It was like stepping into an Andrew Wyeth painting.” That is how the owner of a Shelter Island vacation home describes the feeling of seeing the property for the first time. “My wife and I admired it for many years before purchasing it,” he adds. “We were attracted to the majestic landscape, ancient trees and southwesterly exposure.” Upon the property sat a stunning 19th-century manor house with a lookout tower, but the couple wanted to create something more personalized for their family, which includes four children. So, they turned to architect John David Rose, with whose work they were familiar. “We had been to the home of a friend designed by him and loved the style and architecture,” says the husband. “It was elegant and gracious without being oversized.”
The couple worked with Rose and general contractor Mark Himmelsbach to assess the integrity of the original structure—which had been added on to over the years— ultimately deciding to move the stable central core of it across the property to become a guesthouse while integrating the striking lookout tower into the new home. “Ideally, someone might ask, ‘Is that the same house that’s been there for over a hundred years?’ ” says the husband. Adds Rose: “The original section was built in 1873. It’s a national landmark. The goal was to go through and find the real old structure and preserve it.” The preservation of a national landmark, however, presents its own set of special challenges. “In this case, it was set on an Indian burial ground,” explains Rose. “We had to have the whole site tested and dug, and there were places that we weren’t allowed to touch.”
One of the owners’ biggest priorities was taking advantage of the waterfront location. “Every room in the house has a unique view of the water, save one or two,” says the husband. “A new surprise is revealed as you pass from one room to the next.” An open-plan vernacular on the first floor that allowed for the entire family to gather together was also an important aspect to the design. Interior designer Jesse Carrier was tasked with furthering this concept. “The goal was to make every room comfortable and welcoming,” says the husband, observing that even though he completely trusted Carrier, it was not until he saw the final result that he realized the brilliance of the designer’s choices. “Jesse’s color selections looked great when he showed them to us in the office. But, when seen in the context of the light and views from inside, they reveal a touch of artistic genius.”
With no doors closing off the spaces, Carrier decided that it was important that the entire design be cohesive, approaching it as one would approach a loft space. “It’s funny—upon first impression it seems like a very traditional shingle-style home,” he says. “But when you come inside, it’s much cleaner. This open plan is not what you would expect from the shell. It speaks to the clients’ wishes that they wanted a very easy lifestyle out here.” Embracing the family’s desire for a casual atmosphere, Carrier chose to use a mix of styles, unexpectedly combining such furnishings as a hyacinth-wrapped chair, a modern live-edge dining table, a velvet seat and a midcentury lacquered console. Because the couple’s daughters all play the piano, it was also important to bring in a piano that fit well with the laid-back vibe. “We didn’t want a big black shiny Steinway,” says Carrier. Instead, they found an antique piece that worked with the room.
Carrier also wanted to incorporate the family’s love for all water-related activities, but do so “without being corny,” he says. So, he added such touches as a buoy-like chandelier in the dining room, a shell-encrusted table and raffia-backed chairs, with shades of blue, green and sand permeating the entire house. The tower tops off this seaside charm—both literally and figuratively. Inside it, a spiral staircase leads to a ceiling hatch. “You go out there and pull back the hatch, and you go out on the walkway,” says Rose. “If you ever sailed, then that’s the view you’ve seen.”
With such stunning natural views, Edmund Hollander, the landscape architect who was brought on for the project, did not want to veer away from the indigenous aspects of the property. “Ed reminded me that we should let the trees and views speak for themselves,” says the husband. Adds Hollander: “This was not a property that needed a ‘landscape statement.’ Mother Nature had made that statement and it was our job to be respectful and deferential.” Taking into consideration the uniquely difficult Shelter Island combination of salt winds, low water and deer browsing, Hollander planted buddleias, vitex, American holly and bayberry—all of which are drought- and deer-tolerant. “Fortunately, all of the elements lend themselves to a cohesive landscape that accentuated the elegance of the rolling topography, great trees and scenic vistas of bays and wetlands,” he says.
Ultimately, the design team fulfilled the owners’ vision of a place where every aspect is well-used and enjoyed. Says the husband, “Stand in the middle of the house and pivot east to see a ferry channel, south to the sound, west for the sunset, and north for a glimpse of a 125-year-old copper beech tree.” As Rose explains, “It’s all about the views.”
— Shannon Sharpe