An Early Gem -September/October 2009
A look at an 1830 home
by: Leslie Linsley
photography by: Terry Pommett
Originally built in 1830, this little gem of a house is just one of three homes located on a sweet in-town lane off Union Street. A lovely lady named Maude Jackson occupied the house for many years. She and her fellow musicians would meet regularly in the front parlor to play chamber music. On summer evenings you could stand outside and listen to the music wafting through the open windows. As a neighbor I was afforded the pleasure of these free concerts.
The size of the house is what attracted the current owners, Jim and Mellie Cooper, to buy and restore it more than 15 years ago. The original, old, slanting kitchen with its early porcelain sink, tilting cabinets and old appliances, however, remained intact until recently when they completely gutted it in order to design a new kitchen with a master bedroom and bath above. Until then there were just two tiny bedrooms (one, really half of a room) with the slanting ceilings often found in early one-and-a-half-story homes. While still charming and small, it has been restored way beyond its humble beginnings.
Mellie Cooper is an artist whose work is represented by the Janis Aldridge Galleries. She brought her artistic sensibilities to the design of the house and to their credit, she and her husband kept the restoration and additions in scale with the original house. Their collaborative efforts are evident in the carefully-chosen furnishings, accessories and especially the soft, historic paint colors.
“I look at every part of a room as if it is a painting,” Mellie says of her arrangements and vignettes. “I like small, intimate spaces – a house that wraps its arms around you.
“A small house doesn’t swallow things. You can afford to have nice things and best of all, you know where they are,” she continues.
Together the Coopers had the vision to bring out the architectural beauty of the interior, with its worn, patinaed, wide pine floorboards, doorways with transoms, and paneled walls, accentuating rather than ignoring the simple characteristics of its Quaker roots.
The house is a typical layout for the period in which it was built, with a small entry and a stairway directly in line with the front door. A hallway runs down one side to the back of the house, to the left is a small living room and behind that a sitting room of the same size. There is a back-to-back fireplace in both rooms.
As a consummate treasure hunter Mellie Cooper knows how to zero in on what’s really worth owning. “I look for great stuff at great prices everywhere I go and combine flea-market finds with interesting, unusual antiques. When you live small you have to love everything you put in your rooms. The things I buy for the house don’t necessarily have provenance, but they have to be stylish, with some wonderful detail that makes a piece interesting,” she says. “I love symmetry and when I arrange the furniture I lean in that direction.”
Meticulous about details, there are interesting groupings on tables and just the right flowers in equally-perfect vases on kitchen counters. A Nantucket lightship basket filled with sunflowers in the middle of the dining table suggests late summer along with the brown and green tablecloth and napkins.
Mellie says she likes a house that’s lit up in the evening and finds that with a large house one can often live in just parts, never lighting all of it. She takes great pleasure in walking through all the rooms, which is easy to do, and in this way she makes the entire house an integral part of her life.
“It’s easy to arrange pretty things and perfect your environment when your house is small,” she says. “It’s harder to keep track of things in larger spaces and your things tend to be spread out. Grouping rather than spreading about makes a stronger statement and your rooms will be more dramatic.”
For anyone who loves to nest and takes pleasure in creating the arrangement of things to achieve visually-interesting vignettes, a small house offers greater opportunities. It is an ongoing editing challenge, especially when you are attracted to well-designed, pretty objects that can enhance this particular enjoyment in your life. You know you don’t need more things, but it provides joy and so it’s important to constantly edit and choose carefully. Some people are naturally drawn to making their spaces look and function better, and the small house is a wonderful canvas on which to do this.
“I don’t think I would have the time or the ability to find just the right eclectic, idiosyncratic items that I particularly like, to fill a big house in a lifetime,” Mellie says.
Rather than complain about not enough room for all her stuff, Mellie, like other owners of small places, embraces and sings the praises of her small house. There isn’t room for extras that don’t contribute to her life and this is what she finds so appealing. Life is lighter and more affordable. The biggest problem, she confesses, is getting rid of something she doesn’t like when it has sentimental value, like a gift from her mother who is no longer alive. Throwing out anything extra is a mindset.
“If you haven’t used it,” she advises, “get rid of it.”
When the Coopers gutted the kitchen and removed a side “wart” to make way for a dining area, they knew exactly what they wanted. It wasn’t a big, modern, granite-type kitchen. In fact, they made the room smaller so they could build in the refrigerator, have a coat closet in the kitchen, include a wet bar so there would be a second sink in the dining area and made a small passage for niches on either side to hold Mellie’s collection of milk glass.
This took about six feet away from the room, something most people would not have done, opting for walls of cabinets and lots of counter space. The Coopers’ kitchen has plenty of what they need plus a whole lot of character. All the interior walls and ceilings are made of fir, some stained green, others wood color, some placed on the horizontal and others, vertical, skinny boards. The dining area, an extension of the kitchen, is a small square room. It has windows on all sides, much like a summer porch, and looks out over the pocket garden and patio.
The Coopers entertain with brunches in the summertime and they start with drinks on the patio. Mellie absolutely insists that guests leave glasses and plates from the drinks outside when they come in for the meal. In this way she has room on the counters and island to serve the next course without dirty glasses and dishes in the way. An island that came from son Jamie’s restaurant serves as a buffet counter for guests to help themselves. It’s a wonderful piece of furniture with an already-aged butcher-block top and it’s the perfect dimension. It gives the room character. Mellie calls it a “hand-me-up” from child to parent.
Leslie Linsley is the author of many books on home style and American crafts. Her most recent is “Nantucket, Island Living,” with photographs by Terry Pommett. Her column “Home Style” appears regularly in The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.