Preserving Hydrangea Walk’s historical context was a significant consideration for architect John DaSilva’s update of this Chatham icon.By Laurel Kornhiser | Photography by Dan Cutrona
Everyone who has traveled Shore Road knows the house. Well, more precisely, they know the facing rows of hydrangea bushes, lined up like goodwill ambassadors along the straight brick walkway. The white colonial they lead up to is named, appropriately, for these Cape-loving bushes that burst with periwinkle, pink, and lavender petals come mid-summer.
Even those who are not officially invited to visit Hydrangea Walk can follow the lead of blooms right up to the front door of this stately home overlooking Chatham Harbor and North Beach. The house and its famed flowers have been so often admired and photographed, it seems as if they belong in the public domain.
When new owners took possession of this landmark in 2005, they realized, reluctantly, that the house needed a bit of rearranging, enlarging, and updating. They called on the design/build team of Polhemus Savery DaSilva Architects Builders, no strangers to working on homes with a history and homes on prominent sites. Such projects, in fact, have become the cornerstone of their practice. “Our first principle is to act responsibly toward historic and natural contexts,” says design principal John DaSilva. “We prefer inventive reinterpretations of historical elements, where existing forms and details are cast in a new light.”
In this case, DaSilva and his partners were asked to update an icon, whose front yard overlooks the sea across the street and whose back yard stretches just about to Main Street Chatham. Both homeowners and architect were sensitive to the situation. “This is such an iconic house,” says DaSilva, “that the owners didn’t want us to change [the public side].”
Still, some changes were in order. The front flowerlined path promised symmetry and summer ease, and the house, built in the early twentieth century, had probably started out fulfilling that promise. But, as with many summer homes on the Cape, it had been added onto over the years, and as often happens in such cases, the overview gets lost in the accumulations—an added wing here, a bump-out there, a new porch on this end, a garage on that. Hydrangea Walk just did not work any more.
The original core of the house, somewhat cut off from the rest, became like a forgotten relative, rarely visited. The kitchen, family room, and a newer living room—the most frequently used spaces of the house—could only be accessed by walking through the dining room and a butler’s pantry. As if stealing away stealthily, the homeowners had to reach their master bedroom by a separate back staircase. “The new owners loved the house, its location, and its character,” says DaSilva, “but it was very tired and ill-conceived as far as the changes that were made over the years. It needed serious floor plan revisions to make it work.” Simply put, the house had lost its flow.
DaSilva and his team got to work. With the addition of mismatched wings, the home had lost some of its symmetry, so one task was to tear out a good portion of the right wing and some of the left. The home has always had two entrances, the front, well known to passersby, and the back, right in line with the front, and used by the family to enter the less formal, more Cape-style part of the house. Before the renovation, the family drove their cars up to this entrance along a circular drive, delivered their goods and occupants, and then parked in the attached garage. Because it was so utilitarian, the back yard of this seven-acre property was largely an undefined expanse of grass with a scattering of trees.
Now the garage is a carriage house proper, separate and to the side. In place of the old garage, DaSilva added a wing, matched by its twin on the other side. Together they embrace a more formal entry, elegantly landscaped by David Hawk of Hawk Design. A brick walkway, counter to the one out front and running parallel to new defining stonewalls, sweeps past circular plantings and up to the door. The home’s original classical influences receive nods from paired columns outlining twin covered porches and second floor palladium windows. “This is probably our most traditional design in terms of classicism,” says DaSilva. “The original house has a classical feeling, and the client wasn’t looking for something ‘Capey.’ They wanted to do what was appropriate for the house that was there.”
The wing where the garage once stood makes space for a mudroom, laundry room, pantry, and family room, enlivened by a swoop ceiling. DaSilva delights in pointing out the nuances of the finish work, including the built-in bookshelves punctuated by [contemporary representations of] pilasters: “Determining the basic form of the house was fun, but coming up with details like these is even more fun. The house becomes more contemporary and playful as you extend out to the wings.” The kitchen, broadened, expanded, and now easily accessible, pays homage to its setting with painted tiles of baskets brimming with hydrangeas.
What had been the family room before the redesign has become a breakfast nook, positioned to take advantage of the spectacular harbor and beach views across the way. The twin to this wing is all about fun. While the home’s original ballroom has been converted into a contemporary living room, a generous game room satisfies today’s entertainment preferences, with a pool table, wet bar, and flat screen television.
Chatham’s frequent gray days can make a dark house feel even gloomier. Such was the case with this one before the renovation opened up the spaces to natural light. Halls leading from each wing along the back of the house are illuminated from above, thanks to the sleek curvaceous design of the upper halls: “We opened up the double height spaces,” DaSilva explains, “to connect the first and second floors. This allows more height and light to stream in.”
The added lower spaces translate into more bedrooms upstairs. Two small, dark existing bedrooms were updated for guests, a third guest room was added, as were two bedroom suites for the owners’ young adult daughters. One enjoys water views from the comfort of a built-in window seat, while the other takes in the gentle country setting of the back yard. Her second floor perch also allows her a bird’s eye view of the peaks of downtown shops and churches.
As for the homeowners, they have the best of both worlds. Located above the family room wing, their bedroom faces the harbor, while just past their generously sized dressing room is their bath, its Jacuzzi overlooking the green expanse of the back yard. A tiered choir of five dormers set over a trio of dormers above the family room creates a visual treat inside and out.
Though the family appreciates their newly expanded and connected living spaces inside, those meandering along Shore Road or motoring the waterway will look to this iconic character and find the familiar. “The front of the house has changed very little,” says DaSilva. “The idea was not to change it from the front. The dormers, windows, and telescopic wings are still there.” Onlookers might sense that things have been cleaned up and straightened just a bit—that the side carriage house for cars is new, that neatly trimmed grass now lines the famous walkway, and lilies keep the hydrangeas in check just a bit.
What they probably will not realize is that the hydrangeas they admire are not the same that have beguiled spectators for decades. Those have been moved to the back yard where they are better protected. In their place, says DaSilva, are “new varieties that handle exposure to the harbor better.” He is reassuring: “It was with great trepidation that the owners decided to pull out all of the hydrangeas and replace them.”
What observers will surely notice is that across the street, where once stood a run down auto repair garage, a wildflower patch now grows, planted when the owners of Hydrangea Walk bought the lot. These free spirited flowers leading to untamable waters counterpose the line of lush bushes that act as ushers to a house of newly tamed and enhanced proportions.