General contractor and nurse Monica MacKenzie breathes new life into old spaces.By Laura Desisto
Photography by Derrick Zellmann
DRIVE THROUGH VIRTUALLY ANY NEIGHBORHOOD IN HINGHAM and chances are that you will pass at least one house that has been touched in some way by the magic of Monica MacKenzie.
A nurse by training, the Hingham resident cut her teeth in the home design field by starting a small custom drapery business called Button Island Interiors in 1994. The venture quickly blossomed into a more comprehensive design service that included home furnishings, art, lighting and paint selection, which ultimately attracted the business of high-profile clients, including downtown’s Square Cafe.
With a sharp eye and thirst for a challenge, it wasn’t long before MacKenzie decided to take on a project that would eventually change the course of her business. “One of my interior design clients really wanted me to do a small addition to his house,” the petite brunette remembers. “I guess he saw that I had some vision and was pretty organized. I managed to find some good subcontractors for that job and the client was very pleased with the finished product.”
Though MacKenzie enjoyed interior design work, when it came to building homes, she quickly realized she’d found her true calling. After passing the state’s general contracting licensing exam, MacKenzie gradually transitioned her business into a full-service design and build operation.
Working as a woman in the male-dominated field of contracting makes her an exception. Rarer still is that she comes from the interior design field. Yet, it is just this unique combination of skills that has attracted many of her clients, like the Berkin family, who gave MacKenzie her first major building project in 2004. They commissioned her to design and build a sizable addition to their 1720s Main Street farmhouse.
“Because of her design background, Monica is able to guide you in the process of choosing materials, so essentially you are getting a designer and a builder all rolled into one,” homeowner Lisa Berkin says. “[She] helped us to make choices that complemented the age of our home—like black iron forged door handles and kitchen cabinetry with an old-world feel.”
Sarah and Doug Harvey were equally impressed with MacKenzie’s work after hiring her to expand their circa 1788 Cape on East Street last year. Remarkably, the designer was able to modernize their house while preserving its integrity and without sacrificing any of its classic, Colonial-era charm.
“The result is that the new parts of the interior flow seamlessly with the old and we don’t have an addition that looks ‘stuck on’ to our antique from the street view,” notes Mrs. Harvey.
After completing several other renovations of antique homes, MacKenzie soon gained a reputation as a builder with the chops to take on historical projects—not always an easy task when a house falls within the purview of the Historic Districts Commission. Historical houses are subject to the strict guidelines the commission dictates, such as the use of historically accurate colors and architectural features.
“I have learned to work with the Historic Districts Commission in such a way as to get the clients what they need while still remaining true to form,” MacKenzie notes.
In 2011, her work on these antique homes captured the attention of a producer from the PBS series “This Old House.” After touring several of MacKenzie’s projects, the producer featured her work on the historic Benjamin King House, located at 48 School Street, for a segment about historical restorations. Throughout the segment, MacKenzie is seen taking host Kevin O’Connor on a short tour of the renovation, pointing out features such as the reclaimed pumpkin pine flooring, which helped to make the addition blend with the character of the original home.
“In this particular project,” she notes, “we actually purchased and installed an entire antique staircase from a company called Old House Parts, in Kennebunk, Maine.”
Since her start in 2004, MacKenzie has built or renovated more than 30 homes in the Hingham area and has, on several occasions, been rehired for subsequent projects on the same home. While her story is certainly unique, she maintains a humble attitude and credits her success to her loyal team of carpenters and sub-contractors—chief among them, her son, Keith, who acts as project manager on every job.
“Keith has a degree in construction management, and I am consistently impressed by what he brings to the table in terms of understanding the complexities of the building process,” she says.
Remarkably, throughout her time as a designer and builder, MacKenzie has never given up working at least two shifts per week as a post-anesthesia care nurse at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a profession which she says has many skills that transfer to her role as a builder.
“Nursing requires you to work well under intense pressure and to be constantly multi-tasking,” she says. “I find that my nursing work sharpens my skills and focus and that stepping away from the building process brings perspective. I mean, I see a lot of hard stuff at the hospital and that helps me stay calm if, let’s say, the clients can’t get the exact tile they want. I’m able to say, ‘it’s going to be alright.’ And you know what, it always is in the end.”