An Architect’s Labor of Love

Reading the autobiography of an architect in his dream home.

By Marlissa Briggett | Photography by Bill Lyons

Down a bumpy dirt road in Chatham lies a small jewel of a home unlike any others in the neighborhood. Sand-colored cinderblocks meet cedar shingles on a narrow and horizontal building that appears wrapped up like a Christmas present from the street. Step into the backyard where windows abound to see it in its unwrapped glory. The design and ultimate completion of this special place serve as bookends to the arc of Grattan Gill’s six-decade career as an architect, from his years as a young apprentice to his retirement years. And he’s just about ready to call it home.

It’s not unusual for an architect to handle a ceremonial shovel at groundbreaking ceremonies. It’s practically unheard of for the architect to have hand-shoveled boatloads of dirt to build the foundation of his own home. Yet that’s exactly what Grattan Gill did.

In a career working with such architectural heroes as Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius and Paul Rudolph, Gill’s crowning achievement may perhaps be the restoration of the retirement nest he designed for his parents as a young man recently returned from war. For his own retirement, he has returned to the same space where he and his father worked side by side back in 1955 to unearth the foundation.

The home was first conceived when Gill was in the Navy stationed in Korea. His parents had inherited some land — never seen — in Chatham that his aunt Margaret had purchased in the 1930s for a whopping sum of $50. When Margaret died young, the land was forgotten for years until Gill’s parents tracked it down.

Upon Gill’s return from Korea, his parents wanted him to drive them from his childhood home in Newton to take a look at it. He laughs at the memory. “I was just back from the war” he says. The 22-year-old was unimpressed with the lot. The land was awkwardly shaped: a long narrow parallelogram, 100 feet by 300 feet, with an eight-foot drop from the street. Wetlands rendered part of the lot unbuildable.

In any case, he was scheduled to return shortly to his apprenticeship with Wright at the famed Taliesin, Wright’s home in Wisconsin. His parents asked that he draw up some plans for a home and return in the spring to help them start building it. They told him they wanted a simpler and smaller house where they could happily spend their retirement.

It made perfect sense to them. His father, a carpenter, needed his son, the architect, to fully realize his dream of living on Cape Cod. It didn’t make sense to Gill. He had to approach the legendary and formidable Wright for a second request to leave. (The first time occurred when Gill was drafted. Wright was indignant and wrote to the draft board requesting a deferment for him, telling them Gill was doing important work that “should not be interrupted.” The draft board was not impressed with Wright and Gill was sent to Korea.)

The thought of telling Mr. Wright he needed to leave for a second time dismayed Gill. He told his parents, “He doesn’t like people coming and going. He doesn’t like us working on our own projects.” Like the draft board, his parents were unimpressed with Wright’s needs.

After a few months back at Taliesin, Gill warily approached Wright one day after Wright’s lunch and before his afternoon nap. “My parents,” he began, not quite certain how to explain his second departure. “Well, you’ve gotta meet them to understand.” Decades later, he laughs. “What I really wanted to say is, ‘Mr. Wright, my dad is just like you!’”

Wright told Gill to bring him the drawings. Gill raced back to retrieve them and showed them to the master architect. The lower level, which is built almost directly into the hillside abutting the road so as to build as far away from the wetlands as possible, consisted of three concrete sides, with windows only on the fourth long wall. “You want to put your parents in a straightjacket?” Wright asked him. Gill laughs at the memory now. “He sure knew how to hurt a guy!”

Gill quickly showed Wright the plans for the upper level which was the main living area. This floor had an abundance of windows and light. Wright approved the design and gave his blessing. “Well, that’s much better,” he said. “I guess you can go home.”

After shoveling out the earth, Gill and his father worked together on the foundation and got a ceiling on the lower level before Gill returned to Taliesin. The next summer, Gill’s father bought some cheap lumber that had been salvaged from townhouses in Boston’s Back Bay. Over the next several years, his father and a Chatham neighbor worked to finish the house so that it was “finished enough.” In 1965, 10 years after the project’s conception, his parents moved in.

In the meantime, Gill had been working in Boston and New York for such renowned architects as Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus Movement, and Paul Rudolph. He had a leading role in the development of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth from which he received an honorary degree. In 1972, he moved to Sandwich to start his own practice.

When his father died in 1968, his mother stayed on in the Chatham house. Gill says, “it was her little nest.” Then, for nearly 20 years after her death in 1990, the home stood empty.

Like a treasured box of memories stored up in the attic, the Chatham house stayed in Gill’s mind. Sometime around 2009, Gill was introduced to Ken Stockdale, a custom builder who lives in Harwich. In Stockdale, Gill knew he had met the person who could restore the building. Shortly thereafter, he turned his attention to finishing the house in the manner he had originally conceived it as a young apprentice architect.

Stockdale remembers his first introduction to the house. In the decades that it had stood empty, time hadn’t been kind. There were leaks. Ivy had become an unwanted guest, insidiously creeping into the foundation and through windows. Stockdale says, “someone with less of an attachment to the house might have torn it down.”

In Stockdale, Gill had found a builder who was as passionate as he was about craftsmanship and design. It was a fortuitous match as they spurred each other’s creativity. “I kept drawing and he kept building!” says Gill. Despite their different styles, they worked well together. “I’m fine working with drawings on cocktail napkins,” Stockdale says. “Grattan likes more detailed architectural drawings so he can mull it over.”

Over the coming months, Gill would draw plans for the kitchen, built-in couches, cabinets, a unique peninsula separating the kitchen from the hallway and the many bookshelves. Stockdale feels privileged to have worked with Gill on his dream. He says, “I love all that fir in there. I love how the kitchen rolls into the living room….The stairs are the coolest stairs I’ve ever made, with horizontal slats instead of banisters.” The emphasis on the horizontal was Gill’s vision. Throughout the project, he told Ken to focus on the horizontal. “It’s got to fly!” he told him.

The home defies categorization. It is both simple and grand. His parents wanted “smaller and simpler” than the home in Newton where they had worked and raised three children. The Chatham home fulfilled their needs by providing a single floor for living with a small kitchen, a light-filled living/dining area and a bedroom. A guest room that doubles as an office is on the lower level. The main upstairs living area measures less than 800 square feet. Yet there is a feeling of soaring grandeur evoked by the windows, windows and more windows.

There are other delightful elements. In a home filled with right angles, squares and rectangles abound. Yet the bathroom sink cabinet has a rounded edge. It wasn’t an oversight, says Stockdale. It was very deliberate. Gill wanted one small detail to throw the rest of the right angles into contrast.
Like the deck of a luxury yacht, a narrow deck wraps around the whole back length of the house. Chains hang from the outside corners of the house, linking the flat roof to the ground. Someone once asked Stockdale if these chains were to hold the house down during a hurricane. Yet it’s something far more practical. They serve as drain pipes, a design element that Gill says has been used by the Japanese for centuries. In wintertime, water freezes in the chains and refracts the light, for a sparkling effect. Stockdale says that the chains are beautiful during a heavy rain as the water spirals with great energy down the chains.

The perfect retirement dwelling for a couple, Stockdale calls it “warm and cozy.” He likes to picture Grattan surrounded by his architectural books, enjoying the light and warmth from the sun. Somewhere along the way, Stockdale acquired a kinship with the architect. He knows he was part of something special. “It was his dream to see…the finished project that he always wanted,” Stockdale says. “He was thrilled that he saw it done in his lifetime, to know that it will go on.”

Designed from the drafting rooms of Taliesin, the house evokes some of Wright’s style. But its essence is all Gill. Because the most important lesson Gill learned from Wright was: “Don’t be like me. Think like me. Follow my principles. Not my effects.” Stockdale says that he’s learned much about this style of architecture from Gill. In particular, he says, “he wanted you to feel like there was no barrier between outside and inside.”
When Gill’s wife, Betsy, broke her ankle last spring, she settled into the new home to avoid the staircases in their Sandwich home. She says, “Once I was here a week, I didn’t want to go home.” They still own the Sandwich carriage house they’ve lived in the last 30 odd years and Gill says they are between the two houses. However, it’s clear that the Chatham house is rapidly becoming home.

Gill looks around the home with satisfaction. Sitting in the living room, surrounded by light and trees, he says he completed his youthful vision. “I fulfilled it in a modest way. But,” he says, with satisfaction, “it’s a grand room.”