Labor of Love

At a waterfront home built on the grounds where the popular Mattaquason Hotel once stood, a homeowner and passionate gardener finds his “calling card.”

By Debra Lawless
Photography by Betty Wiley

On a sultry summer morning, Steve Goldman casts a critical eye over his garden beds. Every now and then, he leans over to pluck a stray weed, or a strawberry vine that has crept out of its plot.

“We’re limited to some extent in what we can and cannot do,” says Goldman, gazing at the bed in the center of the circular driveway where the harsh winter wind blowing off Chatham Harbor killed a pine tree. But like any good gardener, Goldman found something else to fill the spot—circles of white wax begonias, pink wax begonias and New Guinea impatiens surround fountain grass. “Each year, I change it a little bit,” he says.

The colorful gardens strike you as soon as you pull up to the stone driveway. Goldman is a keen gardener who haunts the local nurseries looking for anything new, anything that might keep his garden in bloom from the first daffodils of April to the last asters of the fall. “I just use my eye,” he says of his design method.

Because the property is more than an acre, you might not appreciate how many types of flowers and shrubs are tucked away here in front of the house. In various spots are geraniums, day lilies, echinacea, spring peonies, dahlias, roses, rhododendrons, big blue hydrangeas for cutting, hibiscus, asters, agapanthus, wild morning glories, hosta, alstroemeria and astilbe in purple and white. Ajuga, which grows low and has reddish leaves, is used as a ground cover. Set in among the gardens are low lights, tilted up. “At night, it gives a very dramatic view,” says Goldman.

Goldman initially designed the grounds with the help of Cape Cod landscape architect Phil Cheney. The gardens enhance the spacious shingle-style house Goldman and his wife, Sandra, built in 2005. By the time the Goldmans moved here in June 2007, the grounds were completely planted. In fact, the Goldmans held their daughter’s wedding here that August and have subsequently hosted functions for local nonprofit groups, such as the Creative Arts Center in Chatham.

Near the driveway, steps lead up into Goldman’s Asiatic lily garden with colors ranging from yellows to peaches. Tucked behind this garden is the nursery where he cultivates new plants to replace any that die. “I don’t like any blank spots,” he says.

No matter where he has lived, Goldman has gardened. Many years ago, Goldman lived in Chicago on the fourth floor of an old, gray stone walkup. “I hauled up 40-pound sacks, containers and boxes,” he recalls. On the apartment’s deck, he planted his colorful garden of pansies and annuals.

Later, living in Los Angeles, he had only a small, narrow patio. “We must have had 30 pots,” he says. There, he also tended fruit trees; his favorite was fig.

The Goldmans began visiting Chatham in 1981, and in 1999, when Sandra Goldman retired from TWA, the couple bought the Cyrus Kent House, an 1877 sea captain’s house which they ran as a bed and breakfast. When Goldman retired in 2003 as president of Paramount Pictures Distribution in Los Angeles, he found he had time for serious gardening. He says the gardens became the business’ “calling card” and added value to it; the Chatham Garden Club gave him an award for “best large-scale, overall landscaping” in 2003. But by 2005, the Goldmans realized that running a bed and breakfast did not spell retirement, and the couple sold the property. His current garden is his first waterfront garden.

Up on this low rise by the lilies, one can sit in an Adirondack chair and admire the view of the water, which from here is just a tease in the distance. But when you walk around to the back of the house, where the lush lawn rolls dramatically to the seawall, you realize you are standing in one of the most beautiful spots in Chatham.

Here, just north of Chatham Light, the land jogs out a bit into Chatham Harbor, offering a panoramic view over the water looking toward North Beach Island. Fishing boats pass on their way to and from the Chatham Fish Pier, just up the coast. On cloudy days, the stacked white billows add drama to the big blue sky over the lawn and water. And at low tide, you can hear the keening of seals hauled out on North Beach Island. “It’s one of the unique views in Chatham,” Goldman says.

It is no accident, then, that this was once the location of the popular Mattaquason Hotel, built in 1898 and named for the sachem who sold the land that is now Chatham to settler William Nickerson. An advertisement in the 1920 Automobile Green Book described the hotel’s location as the “ragged elbow” of Cape Cod, “right on the ocean front.” Old photographs show ladies seated on the veranda, admiring the view. A hotelier named Frederick Wilkey bought the three-story hotel in 1907, and added outlying cottages to house 200 guests. By 1912, the hotel boasted “All seashore amusements.”

In 1956, after the hotel was closed and demolished, the land along the shore was subdivided. Goldman’s property is actually three contiguous lots where one of the cottages once stood.

A century ago, steps led from the hotel grounds down to the beach. But violent winter storms have punched holes through the barrier beaches, and the waters have changed. A sea wall, rather than a sandy beach, delineates the edge of the property. Between the sea wall and the lawn, Goldman has planted in one of the most challenging spots to cultivate. The town’s conservation commission provided a list of the plants that will thrive in the biting wind off the water, and here we see gaura, roses and grasses in a lovely, subtle garden that does not compete with the view.

Set in the sweeping lawn by the house is a patio with a dining table and built-in grill. Goldman says he is happy when he is tending the barbecue, a glass of wine at hand, and, at the same time, deadheading the flowers planted there in pots and urns.