Chaewon Kim Breast cancer survivor’s radical renovation is talk of the neighborhood

Photo of Chaewon KimChaewon Kim

Some smile at its in-your-face departures from conventional residential design, others deem it an eyesore, and a few have even complained about it to the city. But few passersby lack an opinion about the offbeat, rusted, ironclad house at 15 Clifton St. in North Cambridge.

For Chaewon Kim, a breast cancer survivor who receives care at Dana-Farber, the controversial renovation has become a hard-earned calling card for her architectural ambitions — and a symbol of her determination to take charge of her life.

Barely finished with her training, the young architect saw her existence shaken to the core when she narrowly escaped the World Trade Center collapse in 2001, and was diagnosed days later with a dangerous breast cancer at age 26.

Following a mastectomy in New York and six months of grueling chemotherapy at Dana-Farber, Kim and her husband, Beat Schenk (also an architect), began a complete, one-and-a-half-year complete renovation of this century-old workers’ cottage. They created the home on a shoestring budget, living in it throughout the redesign and reconstruction process. Early on, when her prognosis was unclear, Kim wrote in a journal, “Since there was no client who would give a project to a young and ill architect like me, I decided to build at least my own house before I die.”

But she did not die: Though her tumor was large, aggressive chemotherapy and hormonal therapy have eliminated any detectable cancer. Her physician, Ann Partridge, MD, MPH, of Medical Oncology says, “She has done well, and her ongoing treatment is reducing her risk of a recurrence every day.”

Photo of front of Chaewon Kim's house

Signature style

Kim and Schenk had bought the small cottage off Rindge Avenue in December 2002 after scouring the Boston area for a lot or a “tear-down” house they could afford. They decided, however, not to demolish the cottage, but to redesign it in their own style. Despite her fatigue, caused in part by moderate heart damage that Partridge says may be due to the adriamycin used in her treatment, Kim forged ahead as “general contractor, architect, and carpenter,” as she puts it, buying materials from Home Depot and using its how-to books for help.

After working nonstop in all weather, and amid problems that included a burglary, the couple received an official notice of occupancy this past May. They’re already constructing a small townhouse at the rear of the parcel and have bought a two-family house next door, thanks to a sharp increase in the cottage’s assessed value.

The unusual two-level house is notable for its stark white-painted front face, punctuated by a single window and door, and the corrugated steel panels that form its roof and sides. As intended, the rippled steel has rusted to a dark orange-red, and Kim says it requires no maintenance.

The sides are devoid of windows, but at the rear of the house, Kim and Schenk installed a floor-to-ceiling window that looks out on the back yard, and ushers light into the white-walled kitchen and dining-working area.

Passersby routinely stop to gape and take pictures. “People have contacted the city and the fire department, accusing us of violating building and fire codes,” says Kim, a slight woman with short black hair that matched her dark clothing on one recent day. “But everything complies with the code.”

Many find the design an interesting departure, and, in its spare, uncluttered interior, a fresh, Zen-like quality. “We tried to use energy-saving and eco-friendly materials” like the cork floor, which, unlike wood, avoids cutting down trees.

Photo of Chaewon Kim and the rear of her house

Arising from the rubble

Kim’s story begins in the rubble of the World Trade Center’s South Tower. In September 2001, she was working at her first architecture job after completing her master’s degree at the Harvard School of Design in Cambridge. Her office was in New York City’s financial district, and she lived in a 24th-floor apartment nearby. On the morning of the terrorist attacks, she was buffeted at home by a horrendous noise and shaking that she thought was an earthquake.

Shelves collapsed, and Kim was briefly trapped in her bathroom before being rescued by neighbors. Like thousands of others, she fled, walking all the way to Brooklyn for safety. A few days later, she went to a Manhattan hospital, complaining of chest pain and shortness of breath, which she blamed on inhaling smoke and ash from the flaming towers. Instead, she was soon diagnosed with breast cancer.

Because hospitals were still crowded with 9/11 victims, Kim had an outpatient mastectomy in October, and was sent home the same day. Trying to reach her apartment in a cordoned-off area, she was forced to walk the last two blocks, carrying her IV unit on a pole.

She and Schenk had hurriedly married before her October surgery, and because the post-9-11 chaos would have made it impossible to adhere to a long chemotherapy program, Kim moved to Boston, where Schenk was working — and still does — for an architecture firm. Her New York doctor referred her to Dana-Farber, where Partridge is involved in treatment and research on young women with breast cancer.

According to Partridge, the chances of Kim developing breast cancer at her young age were extremely low — one in 2,152. Because genetic testing was negative for a mutant breast cancer gene, the cancer most likely arose out of simple bad luck, says Partridge. Nevertheless, Kim wastes little time on pity over her life’s rough road the past three years.

“I don’t think about the cancer that much,” says Kim. “What can I do? It just happened — I’m not thinking why me, why then? I’m just looking forward to getting more recognized professionally and doing more projects.”

As architects, she and her husband “believe we can make the world more beautiful, and make people happy.”

Courtesy of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute Newsletter

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