Meditations on a Trophy House

A lifelong resident of Chappaquiddick watched a big, new house rise up where scrub and trees once grew. At first glance, it looked like just another out-of-place manor imposing itself on the wilderness. Then she met the family who owned it.

When my husband and I added on to our house, we nearly doubled its size, and at first, it felt so big that we joked about our new trophy house. Since the addition put the whole place at about 2,000 square feet, by Vineyard standards it probably qualifies as a trophy house for leprechauns.

The term “trophy house” is a rather uncomplimentary description you hear frequently on the Vineyard these days, and I must say that I use it quite a bit myself. From a small, informal survey, I’ve found that, as might be expected, the term doesn’t have an exact definition. Size is the factor mentioned most, but no one can give you a minimum square footage. Other factors: the degree to which siting, design, and landscaping make the house stand out. A lot of it seems to have to do with whether we like the way a house looks or not.

Before I met Larry and Beth Simms, toured their house, and heard its story, I thought of their place as just one of the big, new houses (okay – trophy houses) that had gone up along a stretch of the road that, until recently, had simply been the woods I’d passed by my whole life on the way to Wasque. Actually, I’d never even thought about that stretch of land until it was cleared and built on. As a feature on the landscape, scrub oak makes places seem to disappear – until the scrub oak itself disappears and a house comes into view. I never thought about the views of Poucha Pond, East Beach, and the ocean that were hidden behind those trees. Even though I didn’t like to see a new house built there, some part of me did appreciate the new vista.        

From the very start of our acquaintance, the Simmses’ house, and Larry and Beth themselves, challenged my prejudices. I liked the house immediately; I liked its feeling of quiet emptiness, its purposeful sense of space, and the details that defined it, and I found Larry and Beth to be generous, unassuming people.  

The fact that they ended up with a house of 6,500 square feet, not including garage and porch, is only one part of the picture: the part we see driving by.
The gestation of the house – its design, construction, and habitation – requires deeper investigation to appreciate the whole of it.         

The Simmses are from Great Falls, Virginia, where Beth is a medical oncologist and Larry a retired lawyer turned teacher. They were renters for thirty years before they started looking for a house of their own. When this unbuilt land came up for sale, designer and builder Alexis Moser of Lancaster, New Hampshire, had to climb to the top of a tree to see the potential of the location.

Alexis was an old high school friend of Larry’s, and he had renovated and expanded the log cabin where the Simmses live in Virginia. From the very beginning, Larry and Beth pretty much put the project into his hands. They wanted the house to be a gathering place for friends and family, and to include four bedrooms with private baths.

For the overall concept, Alexis had in mind an old fishing camp he had visited in which the guest quarters opened onto a central great room. In the Simms house, four intersecting wings are offset so that where the roof ridges intersect, an eight-by-twelve-foot skylight gives light to the great room or atrium below, onto which the other rooms open. Off the atrium on the first floor are the kitchen, living room, and master-bedroom suite. At second floor level, a balcony along three sides gives access to the upstairs bedrooms and the second floor sleeping porch.

The intent of the design was to harmonize with the land and the community, despite its large size. Alexis writes in an account of the conception of the house: “Mitigating the obviousness of the large scale of the house was a priority. Moving it down the slope [from the road] diminished its verticality, as do the several low eaves of the extended hip roof. Furthermore, the plan layout prohibits seeing the entire house from any one perspective: one can only ever see three wings at once, and, from most directions, only two.”

My prejudice is to think that someone who builds a very large house on Chappy, no matter how many wings you can see at once, isn’t very much in tune with the feeling of this place. That may or may not be true – it could be me who is not in tune with the times, because many large houses are being built here and elsewhere. Larry Simms says, “If it hadn’t been for Alexis, we probably would not have chosen to have this big a house. Most of the goals were his, and we went along with that.” But he adds, “It’s been a dialogue, working with Alexis.” Beth says, “This is not a cozy house and I need small spaces. At first I didn’t like it, but now I love the space.” Wainscoting helps to reduce the scale inside, and the Simmses experiment with small clusters of furniture to create more intimate settings as they work on furnishing the house.

Larry and Beth tell me that they love Chappy and that they made accommodations for their house to fit in. “We wanted to make it as much a Chappy house as we could possibly make it,” Larry tells me. “We spent the day driving around Chappy and getting details from other houses.” Beth adds, “We wanted natural materials that would blend with the surroundings, and the only color we used outside was green.”

For me, the thing that makes the house fit in the most is its August lawn: dry, weedy, and full of crabgrass, with patches of cosmos and black-eyed
Susans that have seeded themselves. I think a true Vineyard lawn is one that’s nearly all brown by the end of a summer as dry as the one just past. I ask Larry and Beth who does their gardening and Larry says, “We do – us chickens. When people ask, ‘Who’s your house cleaner?’ I say, ‘You’re looking
at him.’” They’re both bent over pulling up weeds as we talk.

This kind of thing endears both of them to me. Besides the Vineyard-style lawn, you see birch and Japanese maples, ferns, irises, hostas, and some native bushes growing around the home and on the berms created by stone walls along the hillside. All of the stonework, including the fireplace that is visible the full height of the atrium, was done by Tibetan stonemason Sonam Lama and his helpers from the town of Greenfield. Down the slope beside the house is a pond terrace: a winding, man-made stream leads to a flat-rock patio with a small pond featuring water lilies and a lotus plant, of which Larry is especially fond.

Beth tells me, “Larry has been fascinated by China since he was a boy. He’s fascinated with the exotic, especially Asian.” The lotus, a sacred flower in the Hindu religion, was chosen as an organizing principle for the details and colors of the atrium. The sixteen ceiling planes that radiate from the skylight in a geometric pattern have been painted to imitate the lotus petal by blending colors from pale rose at the bottom to pure white at the top.

This was accomplished by Richard Conover of West Tisbury, who, “having just completed a 10,000-square-foot interior in a single shade of white, considered the use of subtle shades a ‘bold’ notion,” according to Alexis, who added that when he first approached Richard with the preliminary palette for the house, Richard told him that he could find all those colors in a clamshell. Larry says, “Richard was superb. He’s a fabulous painter and he and Alexis made this place.” The subtle greens, pinks, and blues of the walls contrast with the strip of mauve wall above a high mahogany shelf, which runs the whole way around the atrium and the living room and substitutes for the trim above doors and windows. This perimeter shelf creates an indoor horizon, meant to echo the line between sea and sky, a view seen from every room in the house.

The subtlety of Eastern influence explodes into efflorescence in Larry’s future office. Walking into the room is like entering a full-color, living Tibetan shrine. We pass through tall double doors with large circular brass handles, embellished by dragons and birds. A row of small dog statues, with mouths open and teeth bared, guard the room from a line of cubbies above the door. Exotic scenes of brightly painted elephants, birds, dragons, people, and flowers cover every inch of wall and ceiling. Thu Top, a Tibetan Buddhist monk, also from western Massachusetts, did all the painting. The office furniture, which consists of a large, ornately carved and painted table and chair, was made to order in Lhasa. Larry tells me it was “kind of a surprise.” Beth adds, “I wasn’t expecting a throne!” Larry and Beth are both Congregationalists, but Larry says, “I like the colors and concept of the coming alive of anybody’s religion.”

Aside from the Tibetan room, which is its own little world, the two-story atrium is the most unusual and amazing room in the house. It’s the centerpiece of the house, its heart and crown jewel. The atrium embraces two major themes of the house: symmetry, as seen in the pattern of the heartwood yellow-pine floors, as well as the sconces, railings, and ivy planters at the four corners of the balcony; and asymmetry, in the sense of off-centeredness that breaks up the regularity inherent in rectangular construction. The way the wings of the house are offset doesn’t allow interior features such as the chimney and the furnishings to look centered in a room, but there is enough space and balance in detail that the eye can rest peacefully wherever one looks. The way the rooms connect creates sightlines through the house from one end to the other, and out to sea.   

On the first floor, the atrium is dominated by a long, dark, heavy dining table surrounded by chairs fit for King Arthur’s last supper. A bold, bronze-on-steel chandelier hangs fourteen feet from a specially designed chain attached to sculpted vines set into the skylight. Barney Zeitz, a Vineyard stained glass and metal artist from Vineyard Haven, created this piece, as well as the sconces on the balcony walls, and the candelabras and fusion-cast glass centerpiece on the table.

The house came along at a time when Larry was recovering from a major accident, and between them, he and Beth lost three elders during construction. Dealing with Alexis about the design and building of the house became a part of their healing. Alexis was on-site for much of the construction, and he, his sons, and the Simmses’ son built the frame and enclosed the house one summer. Alexis writes, “Excluding my own, the combined carpentry experience of the crew was a grand total of about six months.”

Terry Donahue of Edgartown was engaged as the general contractor, and Island tradesmen did the shingling, plumbing, and electrical work. Alexis then returned for four months of finish carpentry and flooring. Larry says, “Alexis was here constantly. He would come up with an idea for the next day. He came up with the idea of doing something at the top of the atrium skylight, and I came up with the idea of putting in a piece of cut glass that creates rainbows. It was a collective thing. If you were an architect in Boston, you wouldn’t think of these ideas. We had the benefit of having both designer and builder here.”

The day I visited the Simmses, the lotus bud in the pond was about to open, and I was sorry not to see the full blossom. Larry told me that it lasts only one day before starting to lose its petals. The next day, I received a phone call from Larry saying that the lotus bud was open if I wanted to stop by and see it. I did, and took another look around their place. These days when I drive by the Simmses’ house, I feel differently about it than before I met them. I guess I still do have reservations about the size of it, but not about the people. After my one visit with the Simmses, I felt comfortable enough to ask Larry the rather presumptuous question: Would he consider his house a trophy house? “Not at all,” he told me. “We like to share it with people but we’re not interested in showing it off.”