Ship Shape -November/December 2009

Living Small in a Nantucket cabin

by: Leslie Linsley

photography by: Terry Pommett

When Jay Hanley left his career in finance to become a builder, he brought a great deal of business savvy to his new endeavor. But before opening his own contracting business, he worked for other builders who were already established and well-respected on the island.

“Early on in my career I was exposed to many different situations, so when it came to my own home I knew exactly what I wanted,” Jay says. Toward that end, he bought a rather ordinary 700-square-foot cottage on a fairly spacious lot and turned it into a suave bachelor pad.

“I approached this project as I would with any of my clients,” says the owner of Blue Star Construction. Realizing that he would have to gut the inside of the house, the first thing Jay did was to make an outline of the floor plan.

“I then basically divided the space in half, one part for private space and the other for a kitchen/living room combination or the public areas. Even when I am building an 8,000-square-foot house, I always encourage my clients to design a small, intimate private area that is used strictly by the family with plenty of public spaces for sharing and entertaining.”

Having worked with many architects and clients, Jay has been exposed to many different designs and size houses. He says that while he has built many very large houses, he finds small spaces the most fun because they are the most challenging. When it came to his own house, “I have to feel good about where I live. I don’t care much about what I drive or wear, but I care about being in a comfortable, well-designed home,” he says. And the small house he has created for his bachelor digs is proof. “I was going for an urban, nautical feel,” he adds. The look he has created is timeless and masculine without any pretentiousness. Every detail has been addressed with top-of-the-line appliances in the open kitchen, a mahogany island that separates the kitchen from the living area and a mahogany front door. “The best appliance I bought was the steam oven I built in above the oven. I use it all the time,” he says. All the appliances are stainless-steel with off-white painted cabinets and oil-rubbed bronze pulls. The porcelain sink is a reproduction of those found in early New England farmhouses. As a wine aficionado, the only non-built-in is the wine refrigerator at one end of the sofa.

The materials he used on the interior of the house came from a dismantled barn in New England and were re-milled and used on the floors. Distressed ceiling beams were used as the collar ties. The walls and ceiling are covered with painted poplar ship-lapped horizontally. The only furniture that isn’t built-in is a sectional sofa that creates an “L” around a leather ottoman used as a coffee table. One wall of the living room is all built-in bookshelves and storage drawers beneath. A ship’s ladder fits neatly between the bookcases against the living-room wall and is used to access a storage loft over the private areas. Jay often sleeps up here, giving up his bedroom when his parents come to visit. Even in this space there is storage under the low eaves with doors that latch up on the sloped ceiling.

A small hallway leads from the living room to Hanley’s bedroom, walk-in closet and bathroom. This area is just 10 by 10 feet and is his private space. The platform of the bed includes drawers for clothing, and pulley lamps on each side of the bed provide a touch of ship-like detail.

Jay knows how to use every square inch of the house for living and storage, finding niches for shelves in a corner of the powder room, for example. Not having room for two bathrooms but wanting a half-bath for guests, he designed his own bathroom off the bedroom with two sinks and a spacious modern shower. He then created a tiny powder room with the toilet and a sink in the hallway. The walls of this room are covered with grass-cloth paper, and it is elegantly appointed. A washer and dryer are neatly tucked into a closet opposite the powder room.

The house feels more spacious than its square footage would imply due to the high ceilings and flood of natural light that fills the space. There is a bank of windows along the front and side of the living room and a small window in each gable end of the house just under the roofline. French doors in the kitchen open onto a flagstone patio surrounded by a garden filled with lush hydrangea bushes and summer flowers. A little storage shed at the end of the garden path is as charming as a Hansel and Gretel cottage.

When I asked Jay what advice he gives people building a house, he says, “Before starting any project it’s important to know how you will use the house and utilize the space. From there it’s good to get a sense of what you expect from the overall feeling. Do you want it to be traditional, modern, cottagy? There are lots of options, but the site should dictate the design of the house.”

No matter the size, Jay says it’s important to find an intimate area. That’s the key to making a house welcoming and putting people at ease in their own homes. When it comes to small spaces, Jay says that a good carpenter can do anything with wood. In the end it comes down to thinking outside the box and realizing that it can be shaped to utilize any space you have. He further recommends taking advice from the professionals. When beginning a project, he tries to get everyone involved – the architect, the builder and the client – to make sure that from a cost and design perspective everything is feasible.

“Like any decent business, teamwork creates a successful end product,” he says. Now that his own home is complete and he has had a chance to reflect on the process, I asked how he’s enjoying living in it.

“I love this place. It feels comfortable. When I invite people over I don’t say, ‘come to my house’, I say, ‘come to my room’.”

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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