Vast swaths of Nantucket are covered with moors and low scrub oak that form a wild, evocative landscape unique to this windswept island 30 miles off the Mass. coast.
In an area where this kind of dense vegetation borders one of the island’s exquisite beaches, a white shell lane leads to a courtyard composed of a cluster of buildings.
There is a small guest cottage, a tiny shed that now serves as a shaded seating area and bar and a two-story gambrel-roofed main house that opens to the drive from a central section flanked by two wings. All are clad with the island’s signature silver-grey cedar shingles.
The main house is sweetly traditional – there is even a widow’s walk on the bell-shaped roof. Deep porches encircle the seaward-facing rear and sides, while the double-hung, six-over-six windows are adorned with glossy forest green shutters.
This is Nantucket architecture at its Neoclassical best – unassuming, mindful of history and blending gracefully into the surrounding vegetation.
The water-facing side of the main house, however, has a more outspoken personality. French doors open onto upstairs decks to take in glorious water views that are obscured by vegetation on the first floor.
But the biggest revelation is inside, where a high-tech, modern home serves as a family getaway with interiors inverted to maximize the ocean views. But easy as it looks, it was a challenging project.
“Designing a new house on Nantucket is like designing in a straightjacket,” smiles Mark Finlay, AIA (MPFA), the Southport, Conn., architect responsible for the main house and its integration with the previously standing guest cottage and shed. “On Nantucket, we have to build brand-new old houses.”
Nantucket grew rich in the first half of the 19th century as the capital of America’s whaling industry. When the advent of kerosene made whale oil obsolete, the island entered into a long economic decline, leaving its superb Federal and Greek Revival buildings undisturbed until, in the middle of the 20th century, vacationers rediscovered the place.
In the face of intense development pressure, Nantucket’s legislators took the unusual step of landmarking the entire island, turning construction approvals over to the Nantucket Historic District Commission.
The height regulation keeps buildings to 28 feet or less; houses must have pitched roofs, not flat ones, and they must be clad in unpainted shingles that weather to a soft grey – hence the island’s nickname, “The Grey Lady.”
“The other challenge,” Finlay adds, “is that the vegetation surrounding the house, like so much on Nantucket, is eight feet tall.”
To provide views of the ocean beyond the natural shrub, Finlay devised a 4,500-square-feet house with living spaces occupying the upper level while en suite bedrooms and a billiards room are located on the first floor.
The gambrel roof makes for more space on the upper level, he explains, while its gentle bell shape meets historic-minded building codes.
This second story contains a spacious and dramatic great room with a native fieldstone fireplace wall, a kitchen centered around a brick fireplace and hearth and a ladder leading up to the rooftop widow’s walk and its breathtaking views of the island.
A series of trusses along the great room’s ceiling support its soaring height and expanse of space. “Inside this very traditional house is a commercial building’s steel frame,” Finlay explains.
Traditional elements include beaded and butted board sheathing on interior walls. “The bead board is a classic New England building material,” the architect says.
“Butted board is an old southern house detail. I wanted a different feel when you walk upstairs and the wall finish changes. The fir flooring is also southern in origin, a nod to the family’s roots,” he adds.
“We met some years ago and just clicked,” Finlay recalls of the beginning of his relationship with these clients. “We’ve since worked together on some very nice houses in Virginia, Connecticut and the Caribbean.”
Confessing that he always wanted to be an architect – and that he lied at age 15 to get a job in an architectural firm¬ – Finlay now heads up an award-winning office of 30 design professionals.
The firm has restored historic structures, designed new houses based on venerable landmarks, created equestrian estates and clubhouses for some of the best-known golf and country clubs as well as designed private homes in some of this country’s most desirable zip codes.
Originally from Kansas City, Mo., Finlay moved to New Canaan, Conn., the site of one of architecture’s modernist monuments, Philip Johnson’s Glass House. Finlay studied structural engineering and architecture, culminating his education with six months’ study in Europe.
“That’s where I learned about proportion,” he says. “It’s the secret. When you walk into a room and it feels good, it’s because the proportions are right.”
His design inspirations include Wilson Eyre and the venerable firm of McKim, Mead & White. “So much was happening at the turn of the 20th century that architecture was explosive,” Finlay explains.
“Some of the best houses in the United States were built between 1895 and 1925. They are modern inside but have beautiful traditional exteriors.”
It’s an apt description for this Nantucket home, which fits seamlessly into the island’s historic fabric while suiting the needs of a decidedly contemporary family.
For more information, visit markfinlay.com.
Image Credits: Photos by Warren Jagger.