An In-Town Aerie -July 2009

Living Small on Silver Street

by: Leslie Linsley

photography by: Terry Pommett

The saying, “good things come in small packages” is an understatement when it comes to living in a small home. Those who have chosen small spaces, whether to build, buy or rent, know the meaning of making every square inch count.

They have mastered the art of storage, arrangement of furniture, displaying collections and knowing when to edit

so the place doesn’t seem crowded. Minimal can seem sparse, while surrounding oneself with things can be comfortable, but also claustrophobic,

if not kept in check. It is an ongoing challenge.

What defines the character of a house is the detailing, such as a beautiful stair railing, well-crafted moldings and maybe finely-tailored built-ins. These details are what attract us to older homes. Many designers say that if you are building a house, concentrate on – and put more money toward – making it comfortable rather than settling for sheer size and volume. What makes the small-house concept work is that superfluous square footage is traded for less tangible but more meaningful aspects of design.

Things like window seats, the placement of windows, lots of built-ins, natural woodwork and bookcases give a house personality and add quality to the use of the rooms. When decorating a small house, some homeowners find creative uses for standard building materials and features that distinguish their homes as well as ideas that are clever, but not necessarily expensive.

Most people who live in small homes have a definite attitude about furnishing their places. Almost unanimously, they agree that it is important to make every single thing count and be deliberately placed as well as concentrating on comfort. You simply can’t waste space on anything that isn’t either comfortable to sit on or isn’t visually pleasing.

This is how Virginia Kinney designed, built and furnished her big little house on Silver Street. “I love old stuff, but I also love comfort. It’s a practical balance of older things I love, but a need to be comfortable wherever I am in the house,” she says.

“It was a small lot with a dilapidated barn on it. I had the barn removed and designed a house on the same footprint, which is only about 22 by 30 feet.”

Kinney had always admired the little Greek Revival houses built around the mid 1800s on Darling Street, and it was from these that she took inspiration when designing her own home.

“I like old houses and since I’m on the edge of the Old Historic District I wanted the house to fit in with the neighborhood. I knew I had to have a full basement for all my projects,” says this do-it-yourselfer who sings the praises of her favorite tool, the nail gun. “It has to be the best invention, especially for a woman.”

Kinney did a lot of the interior finishing work, like window trims, the built-in bookcase and a collection niche. But her real talent is in the details. She has a good eye for knowing what works well together and how to infuse the new space with character by using reclaimed materials. For example, she found old shutters, discarded from a house on Orange Street, with their original gray/blue paint color intact and made them fit the living-room windows. A handmade door with tiny handcrafted window panes and peeling paint leads from the kitchen to the basement, adding just the right amount of unexpected quirkiness to the place. It came from the Madaket landfill when it was simply referred to as “the dump.”

The basement has full windows in the front, making the entrance to the house a full story above street level, affording a certain amount of privacy. Situated on a slight incline, the rear of the house opens onto a deck and pocket garden, all at the first-floor level. The house is two stories of living space with the open kitchen, living and dining area, a hallway, walk-in closet and full bath on the first floor. A stairway leads to an open loft-like bedroom with built-in bookcases, plenty of under-the-eaves storage and a feeling of spaciousness derived from a simple railing overlooking the living room, rather than a closed-in wall.

“When you live alone, privacy isn’t a factor to consider,” Kinney says. “I have only myself to please and everything in this house is very personal.”

Indeed, the furnishings and collections, the art and artifacts, all tell a story. A built-in niche houses a collection of tramp art, memory dishes, transferware plates, ironstone pitchers and platters, many from her mother, while others were acquired on trips to England and some from her days as a shop owner. Some of you may remember her little gallery on Old South Wharf where she sold one-of-a-kind antiques, folk art and her own creations.

When furnishing the rooms, Kinney had no problem combining authentic antiques with well-designed and reasonably-priced reproduction furniture pieces.

“I like a combination of the rustic and elegant English country style,” she says. Often one cannot tell the difference between an antique and a copy, especially when the new pieces are carefully selected, such as the wonderful wrought-iron dining chairs around an early drop-leaf table that belonged to Kinney’s mother.

She also used architectural details found in early Nantucket homes, such as the decorative finishing molding at the corner of the window trims. “It was a lot easier than mitering the corners and making the trim fit perfectly,” she says of her handiwork. Beadboard was chosen for the kitchen ceiling as well as the front of cabinets. Not wanting to open the front door right into the living space, she created a narrow entryway with a wall that doesn’t quite go all the way to the ceiling. In this way light from the transoms in the front door spills into the kitchen on the other side of the wall. A display of white ironstone pitchers lines the shelf of this cut-out wall area and can be seen from both sides. The hallway is painted gold, one of three typical Colonial colors she used throughout the house: red, gold and black against shades of beige.

She found innovative ways to display things, in an edited version, grouping them together in vignettes according to color, shape, size and texture. The larger pieces of upholstered furniture, a sofa, club chair and ottoman, are slip-covered in a textured white fabric, much like mattlesse, with plump throw pillows in a shabby chic, faded-red floral pattern. “I never have more than four other people when I entertain,” Kinney says, “and that is sometimes crowded.”

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.

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