia of the 1700s, when horses ruled this roost, but the magnificent 300-year-old straw-filled plaster walls and stone columns keep this room deeply rooted in its past—without infringing on its future.


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