Style and Sustainability on Cape Cod

May 10, 2017

Charming to begin with, a remodeled Cape Cod house is now a standout both for its good looks and its sensitivity to the precious waterfront land on which it sits.

Text by Megan Fulweiler    Photography by Nat Rea     Produced by Karin Lidbeck Brent


A photographer searching for a worthy subject couldn’t do better than Cotuit, Massachusetts. Gorgeous year round, the area reaches perfection in summer when dozens of boats take sail. Perched along the shore, this quintessential New England home has claimed ringside water views since 1915.

The current owners purchased the charming property as a family getaway decades ago. But with their sons grown and the house faltering from years of seaside weather, they recently decided to undertake a robust renovation. More square footage and functionality were gained, but the structure’s character also emerged beautifully intact. The secret to this successful outcome? The owners’ level of engagement and the caliber of the professionals involved.

Boston-based interior designer Helen Higgins, who has worked with the couple on numerous projects and is a longtime friend, spearheaded the happy makeover. It was her suggestion to enlist Judge Skelton Smith Architects, also headquartered in Boston.

Known for their respectful handling of aging houses, principals James Skelton and Stephen Judge were ideal picks. And equally fortuitous was the recruitment of Jim McClutchy of Performance Building Company. His enthusiasm swept over everyone like an ocean breeze. “The owners had this strong vision of what they wanted, and they couldn’t have put together a better team,” McClutchy says.

Still, it was a tricky balancing act. Of paramount importance to the wife, a dedicated environmentalist, and her businessman husband was that while history was being preserved, the surrounding fragile ecosystem also be safeguarded. “The Cape should be treated like a national park,” the wife insists.

Thus, the rejuvenated house now includes a host of state-of-the-art green features, from geothermal heating and solar thermal panels (for hot water and electricity) to composting toilets. Skelton welcomed the opportunity to incorporate sustainable components. “It proves it can be done in such a way as to be non–jolting,” he says.

Indeed, there’s little visible evidence of how ecologically friendly the handsome building is. Preserving the existing frame, the architects cleverly extended the two-story colonial’s roofline and created a saltbox-style front with dormers. The extension accommodates the kitchen, while new wings contain the master suite and family room. “We kept the scale the same, but there’s not an inch we didn’t touch,” Judge explains. Original exterior details such as cornerstones and dentil moldings were replicated. And handsome interior elements—the hefty kitchen beams are standouts—were maintained.

Traditional Yankee flowers like climbing roses and leggy hollyhocks blooming alongside the new porte-cochère make that addition look like it’s been here forever, too. Amid the bountiful array of plantings grow hollies, espaliered fruit trees, and boxwoods, all doing their part to soften the line between past and present. Higgins collaborated with the wife on the multi-layered gardens. And, wisely, the designer also used a rich blend for the decor, creating timeless, eminently comfortable rooms. “These clients travel a lot,” Higgins says. “They love Americana, but they also have a European sensibility. They didn’t want a trophy house.”

Antique pieces add character throughout the house. Consider the venerable rooster weathervane sitting atop a lovely eighteenth-century occasional table in the family room, or the hand-painted and decoupaged eighteenth-century Scandinavian armoire in the master bedroom.

A well-mannered palette holds everything together. Walls are pale, keeping the rooms bright, while trim often sports a deeper, though still neutral, tone. The entry’s trim and the new staircase, for example, are washed, rather than painted, in an appealing Farrow & Ball shade called Pigeon. The family room trim sports a misty-morning-gray hue.

In the great room, a stash of pretty Delftware displayed in an antique hutch provides a cheery note. The simple, thoughtfully edited kitchen merges with a dining area that holds an antique Swedish trestle table and a cozy fireside seating area. “This is where the husband frequently reads, while the wife cooks,” says Higgins.

A Belgian bluestone floor, exposed honey-hued beams, and hand-embroidered curtains make the space both homey and elegant. No blatant watch-me TV here. Instead, the television above the mantel is discreetly concealed behind a high-resolution photo of a favorite seascape from the owner’s collection. An adjacent pantry boosts storage and entertaining—the last a frequent occurrence at this popular retreat.

Always ready for company, the family room exudes the same welcoming vibe. Higgins reconfigured the homeowners’ sectional to fashion the sofa that teams with a coffee table of iron and glass from Formations. The handy wall cabinets are fronted with chicken wire and fabric, so there’s never a worry if books and paraphernalia stored inside grow a tad messy. And there’s a chunky Stark carpet warming the cherry floor.

It’s all very organic and soothing until you peek into the powder room, where a de Gournay fish-patterned wallpaper couldn’t be more of a fun surprise. Urban Archaeology fixtures and sconces also go a long way in enlivening the small space without producing a feeling of excess.

But then, excess is hardly a word that comes to mind anywhere in this house. Higgins has ensured that even the bedrooms have a genteel, dressed-down attitude that fits with the whole reason for having a getaway in the first place. No extra fuss is necessary when you sleep, as the owners do, in a custom-finished canopy bed and your bath has a stellar fish-themed mosaic floor.

Guests are provided with similar serene nests. At the top of the stairs, one such haven features Rose Cumming curtains and a feminine pastel rug (both heirlooms from the wife’s mother) along with a fetching early nineteenth-century portrait. A freshly picked bouquet references the glorious outdoors so cherished by the owners.

Come to think of it, the home’s reduced environmental footprint might be considered a gift back to Mother Nature. And, thanks to the couple’s efforts, more such planet-saving projects could be in the works. It’s rumored that this high-style, low-impact house is inspiring the neighbors.

Architecture: Stephen Judge and James Skelton, Judge Skelton Smith Architects
Interior design: Helen Higgins, Helen P. Higgins Interiors
Builder: James McClutchy, Performance Building Company


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