Taking Sides

A dedicated crew does a complete makeover of a uniquely-shaped landmark house on Chatham Harbor

Written and photographed by Roe Osborn

Ask most long-time Chatham residents about the oddshaped house across from Chatham Bars Inn, and they’ll say “Oh, you mean the Octagon House.” Built in the 1970s, this visual landmark commanded enviable views of scenic Chatham Harbor. Shaped more like an eight-pointed star than an octagon, the house sat under a hip roof with wide overhangs— not your typical Chatham Cape design.

But given its vulnerable location just a few yards from the water, the house was doomed almost from the start. Three decades of neglect and abuse took its toll on this whimsical structure. So when it came to remodeling the house, the best strategy was to start from scratch.

Foundation was the best part
This time around, the house had a major ally in Gable Building Corp., no stranger to building homes in the harsh coastal environment of Chatham. Mike Berg, the project manager, says that the original house was never really finished.

Beams cantilevered from the structure as if decks had been intended but never built. “The house was more like a camp, with plywood floors and only minimal insulation,” says Berg.

Demolishing the old place was not a difficult task. When the structure of the house was removed, the remaining foundation was found to be FEMA compliant, a big plus considering that the house had to be rebuilt within the original footprint. The walls supporting the uphill side of the house were repoured, and the Gable crew sawed a ledge in the lower concrete walls to support the stone veneer for ground floor walls. The crew built 2×8 walls for the ground floor to provide solid support of the structure above. The stone covered framed walls for the exterior finish.

IMG_2316ADealing with angles
The Octagon House is a study of angles. But instead of a true eight-sided building, the house is actually a rectangle with triangular bumpouts on the ends and an angled bay on the water side of the house. The corners of the house between the bumpouts and the bay are the same length, making the corners seem like additional facets of the star shape. Inside, all those angled walls offer multiple views for a panorama effect.

For the building crew the angles were both a challenge and a source of craftsmanship pride. On the outside of the house, the walls above the first floor flare out with corbelled overhangs to break up the façade. The white cedar sidewall shingles not only had to weave at the corners, but had to follow the
curve of the flare as well.

The ground floor boasts custom arch-top windows. The curved shape adds visual lift while the masons topped each window with a keystone arch to complete the visual effect. The building crew had to fabricate and custom fit all the curved molding—both inside and out—for each window.

Curved stairs join the three floors
The arrangement of the home’s three floors is slightly counterintuitive. The public spaces are on the ground floor where you look out at eye level through the dune grass to Chatham Harbor. On that floor, the side of the house that faces the views is wide open, starting with a dining area in the northeast corner. In the middle of the house, a living room area spills into the angled bay, and a small gaming table nestles into the southeast corner. The Gable crew built a dramatic deeply-coffered ceiling
to tie the areas together.

The first floor of the house, where you enter from the street, boasts two bedrooms with elevated views of Chatham Harbor. The top floor is a master suite with spacious his-and-hers bathrooms. The bed in the master bedroom is centered below an eyebrow dormer with a crows nest view of Chatham Harbor and the ocean beyond.

The three floors are united by a circular staircase built by Cooper Stairworks of nearby Somerset Ma. The oval space created by the stairs provides an uninterrupted sight line through three floors. But the walls around the stairs are faceted like part of an octagon (a real one this time!). So trimming the stairs was a puzzle as the skirt boards and trim follow the walls above the treads and risers.

IMG_7388AA new improved lid
Instead of a simple rectangular hip roof, the corners of the new roof are clipped to create a true octagonal shape. Like the old roof, the new roof has deep overhangs, but the angled corners lighten the visual weight of the roof and emphasize the wall shapes below. To add further interest to the roof, an eyebrow dormer sits over the bumpout bay on the east side of the house.

Below the roof, the cathedral ceilings presented additional challenges to the crew and the master bedroom ceiling was a particular head scratcher. “The ceiling begins below the eyebrow, then follows the slant of the roof before blending into a larger curved shape over the rest of the room. The trick was getting the shapes to blend in a flawless canopy above the bedroom,” says Berg.

To keep the house within height restrictions while having high ceilings inside, the outside walls had to drop below full height in places. Those lowered ceiling planes meant extra work for the Gable’s finish carpenters as they followed each change of the ceiling planes perfectly.

To add interest to exterior, the bumpouts on the ends of the house are clipped to form bays in the second floor master bathrooms. In the “hers bath” a large freestanding soaking tub sits in the bay, while a beadboard cathedral ceiling angles upward. On “his” side, the tub with a white marble deck is built into a framed off bay to create a more intimate bathing experience with windows on three sides of the tub.

The front of the original house had an angled porch that projected out from the house. The new version turns that porch into an octagonal volume to create a covered entry below. Above the porch an entertainment room fits under the faceted hip roof.

When the name “Octagon House” comes up now, it no longer carries the picture of a rundown dilapidated structure. With the hard work of the dedicated crew, the house has become an attractive, architecturally correct home that will stand proudly on the shores of Chatham Harbor for decades to come.