House on the Hill -Fall 2008
by: Erin Chandler
photography by: Terry Pommett
Perched atop the quiet landscape where Nantucket’s original town once crowded the banks of Capaum Pond, a dirt drive bordering a wood-fenced pasture fades into a circular white shell driveway that peers upward at a recently-built, cedar-shingled house.
Inside, Nantucket’s whaling history is told in a museum-like ensemble of antique whaling tools, paintings and books.
“Nobody knows how many whales there are in this house because no one’
s ever attempted to count them all,” said one of the home’s owners, who shares the house with her husband. Perhaps it’s the way each room seems to tell its own story of Nantucket’s history, setting the stage for the next chapter almost seamlessly. Or perhaps it’s something about the way the antique wooden floorboards throughout the entire house seem to have a knowledge that extends much further than their glossy sheen would give off. But when you cut through the thick of it, the unique fusion of historical and modern living combined here is very hard to come by.
Everything about the home seems to be built around the owners’ passion for Nantucket’s whaling history, and the intricate craftsmanship that creates nooks and crannies and clever uses of what would otherwise be dead space throughout the house is a testament to the best of the island’s building talent.
When it came to selecting a carpenter who could not only build a home from the ground up in a timely fashion, but who also had the patience to work closely with the owners to create a custom interior from architectural plans that merely outlined the outside structure and rough wall locations, Patrick Hehir of Hehir Group Custom Builders was the man for the job.
“Patrick and his lead carpenter, Michael Sweeney, were so critical to the development of the interior of this house,” said the wife. “Michael was here every day working as well as overseeing all of the people that they had contracted, making sure that everything was on track.”
The house is a departure from the owners’ previous homes, all of which were refurbished historic houses. But it was time for the adventure of walking the fragile line of marrying a house built in the 21st century with an extensive collection of antique furniture and whaling memorabilia, and making it feel right. The owners boldly decided against hiring an interior designer, and instead approached the design process in somewhat of a backward fashion, crafting the personality of each room around the treasures they wanted to put in it.So you can imagine why some confusion and worry might have arisen when one day, as the house was nearing completion, Sweeney didn’t show up to work. While he is a dedicated carpenter, there are indeed times when family comes first, and when the owners asked where he was, they were informed that he was with his wife who had just given birth to their first baby. Needless to say, Sweeney was off the hook.
In the high-ceilinged foyer, the sun pours unabashedly through a large square window on the second floor and glimmers off the polished antique oak staircase that ascends to a second-floor balcony, lined with hand-crafted wooden banisters and skinny white posts.
When choosing the color scheme for this space, the project literally started from the floorboards up. This was necessary as a woven rug from Namibia depicting sperm and right whales gamboling alongside various other aquatic creatures teamed with colors that didn’t necessarily lend themselves easily to color-coordination.
But soft purples, sea greens and ashy grays it was for the front foyer, which showcases the long rug that welcomes you into the front hall, across the antique oak floorboards, and into the heart of the house: the dining room.
This room was yet another to be built from the inside out, this time to ensure that the antique mantelpiece circa 1800, around which the room is centered, got the attention it deserved. Two family portraits of the husband’s distant Nantucket relatives gaze across the room to the cream cabinetry that is filled with similar-colored scrimshaw pieces. The beige plaster walls bear various paintings and sketches depicting scenes from town’s harbor as it was in 1841, and right and bowhead whales that are seemingly afloat on yellowed pieces of paper.While it seems like a natural succession to walk through the cream beadboard doorway that frames the oval-shaped cherry table that rests at the center of the dining room, we take a slight detour to our left and rest for a moment on a delicate blue and white striped couch in the center of the living room.
“The straight lines of Stephen Swift’s furniture are what gives it away,” said the wife, referring to the chairs that crowd the dining room table. Honey-yellow walls lighten the dark cherry-wood table while delicate flowered green curtains shield the northern sunlight should it become too fierce.
She doesn’t stop at the table, but gently brushes its smooth surface with her fingers as she glides past R.P. Newell’s 1966 painting of the Nantucket whaleship Henry Astor hanging to the right. She makes a beeline toward the cabinetry that stretches nearly from floor to ceiling, momentarily ignoring the expansive kitchen that seems to pour into the dining room through an exaggerated open doorway.
“This is called transferware,” she said, gently picking up one of the many plates that comprise the collection that rests on the shelves of the cabinetry, which were made exclusively for this purpose. Intricately illustrated on the plates are different cabin scenes aboard a steamship. She opens a drawer and the collection multiplies.
Deeper into house, the library contains an overwhelming cache of whaling treasures. A towering bookcase houses an extensive collection of whaling books, a two-by-three-foot model of the Charles W. Morgan whaleship rests in a glass case at the back of the cozy room, an antique elm desk holds an original copy of C.M. Scammon’s “Marine Mammals of the Northwestern Coast of North America,” and an 1880s carpenter’s chest brims with antique whaling implements. The pull of the mysterious chest is too strong to ignore.
The husband handles the antique double-handled blubber-cutting knife casually, explaining in vivid detail how and when it was used. We engage in a quick game of trivia, delving deeper into the chest as I correctly identify a collection of rusted harpoons, a brand (used to mark ownership of oil barrels), a large blubber hook . . .
The guest room, with its vibrant summer blue walls, is just around the corner. In sharp contrast to the stern, intellectual personality of the library, this is a playful room, whimsically decorated with island artist John Lochtefeld’s wood-block prints of navy-blue whales eating fiddle players, or miniature whales pushing their way through a crowded ocean. Like the sun, breathing ever more energy into this spirited room, ray-like snakes of cherry wood extend from a bed frame below, creating a headboard that towers over a geometrically-patterned navy and white quilt with a whale-embroidered pillow resting on top.It becomes increasingly evident that this room is his trophy room, showcasing the various treasures he has collected through patient attendance at numerous auctions, and the keen eyes that have scoured antique shops over the years.
But something doesn’t quite fit into the posse of whales that seem to inhabit this house. Pointing to a small sculpture of a hippopotamus in a bathing suit that stands in diving stance atop an aged red, white and blue chest whose banner reads “Don’t Give Up the Ship!” the wife laughs and said that when she found it during her travels, she just had to have it. She slowly turns the sculpture around, revealing the unmistakable wedgie that could only result when a 3,000-pound hippo tries to squeeze into a bathing suit.
“I think we need more hippopotamuses like these around here!” she said with a laugh.
Backtracking through the cozy library and into the airy dining room, the afternoon sun is begins to retreat behind a thick fog that’s moving quickly over the island. There’s an endearing quality to this new home, one that belies its youth and welcomes you to explore its thorough collection in the same manner that a well-versed librarian would. The walls of the home seem to whisper of their efforts to mold and paint themselves around the possessions that are most special to the owners, in attempts at making them feel more at ease with living in a brand-new home.
Even the kitchen, which is stocked with every modern appliance imaginable, still has that homestead feel to it. Perhaps this is evoked by the farmhouse kitchen sink that rests upon a faux aged wooden shelf, the rough glass that outlines the cabinets, or the long bench seat that rest alongside the rectangular kitchen table that reminds of cozy family dinners. But perhaps the most endearing quality of the kitchen, one that can even offset the sleek laptop that sits atop a cream desk opposite the granite island, is the color scheme of the large space.
“I picked this color,” the wife said, waving her arm in the direction of the kitchen’s painted wall, “not only because I liked the color, but mostly because of its name. I wanted to be able to say that I had Dill Pickle colored walls,” she said with a laugh. This is obviously an example of good marketing. But despite the whimsical name, this grassy hue is comforting, and when paired with the glossy sage tiles on small portions of the kitchen’s walls in somewhat pleasant imperfection, you forget about the microwave and the dishwasher that don’t quite fit the homestead profile.
A yellow Labrador now lays on the cool floorboards of the foyer, disinterested in the echo of chatter as we ascend the staircase to the second floor. It’s here that a 360-degree view of the island awaits uninterrupted. If unplagued by the island’s fog, the owners swear you can see the Edgartown water tower on Martha’s Vineyard to the west, the lights of Hyannis to the north, the Congregational Church and Unitarian Church to the east and Sanford Farm to the south. Thick fog now envelops the entirety of the house on top of the hill, however, and I can barely make out the water line of the north shore beaches.
“That’s a ship’s knee from the Charles W. Morgan from Mystic, Conn. that I got at an auction,” said the husband, pointing to an odd-shaped piece of wood that supports a delicate piece of glass, all resting atop three metal legs in the shape of whales’ tails, creating a coffee table in the upstairs sitting room.
An aged brick fireplace peeks out from the northern wall where a wooden jigsaw puzzle of Nantucket Town sits half completed on an antique table beside a glass door. Large windows that line the walls, making the room appear slightly more delicate than the others.
The deck, made of Brazilian Ipe, a type of walnut connects the sitting room to the master bedroom suite, whose color scheme is comprised of oranges and yellows. Horizontal and vertical wainscoting of different widths converge and diverge in an intricate fashion, leading the eye along its ridges and into the airy bathroom framed around a large pedestal bathtub with views of the church steeples to the east. While showering, you can peer out a window to the south and catch a glimpse of Sanford Farm, or while brushing your teeth at the sink, you can peer out another window on the opposite wall and view the calm green water of Nantucket Sound.
Nearly the entire second floor is dedicated to the unusual 360-degree view that this house boasts due to its position 56 feet above sea level. Hills on Nantucket are often hard to come by, but the hill atop which this home rests lends itself perfectly to an enchanted landscape that creates an exquisitely private location for this home. So private in fact, that the outdoor shower just off the side of the house near the shell driveway doesn’t even need walls.
“If a car starts coming up the driveway, you can hear the shells cracking, and then you just run up the back stairs,” the wife said with a laugh.
Heading down the driveway, the house seems to fade back into the thick fog until only its faint outline is visible atop the sloping hill. It marries nearly seamlessly the stern tradition that accompanies Nantucket’s rich whaling history with the breezy feel of a 21st-century island home.
Erin Chandler is a graduate of Bates College and was editorial assistant for Nantucket Today in 2007.