SLIDE SHOW: Cape Cod Houses
This is a story about summer and light. About inner and outer beauty and how a house reflects them both, on its own and in relation to the landscape around it. It’s about the yearning we feel here in New England when our brief but glorious season is finally upon us, and the bittersweet knowledge that it passes so quickly.
Where does our story take place?
Somewhere near water, with an ocean view handy, tucked into a secluded cove or perched on a knoll overlooking breaking waves. All right, let’s be partially specific: anywhere inside the boundary that encompasses Cape Cod, its watery silhouette as distinctive as Italy’s crumpled stiletto.
Here you can almost feel the pressure to relax. Instead, it’s easier to simply succumb to the vast expanses of light shimmering off water, the seductive breezes, and the rolling sound of stones and sand wearing down to nothing. Classic. Yes, today we’re chasing the classic Cape Cod summer, along with its amiable, Shingle-style abode.
But delivered with a twist. These are not the predictable houses we’ve come to love and expect.
“I always wanted to be an architect. As a kid I was fascinated with building sites. I’d bring home scraps and make stuff,” says John DaSilva, one of three partners at Polhemus Savery DaSilva, a Cape Cod-based design/build firm that’s been around since 1996, specializing in “Shingle-style” houses in coastal New England.
Which means what, exactly? You know it the moment you see it, a style synonymous with summer. “To me, the most pleasing Shingle-style houses look almost like balloons wrapped in shingles,” says DaSilva.
Dating back to the 1870s, the style is an eclectic jumble of French medieval, English country, and a bit of Japanese, all held together by shingle wrappers. “In the late 1940s, the great architectural historian (and Yale professor) Vincent Scully coined the phrase ‘Shingle style.’ He described an architecture that is very much an inspiration for us,” explains DaSilva. “It was the first truly new architectural invention on these shores.” But that was then, and this is now. “We’re not literal historicists,” he hastens to add. “We ‘recall’ the past, we don’t literally re-create it.”
Which may help explain some of the attention coming PSD’s way lately–including last year’s full-blown exhibit of selected projects at Dennis’s Cape Cod Museum of Art (which the firm also extensively renovated) and an elegant new book titled Architecture of the Cape Cod Summer, by Michael J. Crosbie (Images Publishing, 2008; $90). PSD’s updated variations on an old theme make a respectful nod to another time and aesthetic, but take a modern approach to glass and open space. In fact, they’re livable works of art, fairly bursting with light. Let’s face it: Today we like to bring our outside in, and vice versa. These homes capture an essence of summer that suits the Cape like beach glass along the shore.
It seems completely right, then, that one early house that DaSilva and his wife, Sharon, also an architect at PSD, designed on the Cape was their own. “We decided we’d build one for ourselves to see what it was like,” he says. “Every decision was joint. It was a great experience.” The House on Stage Island, at Chatham’s southeasternmost tip, glows like a rising sun, its red cedar shingles dipped in a preservative that prevents the usual weathering. “It’s more colorful to contrast with the gray winters,” says DaSilva. Signature touches include flat representations of balustrades on the stairway. “It’s elegant, but quick, easy, and affordable to do,” he notes.
Those touches are repeated in the Cottage at Fulling Mill Brook, the DaSilvas’ vacation place near Chilmark, on the western side of Martha’s Vineyard. DaSilva describes it, at 950 square feet, as “a box with one big statement on the front.” That statement–an airborne porch–makes this little retreat a cross between a treehouse and one of the Carpenter Gothic cottages of Oak Bluffs.
The DaSilvas’ cottage would just about fit into the entryway of some of PSD’s projects, which can range up to 11,000 square feet. And yet sensitivity to scale is an important hallmark of these designers. In an essay in Architecture of the Cape Cod Summer, DaSilva writes, “Sometimes small buildings are better if they are made to look bigger and big buildings are better if they are made to look smaller. Manipulation of scale can achieve this.”
Which brings us to a DaSilva confession. “I always say my favorite project is the next one, but certain projects do have special attributes,” he notes, referring to the “large but intimate” estate named Pepperwood, in Chatham Port. “The house speaks in quiet tones at the front,” Crosbie observes in Architecture of the Cape Cod Summer, “yet its full voice resonates at the back, as it overlooks a cove.” PSD was involved down to the smallest details. “I hope someday we have another opportunity to do that level of detail, down to the fireplace tools and escutcheon plates,” DaSilva says.
At the other end of the size spectrum, the Marshview Guest House near Nantucket Sound is a “small house with big scale,” an airy getaway with curves and nautical themes, and a view to the 300-foot-long footbridge that crosses to the House on Harper’s Island, the client’s main house, off the Chatham coast. The latter presented PSD with multiple challenges, most notably restrictions of height and the original footprint of two 1940s “kit” houses. The result of working creatively within those restrictions is a modern, glowing house that shines like a Japanese lantern and tips its hat to Frank Lloyd Wright. “There are specific challenges in designing for the Cape,” DaSilva explains. “There’s the historical context to consider. Almost every project involves historical review boards, conservation commissions, or both. The client wants one thing; the review board wants something else. It’s up to us to find a solution that satisfies both.”
And then there’s the matter of the view and the light: “Most of the houses are on the water. Aside from the technical challenges this poses, most of our clients want plans that are organized around maximizing the view. The best plans, however, take great care to maximize the light throughout the day. A conflict often results, and part of the architectural solution is to resolve that conflict.”
But when it resolves, the results are everything: sweeping vistas, inside and out; houses alive with details and light. “The thing our clients share is an interest in having a special place,” DaSilva says. “Some of our house clients are quite wealthy; some have more modest means. But each still wants something that’s unique to his or her family.” He pauses, then reflects: “A summer house is more a frame of mind than a seasonal place. It’s the embodiment of a relaxed attitude, that’s what it is.”
SLIDE SHOW: Cape Cod Houses