Inside an updated shingle-style house in Cape Porpoise, a family of four has created a space filled with eye-catching art, hardworking appliances, and hundreds of little personal touches.
Personal style is a tricky thing to develop, and it’s even harder to create a cohesive family style, one that meets the needs of all members and pleases each individual palate. Art that sends joy rippling through a 20-something painter may not excite her parents, and what furniture screams chic to a New Jersey grandmother might not exactly thrill her New York University–educated grandson. So perhaps Nicholas (the aforementioned grandson) got lucky; his family home in Cape Porpoise is the product of a healthy partnership. “That’s the best way to describe the process and dynamic of building this home,” he says. Not only did Nicholas, his parents, and his sister Caroline work closely with each other on most elements of the design-build (“A lot of decisions within the family were made by committee,” he says) but they also gave constant feedback and input to architect David Graham of Graham Architects and builder Geoff Bowley of Bowley Builders. “Each member of the family knew what they wanted out of the design,” says Graham. “It’s not a large house, but it feels large inside, and it has everything they need.”
The Cape Porpoise shingle-style structure is a retreat for this New Jersey family. It clocks in at 2,500 square feet; within that space, Graham created a thoughtful floor plan with plenty of open space for socializing and soaking in the ocean views (on the first floor) and lots of privacy for the two adult children (on the second floor). “Everyone had their strong ideas about what they wanted. Together with our architect and our builder, we allowed each other the freedom to experiment and created an end product that was unique and different,” says Nicholas. “From the exterior, the house clearly evokes the shingle-style. Once you’re inside, it’s not what you might expect.”
The exterior features large graceful gambrels on both the front and back, light gray cedar shingle siding, and black window trim—all classic elements of a New England beachside home. However, a traditional house built in the late 1800s (when shingle- style architecture hit its zenith) would have a series of formal rooms cordoned off, areas each with its own function. Instead, Graham designed an open living, dining, and kitchen area with vaulted ceilings and large windows oriented to optimize the ocean views. “We knew we wanted the open elements of the house to be on the water side,” Graham explains. “So we put the utilitarian components, like the stairs, on the west side.” The boiler and the inner mechanics of the house are tucked behind the gambrel on the front of the house. Since this design created a large blank exterior wall on the front, Graham added a decorative arbor for visual interest, plus a barrel-shaped entryway flanked by pyramid columns. “I love this house because it’s not your typical, bread- and-butter, white trim, bleached-shingles beach house,” says Bowley. “Plus, the way it sits on the lot is gorgeous. It’s tucked away on this marsh inlet, and if you didn’t know that house was there, you wouldn’t see it.” Although the owners decided to take down some of the trees in the backyard, they left enough foliage on the lot to ensure privacy. “We didn’t want the style of the home to call attention to itself,” Nicholas says. “When we were planning the landscape, we kept that in mind. We lightly developed the landscape with strategic plantings of trees and horticultural elements that will mature over time and compliment the house.” They worked with Tony Elliott from Snug Harbor Farm in Kennebunk to add additional greenery to the space. Since Nicholas’s mother enjoys gardening (she’s currently working to expose some of the natural bedrock and replant it with hearty low-lying plants like thyme), she asked Graham to add a potting area with a large soapstone bench and sink to the side entryway/mudroom.
The black soapstone repeats in the kitchen, where Nicholas (an avid home chef ) created his perfect workspace. “The word we use often is ‘hardworking,’” he says. “I like things that are very functional, and to have a roomy space for professional-grade appliances is a treat.” He chose an all-white kitchen (“It’s classic!” he says) with Kenya black marble on the kitchen island, finished with a leatherette texture. Open shelving above the six-burner stove allows plenty of space for the family to display their collection of china plates and offbeat animal sculptures. “I call them our friends,” Nicholas jokes. “You’ll find animals all over this house.”
There’s a metal pig in the living room and a sculpture of two intertwined Herend ducks (a nod to the family’s Hungarian heritage) on the coffee table. In other rooms, I spot an inflatable moose head and a rattan dog. “A family retreat should be casual, and comfortable,” Nicholas says. While he tends to prefer a neutral color scheme, he likes how the various splashes of cobalt blue, emerald green, and flamenco pink add energy into the downstairs living-dining space. These colors also play well with the modernist forms of the Barcelona chairs and the oversized black leather George Nelson sling sofa. “We made deliberate design decisions with all of our furniture,” Nicholas says. “We knew we wanted track arms, because they’re cleanest and most transitional.”
Aside from “hardworking,” “transitional” is Nicholas’ favorite descriptor for the Cape Porpoise house style. The silk and wool rug that sits beneath the dining set is a clear example of a transitional textile (with forms borrowed from traditional Persian rugs rendered in bright, vivid, unexpected colors), as is the funky glass chandelier that hangs above the dining set. The dining set itself, however, is a different story.
“Countless Thanksgiving meals and other celebrations have been spent around this table,” Nicholas says fondly. It’s a stately mahogany dining table complete with Chippendale-style chairs topped with leather cushions. Nicholas draws my attention to their cracked and worn seats. “This,” he says, “speaks to the genius of my grandmother, Nanny. She was a great hostess, and to cover these classical, fine chairs with leather isn’t something that would have occurred to most people in the 1970s when the chairs were purchased.” But she took a piece of sturdily built furniture, an heirloom intended for a lifetime of use, and put her own spin on it. She made it less fussy, more tactile and comfortable. “Nanny’s approach was very similar to the whole design process here,” he says. “Taking classic shapes and making them unique, personalized, and something that will last for decades.” As the family matures, Nicholas has no doubt that their part-time home will stand the test of time. He also knows that it will remain a happy and special place for him, Caroline, and his parents. “We are diverse in our views and our passions, but we agree on one thing for sure: this spot is worth the visit. Eventually it will be where my folks retire,” he says. (A three-car garage and mother-daughter space above is in the planning stage). “I think anyone who visits can see the charm of this location. It’s heaven on earth.” With the moody coast of Maine just steps away, it’s hard to disagree with that assessment.