Byline: Laura Porter Photography by Tom Rettig
Light spills across the threshold every time the massive door opens, and the sound of laughter escapes into the chilly night air. Behind trees sparkling with fairy lights, a passerby can glimpse partygoers silhouetted against the windows.
This December scene at the corner of Harvard and Highland Streets in Worcester could very well be from a century ago, with carriages clattering up the street, dislodging partygoers beneath the porte-cochere that once marked the home's Highland Street entrance.
Instead, the Victorian/Queen Anne mansion, in granite, designed by architect Stephen Earle in 1879 for George H. Whitcomb now holds the offices of Quaker Special Risk, an insurance company owned by Karin Branscombe.
The evening's fete is the firm's annual holiday party, held for its clients every November.
Fully renovated and meticulously decorated to highlight the beautiful details of Earle's original design, the home -- listed on the National Register of Historic Homes -- is an ideal example of preserving historic buildings by using them for new purposes.
Exquisite tiling with different decorative motifs fronts each of several fireplaces throughout the home and defines the dining room floor, protected by a preservation restriction. Stephen Earle designed the carved woodwork himself. Vibrant stained glass, in the entrances and in a sweeping window above the staircase landing to the second floor, captures the light in a mosaic of color.
One of the panels of stained glass features small birds and the signature "MCP,'' which Susan Ceccacci, architectural historian for Preservation Worcester, notes probably stands for McPherson, a famous stained glass maker in Boston.
A round turreted tower, a common element in the Queen Anne style, runs along the northeast corner of the home. Its presence creates an open round room on each level, from the parlor to Mrs. Whitcomb's bedroom above and then on to the servants' quarters on the third floor.
These details captivated Karin Branscombe immediately when she first saw the house in 2002.
As she drove past one evening, she noticed a plywood For Sale sign in front of the building.
"I walked in (on a Friday afternoon) and said, 'Wow! Could this work for us?' '' She went home and spent the weekend "deciding who could sit where. Then I made an offer, and it was done a week later.''
At the time, she was running her business, begun in 1981, in a traditional office structure on Park Avenue. Quaker Special Risk is a specialty insurance broker on a national scale, with an additional office in Boston. It handles difficult accounts for other insurance agencies and insuring commercial contractors.
In essence, Ms. Branscombe says, "We do anything that has particular challenge.''
She had long been looking for property in Worcester, anxious to own her own office but not to have tenants. "Everything was either too small or too large,'' she says.
Fifty-one Harvard Street proved to be the right...