After playing a colorful role in America’s early years, a Salem, Mass., house has made history again, thanks to a two-year renovation that resulted in its certification as one of the first LEED-certified National Historic Landmarks.

The federal-style house was built in 1811 for Joseph Story, the youngest person ever appointed to the Supreme Court, and it later served as home to the Vaughan family, whose members made significant contributions to early aviation and to Antarctic exploration as part of Admiral Richard Byrd’s 1928 South Pole expedition.

After years sitting vacant, the four-level, 9,000-square-foot house was purchased in 2006 by Neil Chayet and his wife, Martha, who began planning extensive renovations with Newport, R.I., architect Richard Long. Their goal was to give the property 21st-century sustainability while maintaining its historical integrity.

While researching the benefits of high-performance building, the couple decided to aim for LEED certification, and Martha took on most of the work of coordinating the huge project. “It was quite a steep learning curve for homeowners to handle the LEED work,” says Martha. Neither she nor Neil had any background in green building practices although they had experience with renovating historic homes.

Still, “we went the whole nine yards,” says Neil, a lawyer and longtime host of the nationally syndicated CBS radio program “Looking at the Law.”

Most notable is the home’s closed-loop geothermal heating and cooling system, composed of seven 500-foot-deep wells drilled into the front yard.

“We had just enough space in the front yard for the wells,” Neil says.

Insulating the formerly drafty house was key to optimum energy efficiency, says builder Tony DeIulis of Lynn, Mass.-based DeIulis Brothers Construction. Closed-cell spray-foam insulation from NCFI Polyurethanes was used to achieve an R-value of about 6.5 per inch on the walls, ceilings, attic, and floors, he says.

“You could tell there was a big difference right away once the insulation was in,” he says, adding that closed-cell was the best choice for the project because of its ability to insulate in tight areas behind delicate brickwork while adding structural integrity.

Other features include 88 custom-made, true-divided-light, low-E windows; locally quarried marble in the kitchens and some bathrooms; low-VOC paints and sealers; and radiant floor heating.

The Chayets, old-house aficionados, said updating a historic home to third-party-certification levels was far more difficult and expensive than building a new green home, although they were able to offset some costs of the geothermal system through federal tax credits.

In addition to meeting LEED criteria, the Chayets also had to follow the strict guidelines of the Salem Historical Commission’s 40-point application for renovations.

“Some people fear the idea of going before a historic commission, but if you’re prepared and you have experts who know what they’re doing it’s not so bad,” Martha says.

The projects’ goals of sustainability and historical integrity never were at odds, Neil says, although a few issues did give them pause. For example, he admits that it was difficult to think about putting doors on his beautiful one-of-a-kind living room fireplace, a LEED requirement.

“The problem is that the carbon buildup in the chimney degrades the air of the house, so I think they were right on that all along,” he says.

DeIulis Brothers crews carried out the delicate interior demolition work, taking care to salvage original carvings around the fireplace mantel and chair rails by the famous Salem architect Samuel McIntire. Before demolition began, they built plywood enclosures around the woodwork to protect it from dings and dust during construction.

“We spent a lot of time upfront doing protective work,” DeIulis says.

In addition, in order to convert the low-ceilinged cellar into usable storage, laundry, and exercise rooms, the builder first had to lower the floor 18 inches, a common practice in historical renovation work. Using picks and shovels, crews slowly dug out the cellar, and a conveyor belt carried the dirt to the outside.

Working a small section at a time in order to keep the house properly supported, they underpinned the old granite foundation and a new concrete floor and foundation was laid. Their dig turned up a coin and some glass bottles from colonial times, DeIulis notes.

With its historically accurate copper gutters and beautifully restored brickwork, the home’s front façade gives no clue to its high-performance interior.

“When you stand back and look at the home and the brickwork, you can’t tell that it’s a green or sustainable home,” Neil says.

In order to achieve LEED certification, a home the size of the Joseph Story House must meet more requirements than a smaller home, says the project’s green rater, Matt Root of Conservation Services Group in Westborough, Mass.

“The USGBC has a mechanism set up where larger homes have to score more optional points than smaller homes,” says Root, adding that no special allowances are made for historic properties.

Because the house is divided into one large main unit and two smaller apartments, it could be submitted for LEED certification in the low-rise multifamily home type, lowering the number of optional credits required for certification compared to a single-family home. It received LEED-Silver certification last March.

The Chayets are thrilled to be part of a new, environmentally conscious chapter in the old house’s history.

“We knew really nothing about any of this when we bought the house,” Neil reflects. “It is a little more costly to do things this way, but it’s terrific for the planet when you think about it.”

Jennifer Goodman is Senior Editor of EcoHome Online.