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Vintage Style

A waterfront house on Martha's Vineyard combines the Shingle Style with Greek Revival elements.

Project: Residence, Martha's Vineyard, MA

Architect: Ferguson & Shamamian Architects, New York, NY; Oscar Shamamian, partner in charge

By Lynne Lavelle

Martha's Vineyard is famed for its exclusivity. Each year, the triangular-shaped, 100-sq.-mi. island off the coast of Cape Cod plays host to the well-heeled from the worlds of politics, commerce and show business, who own and rent homes in its six major towns: Tisbury, Oak Bluffs, Edgartown, West Tisbury, Aquinnah and Chilmark. The island provided the backdrop for the Jaws movie trilogy, and is the site of much newsworthy celebrity activity, past and present. However it is not a place to "see and be seen." It can be reached only by sea or air, and this relative inaccessibility is a selling point for those who seek privacy – which economics all but guarantee; property prices are an estimated 96 percent above the national average and the cost of living isn't far behind.

On the western side of the Vineyard, the rural enclave of Seven Gates Farm, which straddles the towns of Chilmark and West Tisbury, is particularly tranquil, and a favorite spot from which to watch the sunset. It was developed as a sheep farm in the 1860s (a working farm still remains) by Nathaniel S. Shaler, a Harvard geologist who later subdivided a 1,600-acre area into 40 separate home sites, each marked by a metal stake in the ground that must be concealed by its respective house. While it may seem an unlikely method for planning a community, adhering to this rule creates something of a natural vanishing act, whereby no house can be seen from any other.

Oscar Shamamian, partner at Ferguson & Shamamian Architects (F&S) of New York City, describes the division of this land in Chilmark as "ingenious." In 1999, his firm was approached to design a house there, on a waterfront site with magnificent views of Vineyard Sound. "The topographical conditions are wonderful," says Shamamian. "There are hills and an undulating landscape that provides recesses that help eliminate views from house to house. The stakes were perfectly planted for optimum privacy."

The 4,500-sq.ft., four-bedroom house was designed in the Shingle Style, with Greek Revival elements that recall local building traditions. A one-bedroom guesthouse and storage barn were also built on the site. The house consists of five pieces – a central block, a one-story wing, another hyphen that connects to an appendage perpendicular to the house, and a projecting stone porch. This "additive massing" gives the appearance of a house that has grown over many years. "The central block is modeled on Greek Revival characteristics, which I sense is the earliest period that building occurred on the Vineyard," says Shamamian. "The appendages ease into simpler vernacular styles."

The house is positioned downhill from the motorcourt, and emerges from the landscape slowly: first the roof, then the fieldstone gable porch, with its aged-fir timbers and exterior fireplace. A series of stone terraces connect the house and outbuildings with the landscape, and on the descent to the garden, the front elevation is finally revealed. "The hillside provides a natural drop-off, so we didn't make any major interventions, except to cut down the hill a little in front of the house to open it up to the motorcourt," says Shamamian. "It's not until you walk right around to the rear that you see the entire house unfold."

Guidelines prescribed by the homeowners' association and the local Coastal Commission played a key role in the development of both the house and the site. The firm had to adhere to a 24-ft. maximum ridge height while keeping the overall size to under 5,000 sq.ft.; in addition, the silhouette of the house could not break the existing tree line. "The homeowners' association was very protective of the trees, which is a good thing, not only environmentally but also aesthetically – mature trees enhance a building's sense of space and give the structure scale, especially a new building," says Shamamian. "They were positively inclined to a proposal in which the house was broken down into different components as opposed to being a solid, imposing structure. It has a humble and gracious quality to it, and we worked within the rules to design something traditional and modest."

One solution to the low ridge height was to use dormers to accommodate the second floor within the roofline. The master suite occupies the central block, while the children's bedrooms occupy the "addition." "The rooms are small and compact," says Shamamian. "Given the program for five bedrooms, there wasn't a lot of room to spare considering the square foot limitation. It's like a Rubik's Cube – we had to fit these spaces into the available rooflines." The master bedroom has three exposures, while the others have at least two. Not only does this fenestration flood the house with light, it also provides plentiful cross-ventilation, which was a particular concern of the owner. "The client prefers not to use air conditioning and feels that opening a window is a far more satisfying experience than having condensers chugging away," says Shamamian.

Like many Vineyard homes, the interior plan is highly traditional, with intimate spaces and well-defined functions. "But in general, the client liked discreet spaces, such as the separate kitchen and dining room," says Shamamian. "They didn't want all of the these functions merged into a great room." And befitting a waterfront home, all of the rooms are extensively detailed with beadboard paneling and reclaimed pine flooring (obtained from the Mountain Lumber Company of Ruckersville, VA). The five-bay living room is perhaps the only room that harkens to modernity, as it stretches across the central block of the house. "Five bays would have been a little unconventional for the proposed timeframe," says Shamamian.

This was not the first project F&S had undertaken on Martha's Vineyard, having completed a house in Edgartown in 1999, so Shamamian was familiar with its challenges. "It is more difficult to build on the island than say, in Westchester or Fairfield county," he says. "It's a resort, so while there is a lot of transportation available in the summer, service is more sporadic in winter. Plus, the off-season weather can be very harsh, which is a problem when supplies are reliant on the ferry. Even in summer, fog can shut down the airport." However, the firm is undeterred, and currently has two more Martha's Vineyard projects on the boards. "Our firm's desire to maintain the architectural character and environmental integrity of a location is well suited to the Vineyard," says Shamamian. "We are fortunate to have ground-up projects on the island that we often are told look as if they've been there for generations. Considering the wonderful 19th-century architectural context of the island, this is the best compliment we can receive. And despite the challenges of building and traveling to such a remote location, the reward of creating a house in such a beautiful context makes it all worthwhile."  

 

 

 
 

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