Dramatic License

September 23, 2011

Text by Lisa E. Harrison    Photography by Brian Vanden Brink


Realtors live and die by three words: location, location, location. In the case of this Martha’s Vineyard house, about twenty-five yards made all the difference. Confronted with an existing structure on the eastern edge of the property, and owners eager to rehab and add on, architect Peter Breese of Vineyard-based Breese Architects, floated a bold plan.

After walking much of the three-acre lot in the heart of Mink Meadows, a Vineyard Haven community coveted for its proximity to a secluded north shore beach and semi-private nine-hole golf course, Breese tossed out the idea of starting fresh. Sure, the tired A-frame could be salvaged. But, intent on maximizing views and creating balance, the architect had fallen for an alternate angle. “I could see stronger water views from the center of the property,” says Breese. “It was covered with trees, but we could create clearings.”

Owners Amy and Peter Wagner were easily swayed. After all, it was the view—two ponds, the ocean beyond, ferries shuttling through the sound, Cape Cod off in the distance—that initially hooked Amy. The couple, whose primary home is in California’s Silicon Valley, are East Coasters at heart. “We really wanted our three boys to experience what we did thirty years ago,” says Amy. “It’s an old-fashioned place—the kids jump off the dock, there are no stoplights.”

The previous owners also had three boys, now grown and parting with their childhood summer home. It was, in essence, a serendipitous passing of the torch.

Under a tight deadline, Breese and his talented team set to work: the 6,000-square-foot house would be finished and furnished in fourteen months, just in time for the boys—Jackson, Ben and Christian—to welcome summer with a plunge in the pool. A predominantly single-story structure (the guest quarters float above the garage), the four-bedroom house is spread out to capture water views, covering 240 feet from garage to master suite. An angled crossing wing that holds the dining room, kitchen and living room adds visual interest and cleverly masks the perception of length. The bedrooms line up along the east-west axis and catch water views to the north.

With twelve exterior doors, ranging in width from three to sixteen feet, barriers between inside and out magically dissolve. “You feel like you’re in this amazing nature preserve,” says Amy. “We wanted this whole beautiful scene outside to be accessible to us in the house.”

A large screened porch off the kitchen and dining room, a deck off the master suite and a cocktail-hour-ready terrace that wraps the pool area afford the family ample opportunity to bask in the great outdoors.

Form meets function beautifully in the lengthy connector that ties the garage to the main house. Designed as a privacy screen for the pool area, it’s multifunctional: doors slide wide to reveal a wet bar, changing area and built-in benches. Wet feet are welcome on the floor of wood and a concrete composite mixed with sea glass and seashells. In a whimsical nod to the Wagners’ passion for sailing, an oversize outdoor shower is fashioned from red cedar and adorned with cleats that double as door pulls.

Though it was the mellow, sun-drenched summer vibe of the Vineyard that beckoned, “the house,” Amy admits, “is not low-key in any way.” Sweeping ceilings with modified scissor trusses—a structural necessity—lend order and balance. Subtly curved walls conjure the arc of a boat hull and create a softness that plays against the asymmetry of the windows. The house itself and all the rooms are organized along centerlines, Breese explains, which grounds the space and gives it a symmetrical steadying hand.

Breese and designer Liz Stiving-Nichols, who was at the time a consultant for Breese’s Interiors Studio Martha’s Vineyard, collaborated on the interior design. Amy had one directive: “We wanted it to look beautiful, but it had to be functional,” she says. “We’re really a family-focused family, down-to-earth people living in a cool space.”

Breese and Stiving-Nichols heard her and ran with it, crafting an aesthetic at once cool and comfortable. In the central living space, walls were banished, allowing the kitchen, dining area and living room to flow from one to the next for an open, airy effect and maximum water views. Custom countertops and furnishings delineate the rooms and provide visual pop. The counter that separates the dining room from the kitchen is a handy work/storage space for Amy, an avid cook; viewed from the dining room, it contains the ultimate dinner party conversation-starter: an abstract sculpture that mimics the floor plan of the house.

What Breese calls “precious elements”—a dining-room light fixture designed by a San Francisco artist, fossils embedded in the kitchen backsplash and the white quartz kitchen island top—blend with simple found objects, like the sign Breese unearthed at the Brimfield Antiques Show and converted into the dining table or the old lantern that sits on the range hood for a unique and charming effect.

All woodwork and ceilings, except the built-ins, are painted Winds Breath by Benjamin Moore, forming a pale, but warm backdrop for the cabinetry and furnishings. Breese designed the more intricate pieces to suit the surroundings. The master suite, for example, features a custom closet and dresser in one, a headboard with a clever cutout that lets the bed float in a central location and shelving that hugs the curve of the wall. In keeping with the loose maritime theme, the architect enlisted a former boatbuilder to execute his designs. “There’s decoration and there’s architecture,” he says. “The built-ins
are both architecture and design. They tie everything together.”

Remarkably, the homeowners didn’t see just how perfectly everything came together until the project was complete. Though the Wagners were on hand for the laying of the foundation, they didn’t visit the island again until the house was move-in ready. Amy (who happily describes herself as “very opinionated”) stayed connected via remote meetings, and boxes brimming with samples arrived daily at their West Coast home. Still, there’s no substitute for seeing it in person—a finished, furnished summer retreat. Her verdict: “It’s an amazing place.”

Project Team 
Architecture: Peter Breese, Breese Architects
Interior design: Interiors Studio Martha’s Vineyard and Liz Stiving-Nichols, Martha’s Vineyard Furniture Company
Builder: Baumhofer Builders
Millwork: South Shore Millwork
Landscape design: Breese Architects and Carly Look Design

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