In the Ocean State, a family retreat geared for today pays homage to an earlier time.By Jaci Conry • Photography by Brian Vanden Brink
On the southern coast of Rhode Island, Shingle Style cottages were built as summer retreats in the early 1900s. The original gambrel-roofed houses were modest in size, with long porches and multiple windows to filter the ocean breezes inside. Architectural hallmarks of simplicity and comfort, such lovely homes encouraged a relaxed way of life.
When the owners purchased this large, verdant parcel, it included an oddly configured, vaguely contemporary home that didn’t take advantage of the view. To develop a home that suited the site and their family needs, the owners contracted John DaSilva, principal of Polhemus Savery DaSilva Architects Builders, and his firm to design and build a new home.
While the lot could have accommodated a much larger structure, DaSilva designed a compact, comfortable house that spans just over 2,500 square feet. “Our clients were not interested in something large and showy,” says DaSilva. Instead, they sought a family home in keeping with the local vernacular that had a laid-back, friendly and fun character.
“It was important that the house didn’t feel elaborate or formal,” says DaSilva, who based the design on the architecture of neighboring turn-of-the-century cottages, adding slight embellishments and a playful flair to create a distinctive, welcoming home geared to living in the present day.
Towers, or corner pavilions, defined by octagonal roof shapes with finials at their peak, flank a two-story façade capped with a gambrel roof. A gracious front porch wraps around to the sides of the home. The back of the house has a wonderful view of the ocean across the street and DaSilva designed continuous doors and windows on both levels so the view is a part of nearly every room.
Several interior details harken back to the turn of the century, including the warm antique pine floors and high white-painted paneling on the walls of the first-floor circulation spaces. Yet the house has the flow of a modern family home. The main level is mainly one expansive room that incorporates the kitchen, dining and living rooms. To define the separate spaces within the open plan, different ceiling treatments are used: coffers are above the dining and living rooms and in the kitchen, the ceiling has soffits that imply a center for the space, says DaSilva.
Mahogany kitchen counters have a time-honored feel. Topped with Carrera marble, the sizeable island has a generous apron-front sink on one side and a deep, rounded overhang on the other that provides a comfortable place for dining. While the footprint is compact, vaulted ceilings in some areas, including the second-story stair hall, add perceived height, making spaces feel larger. The cathedral ceiling in the master—one of the home’s four bedrooms—takes the octagonal shape of the tower roof. Elongated windows throughout the house also contribute to a more spacious appeal while filtering in maximum sunlight and views. DaSilva allowed for spaces to be open to each other as much as possible to keep the feeling airy.
Outside, the grass is peppered with glacial erratics, big boulders that pop out of the ground giving the yard interesting character, notes DaSilva. That stone is recalled in the chimney, which is clad with river rock. “It’s stone that has been weathered to a round shape. The rocks look like what you’d see on the beach,” says DaSilva. The same rocks were used on the fireplace surround in the family room.
A screened-in porch at the base of one tower opens to the backyard where a deck, bluestone patio and fire pit offer a view of the beach. It’s also possible to access the backyard from the long second-story balcony. The stairs, however, posed a conundrum. “Outdoor stairs often look like afterthoughts. They are a design challenge, especially on a site where blocking [the] view is undesirable,” says DaSilva. “Here we pulled the stair away from the façade and put it at an angle, making it more sculptural and blocking less of the adjacent screened- in porch.” Decorative arches make the underside of the stair playful and appealing but also brace the structure for stability.
It is apparent from the first glimpse of the cedar shingle-clad house that it’s a happy place. A bronze striped bass weathervane turns in the breeze, and a small sailboat motif adorns shutters and screened doors.
“It’s an exaggerated version of the classic vernacular gambrel-roofed cottage. Windows are bigger than they would have been in the original version,” says DaSilva. “The trim is bigger, the columns on the front porch are flat and they announce their status vividly. This emphatic version makes it more playful. The home is not just a recreation of a historic type, it’s a reinterpretation of a historic type.”