Perched on a bluff at harbor’s edge, it’s hard to imagine a more spectacular setting. Yet the poorly built home original to this site in Chatham, Massachusetts, didn’t take advantage of the majestic views. The cramped residence, built in the 1940s, seemed, says architect John DaSilva, “To have been plunked down on the lot, without any thought at all.”
The property’s new owners looked to DaSilva’s Chatham-based firm, Polhemus Savery DaSilva Architects Builders to design and build a new residence that was worthy of the setting; they hoped for a home with soaring views of the coastal landscape that was a comfortable and casual summer retreat.
Finding space within the footprint
Since there are wetlands at the front of the home and the harbor to the back, the property had considerable conservation regulations. “The existing house established a rectangular footprint that could only be minimally expanded with an addition to the front at one end only,” explains DaSilva.
It was a challenge, he continues, to design a house that took advantage of the unique property, suited the client’s needs, and worked within the restriction of footprint. “However, while the restriction gave us a starting point for the design it was not, in the end, a limit on the expressive or functional success of the house.”
Ultimately, the new house took on a compact, L-shaped plan that is common inGreek Revival houses of the region where the roof eave of the long leg (“bar”) and the gable end of the short leg (“gable”) face the front. “Historically, often a tower at the intersection of the bar and gable, a porch or multiple porches, and detailed trim were added to give an up-to-date Italianate feeling to the more stark Greek originals,” says DaSilva, who designed a tower at the intersection of the bar and gable on this home. “The presence of the bar and gable provides the basis for a design that feels comfortable in the historic context but also fresh and of our time.”
An uphill battle
Another challenge was that the property sloped up from the front of the house, so it was necessary to create the basement level open to the entry side rather than the more typical rear. “We had to come up with a solution to this quirky condition,” says DaSilva, who used the grade change to accommodate a garage in the basement, windows for a playroom, and the beginning of an entry sequence that leads to the front door located on the first floor one full level up. Stone cladding—artfully crafted by Kenneth Higgins—defines the basement level and anchors the house.
An opening in the stone cladding goes into an exterior stairway that leads to a porch connecting to the interior of the home. “You go through this dark stone space and emerge into a sun flooded porch,” says DaSilva. An interior sculptural stairway, which is bathed in sunlight from the tower windows and curved in two directions, offers “a little bit of baroque drama” en route to the main level.
“The house is a casual, relaxed kind of place,” says DaSilva. “Since it’s not a formal home we tried to design with a whimsical touch.” The tower is capped with a weathervane depicting a mermaid reclining with a mirror and horn shaped flat cut-out balusters on the front porch and entry gate that trumpet a welcome to visitors. Other eclectic and playful details are a corner soffit that peels up into a sinuous curve over the sunroom’s exterior door, and a wave shaped bracket under the roof overhang on the north side.
Wrap it up
The owners loved houses with wrap-around porches, but because of the footprint restrictions, creating such a porch would have meant there wouldn’t be enough space to accommodate their interior needs. However, DaSilva strove to give the home a sense of an iconic-styled porch. Flat columns, which take up less depth than round or square columns, were used at the front entry porch and at the south side of the house (beyond the end of the front porch), and going around the back of the house up to the projecting bay window, the same flat columns occur as pilasters. “Windows and French doors are set back from the face of the pilasters so there is a shadow line around them that helps define them as a separate layer behind the overall façade of the house with which the pilasters align,” says DaSilva. “By using flat columns for the actual porch and by using an implied porch for the side and back, the client gets the wrap-around porch they wanted but for which they didn’t have enough footprint space. They have more of a symbolic wrap-around porch than an actual one. This suited them because it was really the associations that a wrap-around porch yields (casual, welcoming, timeless summer living) more than its function that they were after.”
French doors open the back of the house to a small bluff-top yard area, designed by Boston landscape architects Hawk Design to include a built-in grill, a fire pit, and stairs down to the beach.
An open invitation
Inside, on the main level, the harbor-facing side of the house is comprised almost entirely of large windows and doors overlooking the water. To maximize the views and promote a casual environment, an open flowing space makes up the home’s living areas: the kitchen, dining room, family room and sunroom.
Rather than be defined by walls, which would close off the spaces from one another and obstruct the continuous views, DaSilva gave definition to each separate area with ceiling details. “We created soffits and arches with slight differences for each space,” says DaSilva. The ceiling in the family room, for example, is sheathed with white-painted raised paneling. The concept was carried into the study, which has a coffered ceiling. As the only room in the home without a harbor view, it was designed to be more inward focused and cozy, with a window seat, built-in shelves, and a fireplace.
The living spaces are decked with a soft, cool color palette: white trim and paneling are set against blues and greens that recall the ocean’s ever changing hues.
The family room, and master bedroom directly above it, occupy the spot on the site where the outlook of the ocean is most dramatic: bay windows on two sides afford the spaces with wraparound light and views of the harbor and sea beyond. At long last, the site has a house on it that reveres the setting and offers its inhabitants ample opportunity to appreciate it.
Photography by Brian Vanden Brink
Design & Build Polhemus Savery DaSilva Architects Builders
Article published in 2013-14 issue.
Want to see more projects by Polhemus Savery & DaSilva? Read how the company designed and built a window-filled waterfront home on Cape Cod that is at once a country estate and a comfortable home.