Chatham homes on different waterways soak up the environs each in their own way
There’s a long, narrow lane leading through a patch of woods. Beyond this leafy bower, the vista opens up, first to the Oyster River, then to Harding’s Beach, and finally to the light-studded waters of Nantucket Sound. Once part of a larger property, this parcel now hosts a main house and on its edge a guest house, reconfigured and renovated by Chatham designer Mark Zibrat. The homeowners, originally from Massachusetts, reside primarily in California, but have had a decades-long relationship with Chatham. Though they once owned a house right off Main Street, they always wanted to be on the water.
In the planning stages, the challenge was to maximize the views while working within a tight footprint, where the guest house took up a lot of the allowed coverage. In such restrained situations, Zibrat often turns to gambrel-style houses for inspiration. “What makes this design desirable is the efficiency of the space, especially as the town places limits on that,” he says. “With a gambrel, you can go up and down.”
While the gambrel’s design is from the1800s, its translation in this case answers to twenty-first century lifestyles. Built to accommodate the four members of the immediate family as well as a large extended family, the open plan of the first floor, with its dining, living, kitchen, and breakfast areas, allows for easy mingling, and the four bedrooms in the main house—including one set up as a bunk-style room with four beds—and two in the guest house mean many sleepovers.
The house is all about comfort. Overstuffed chairs, intimate seating areas, and a primary palette of creams, yellows, and Nantucket reds all encourage sinking in and relaxing. While the couple cherishes their wood details—maple floors and finely trimmed doors, windows, crown moldings, and coffered ceilings, all finished by the home’s builder Steven Nickerson—they like their spaces uncluttered. “We are not junk collectors,” the wife says. “We come from a big family and wanted to have a casual feeling.”
At dinner time, those lounging in the living room can watch the parade of boats chugging their way along Oyster River to the open water while remaining within chatting range of those mulling around the long kitchen island. Its surface is a mesmerizing granite called Verde Aphrodite, an appropriate choice given the goddess’s birth from the foam of the sea, and a perfect color complement to the marsh and river scenes just outside. Working with Chatham kitchen designer Joanne Pratt, the homeowners chose buttery yellow cabinets for this house, the wife feeling that ever-popular cherry would be too heavy for this setting by the sea.
When dinner is over, the gang either heads to the finished basement to play pool in the sports room, appropriately outfitted with memorabilia, or settles into the media room to view a movie. If the mood is right, they may just grab a bottle of wine from the cellar and adjourn outside to the pool patio where they cluster in the cool moist fog, the outside chill warmed by a fire pit, called a “California thing,” by the wife. For a broader view of the sun setting over the town of Harwich, just across the water a bit, they might gather around a second fire pit, set up on the petite patio outside the guesthouse. With its cantilevered wall, the guesthouse from the inside feels like a ship, a sensation amplified when a fishing boat drifts by in front of the windows.
The framing of the views takes many forms in the main house. On the first floor, broad double-hung windows present the river, beach, and oceans scenes as a panorama. In the master bedroom, a porthole window encases a slice of the river, a spit of land, and Stage Harbor Lighthouse. When the homeowners bathe in their marble tub, they soak in yet a different angle of Oyster River. The deck off the master sitting room provides the perfect perch for sweeping in all aspects of their setting. Their two grown children’s rooms–the daughter’s decorated in spring greens and purples, the son’s nautical both in its color scheme and its compass rose—and the guest bedroom all enjoy their own versions of the water views. The study is the one room that does not face the water, but its warm cherry walls, rich colors, and fireplace make it a cozy retreat for the couple during their frequent winter visits. A picture of Harding’s Beach, one of many paintings in the house done by the wife’s brother, keeps the sea in sight.
On a different Chatham waterway sits another Mark Zibrat design. Though this, too, was based on the gambrel as well as shingle style, its embrace of the surrounding views is more wide-screened. Through large uninterrupted panes of glass, the homeowners observe the variety of activity enlivening Buck’s Creek. They may watch an osprey take flight from its nest across the way, snowy egrets and great blue herons stop for a snack when the water recedes, and swans float serenely through the reeds and marsh grass. On one occasion, recalling Aesop’s fable, the couple watched as a fox swam across the water. Once a cranberry bog, this mini wildlife refuge was created when, as has so often happened to Chatham, the sea broke through a barrier, and now regularly flushes this wetland with its incoming tide.
When this couple, who also owns a home outside Boston, dreamed of this house, they knew they wanted an unobstructed view as well a place set up for entertaining family and friends. “We weren’t here a week, and we had forty people over,” the wife proclaims. “It’s been a wonderful house for that.” The circularity of the first floor, with its living areas, kitchen, dining room, and connecting pantry, makes mingling easy and keeps a stream of views in focus. The high ceilings accentuate the sense of space, giving the rooms, the wife says, “a regal feeling.” If guests should spill out onto the ample porch, they face unencumbered the creek and Nantucket Sound in the distance. In determining the spacing of its columns, Zibrat sought both to give definition to the sprawling porch and to provide support without obstructing the views enjoyed from inside the house.
This generously proportioned home, designed by Zibrat in collaboration with contractor Jim Gable, sits on a site once occupied by a ranch. “This was a tear down,” Gable explains. “It was an older home, 1965ish, one floor, and the couple lived in it for a year or two with the intention that they would tear it down.” Certainly a ranch is in no position to capitalize on the natural pageantry witnessed from this site each day.
With its banks of windows, the new home acts as the perfect auditorium for watching the spectacle of birds and beasts of prey as well as the foul-weather clad fishermen who come to catch blue crabs and bands of kayakers, some of whom occasionally, misjudging the tides, get stranded on stage. “We have had to help people get to the other side,” the wife says. “It can get pretty shallow.”
Boaters themselves, the couple enjoys a family room whose design suggests the prow of a ship. In outfitting the home, the wife turned to local artists, businesses, and designers, including fabric designer Joan Peters, whose Cape Cod toile is found in a guest room. In decorating the interior the wife says she turned to the sea for her palette, choosing colors—yellows, Nantucket reds, and robin’s egg blues—that would “be calm enough not to overwhelm” the outside views to which the eye would naturally be drawn.
Eventually the couple plans on living in their seaside home year round and made certain selections with that in mind, including heated floors, gas fireplaces, a master bath steam shower, low maintenance stained exterior shingles, and a more formal finish to the interior—with its customized trim, ceilings, moldings, casings, and baseboards. “Materials are being designed for the way people are living today,” says Gable. “Clients don’t want to pick their architectural elements out of a catalogue.”
This couple’s custom choices are part of a larger trend, says Zibrat. “There have been dramatic changes in architecture. Clients [are] choosing larger windows, doors, fascia, and walls. Homes are becoming more grand. There is an upswing in the revival of traditional details,” he says. Zibrat credits better money flow along with the influence of Mid-Atlantic and Florida home designs for this growing preference. And while the quieter Capes have long proven their worth through the storms they have survived and the lives they kept cozy, these new kids on the shore sweep in their vistas and confront the spectacles of their sites with their own dramatic flourishes.