Classic Massachusetts Cottage
Thoughtful design and detailed craftsmanship elevate a dated cottage into an instant classic.
Photographs by Michael J. Lee
They had owned the coastal North Shore property since 1992, and loved every precious minute spent there. Any visit was the ultimate life refresher—a mental and physical escape from their primary home in New Jersey and work life in New York City.
Built in the 1880s but added onto subtly over time, the shingled retreat is somewhat eclipsed by its sensational setting. Separated from the shore by a lazy, winding coastal road, the summer home’s extended front yard is no less than a mesmerizing swath of moody blue Atlantic water.
The five-bedroom, three-bath house was large enough to accommodate its resident family and guests, but over time its interior had grown dated in look, feel, and function. In 2000, the owners approached Carpenter & MacNeille, a full-service architecture, build, and interior design firm based in Essex, to investigate their property’s hidden potential.
“We wanted to take full advantage of the ocean views, and create more of a connection between the indoors and outdoors,” says the homeowner, who wanted more outdoor living spaces in the form of additional porches and terraces.
“They were also considering adding on a new kitchen, among other changes, but the building lot had very little room for expansion,” says Robert MacNeille, the firm’s president and design principal. Then, in 2010, after buying the lot next door, they came back to us, finally having enough room to craft the house of their dreams.”
Embarking on an extensive renovation/addition project, MacNeille had to contend with a variety of challenges, including privacy issues from the frequented road out front and a neighboring home up the hill behind the house. The purchased adjoining lot, while beneficial, was not straightforward in shape. “The combined property looks a little like a bow tie: narrow in the middle with large areas to the right and left. It was a quirky house on a quirky site.”
The architect’s first task was reimagining the home’s façade. Originally, the front door faced a side street, while the driveway and garage took up precious real estate on the ocean-facing side. MacNeille swapped the two areas, re-siting the garage and driveway on the side street and positioning the front entry on the coastal road facing the ocean. The newly configured entry sequence traded awkwardness for elegance.
MacNeille saved what he could in the home’s historic main block, including the formal dining room. “Preservation depended on the integrity of the space; some had been changed over the years in unfortunate ways,” he says. Meanwhile, he planned a stretch of new living spaces to cascade from the existing square into the adjoining lot. The additions start with a kitchen overlooking a window-laden great room, then proceed to an office, a screened porch, and finally a large family/game room at the end.
By incorporating an eclectic mix of exterior architectural details, MacNeille “aged” the new construction, developing an imagined story for spaces added on over time. For the first addition mass off the historical core, he opted for a gambrel instead of replicating the existing gable, while the tail-end family room emulates the look of a barn. “We wanted it to read as a small boat barn that had been connected along the way,” says MacNeille.
Similarly, the architect used a variety of millwork details and built-ins to infuse the interior with character and a sense of history. “The combination of preserved millwork and millwork designed from scratch helped create a seamless final feel, keeping that sensibility of a 19th-century house,” he says.
For her dream kitchen, the owner, who has a background in design, had a clear idea in mind. “It’s traditional in a sense, but the goal was definitely to infuse it with some fun, unusual elements,” contends Hattie Holland, one of three Carpenter & MacNeille interior designers who worked closely with the owner on the interior architecture and furnishing decisions. “She didn’t want it to look like every other kitchen.”
Its centerpiece is a zinc hood with stainless steel strapping, specially crafted by New York-based Brooks Custom. “The idea for the hood was based on a hearth that you would see in an old kitchen,” says Holland.
Yet another bold feature is the ample island. Its unique configuration consists of a raised 48-inch portion surrounded on all sides by standard 36-inch countertop. “The height creates a buffer between the cooking area and the casual dining space and great room beyond,” explains Holland. A backsplash of veined travertine and Caesarstone “Lagos Blue” countertops add depth of hue and polish to the space.
Besides a standout kitchen, the owners also achieved a dreamy second-floor master suite that greatly improved upon their formerly cramped master bedroom. The spacious suite features a larger bedroom, luxurious bathroom complete with Jacuzzi tub, and an expansive his-and-hers walk-in closet.
On the third story, two bedrooms and one bath form a private, welcoming retreat for out-of-town guests. Holland and team worked to eke out as much square footage as possible for bedroom furniture, devising creative solutions such as taking a swing door and placing it on sliders instead.
During the year-long project, Carpenter & MacNeille’s full-service capabilities suited the New Jersey-based owners particularly well. Its woodworking team executed all of the custom millwork and built-ins, while its construction crews handled every build stage; they even installed the outdoor hardscaping, including the front stone terrace.
Now, the updated coastal charmer looks right at home in its enviable setting. “The owners used this cottage for many years and absolutely loved it,” relates MacNeille. “It was a pleasure updating it for the 21st century and creating a classic for the family to enjoy long-term.”
And the favorite part of the project for the homeowner? “Not only can the ocean be seen from every single room in the home, but aso the design incorporates window seats, daybeds, and giant windows to showcase the beautiful shoreline and ocean vistas throughout the home,” she says. “ I don’t think it is overstating it to call the home ‘magical.’”
Carpenter & MacNeille
106 Western Ave., Essex, MA