An Antidote to City Life

A laid-back sanctuary, this East Chop house is the result of a creative collaboration that expresses the homeowner’s distinctive sense of style.

Sylvia Rhone’s professional life is in the cellar. Or, more accurately put, the woman who has been president of Motown Records and executive vice president of Universal Records since 2004 displays all the mementoes of her nearly four decades in the music industry in the basement sitting room of her East Chop summer house. There, the walls are covered practically floor to ceiling with gold records by artists such as Tracy Chapman, Salt-N-Pepa, and Third Eye Blind. She has Billboard “Top 40” lists with hits by her musicians in the number one slot. And there are framed newspaper articles about the woman who’s made it all happen.

“We’re not finished with the basement yet,” says caretaker and jack-of-all-trades Bruce Schaffner, who, in addition to working for Sylvia, does house renovations on the Island and deals in rare stamps and antiques from his home in West Tisbury. Together, Bruce and his wife, Sue Angeley (who also works at Heather Gardens and Morning Glory Farm), maintain Sylvia’s property inside and out. “Sylvia wants this to be a hangout place, so eventually, we’ll panel the walls, make it feel a little warmer,” he says.

“We’re not finished yet” is a phrase that both Sylvia and Bruce would apply not just to the basement, but to the entire house and the several acres that surround it. “A house is always a work in progress,” says Sylvia. “Tell Bruce I said that. He’ll laugh.” (When told, he laughs.)

“I inherited Bruce with the house when I bought it fifteen years ago,” says Sylvia. “The house and the property have evolved tremendously since then. I see it as a creative canvas for me, and Bruce is my partner: He makes my ideas come to life.”

“It’s constant,” says Bruce with a smile. “Every time I turn around, she has a new idea or plan. She told you I’m always challenging her? Actually, it’s the other way around. She comes up with the ideas, and then we have to make them workable.” Take, for example, the dense copse of bamboo that shields the property from its nearest neighbor. Sylvia wanted to find an aesthetically pleasing way to keep it from flopping over. “We tied it up with ropes,” says Bruce, “and then we painted the ropes the color of the bamboo. Even a simple job like that – it becomes an art project.”

Sculpting the landscape

One of the first things Sylvia did when she bought the house was to level the back forty, put in a koi pond, and create a gently rolling lawn dotted with huge boulders imported from Maine. The stones in the granite path from the driveway to the door also came from Maine. “It probably took four truckloads just for the walkway,” notes Bruce. “Those are huge rocks – some of them go down three feet deep. That walkway’s not going anywhere!”

Riotously colorful flower beds are everywhere – atop curving stone walls lining the driveway, along the granite walkway, against the house. A row of cryptomeria (a fast-growing evergreen tree) blocks the road from view, and the bamboo shields her from her neighbor. Just a mile or so from the center of Oak Bluffs, this property has an up-Island country feel in a down- Island setting. A hand-painted wooden sign by the main entrance to the house reads: “Just another day in Paradise.”

“What we’ve done to the landscape,” says Sylvia, “gives me a sense of isolation in a populated area. It’s very peaceful; I don’t feel anyone around me – I just hear the ripple of the water. I could be in Chilmark, but I like the fact that I’m not.”

The flower gardens – like everything else – are an ever-changing work in progress. One bed this year consists entirely of succulents; last year it was entirely silver. Most beds are arranged so that they bloom in phases, so something is always flowering throughout the season. They differ from typical Vineyard flower beds in that Sylvia is drawn to the unusual – plants with leaves that are red, or almost black, for example, and tropical plants like elephant’s-ear that have to be taken indoors for the winter. (Thank you, Bruce.)

Even the koi in her pond are unusual. “She’s got one that’s all black,” notes Bruce. “I’ve never seen one like that.” There are some two dozen koi of varying sizes and colors in the pond, which is about twelve feet in diameter and three feet deep. Bruce adds that the plants growing in the pond – lotus, waterlilies, Japanese water iris, cattails – all have to be placed on submerged rocks or else the water would be too deep for them. “I’m here every day of the year for at least a couple of hours to care for the plants and the fish,” says Bruce. “Fish get sick sometimes. Then you have to give them all antibiotics.”

Sylvia walks her property with an eye always open to change. The dahlias, she notes, have nice flowers but leaves prone to browning and drooping; next year they’ll be moved to the back of the bed, with lower-growing plants in front of them to shield the undesirable leaves from view. And the grasses that are currently at the back of the bed will be moved to a spot near the road.

“I look for unique plants,” says Sylvia. “I go to the nursery and make my selections based on what my eye is drawn to. I do everything based on my eye and my gut – it always leads me to rarities, not just in the garden, but with furniture, clothes, music, everything.”

Primitive meets high-tech

Only when you enter the house (after first obeying a second sign by the door reading “Remove thy shoes”) and climb the stairs to its rounded sitting room, do you get a precise sense of where you are. The room’s wraparound windows afford nearly 180-degree views of Nantucket Sound.

“It was love at first sight,” says Sylvia of the moment she first saw her house. “I saw the potential the house had for me, inside and out. It was new – less than ten years old – a sturdy house with strong, well-done innards. When you’re up here on the Chop, you need a strong house.”

Structurally, she has changed little in the house. In her bedroom, she made a huge window in what was a solid wall facing the water. Downstairs, she added purple glass pocket doors between the dining room and sun room. But where she’s really made her mark on the house is in its decorating – with the aid of New York’s Clodagh Design, which had worked on her Manhattan home.

The dominant theme in the house’s décor is the juxtaposition of the primitive and earthy with the ultra-contemporary. Geometric brushed-steel end tables are topped with African masks and carved wooden bowls. Minimalist sofas are softened with pillows fashioned from old kilim rugs. The walls throughout the house are made of hand-spread tinted plaster with a textured, natural feel. In the living room – a room of earth tones – the walls are sandy brown, embedded with strips of beach grass collected nearby.

“It’s supposed to look like a mud hut in Africa,” explains Bruce. “But see how the metal strips of lathing are exposed at the edges of the walls? It’s a high-tech look mixed with the primitive.”

It is also, he notes, a bear to repair. After a water leak through a window spoiled the wall below, Bruce spent hours approximating the plaster color until he got it right, and then glued strips of dried beach grass on top. “You have to put that on last,” he says, “or else it absorbs the color.”

If the color of the living room is subtle, it is not so elsewhere in the house. The downstairs bathroom is purple, the kitchen deep blue. Two bedrooms upstairs are canary yellow and a screaming bright red. Sylvia’s bedroom, on the other hand, is the color of cream. A long, hand-carved wooden bench against one wall is covered in stuffed animals – all of them in shades of brown, gray, and white.

“My parents,” says Sylvia without missing a beat, “both had exquisite taste. I inherited it from them.” A school teacher and a lawyer, her parents were friendly with many of the most important African American artists of their time, such as Romare Bearden and Duke Ellington. “I was exposed to a myriad of art and culture,” says Sylvia. Clearly, she internalized it, and it shows in her own creativity around her house and gardens.

“I change the decorative elements in the house every year,” she explains. “I switch things around, and everything looks brand new.”

“It’s always something new,” says Bruce. “One year, I took all the nails out of the wooden floors and replaced them with wood pegs. Recently, she had me build a cedar closet in the basement for her shoes.” (There are perhaps seventy-five pairs of shoes in this closet. “Oh, those are just the downstairs shoes,” says Bruce.)

“Next, we’re going to redo the cork floor in the kitchen, because the tiles are buckling. I never know what I’m going to be doing here.”

A relaxing sanctuary, indoors and out

“My New York apartment is much more modern,” says Sylvia, “clean lines, less funky, more minimal. I have a lot of little knickknacky things here, but not in New York.” There are several statues of Buddha around the gardens, for example. “I put all my little saints and Buddhas around for protection,” Sylvia explains.

“I like to create outdoor living spaces,” she adds, noting that on her expansive porch, there is a living room, a dining room, and even a daybed. “I try to absorb as much of the daytime outside as I can. I’m up at sunrise. I find it very therapeutic to work in the garden. I’m often at the beach with a group of friends. We swim, sometimes we barbecue. I like to cook when I’m here; I’m too busy in New York to cook. This place gives me the chance to do what I can’t do at home.”

Her Vineyard life, Sylvia says, is an antidote to her busy life in the city – which may explain why she keeps all of her work- related memorabilia in her cellar. She spends most summer weekends here, along with a couple of full weeks. “I like to eke out as much time here as possible,” she says. “I open the house in April – I like to get my garden together and bring in the plumbers and electricians before the crunch.” By Memorial Day, she notes with a hint of smugness, she’s sitting on her porch having lemonade, while everyone else is still working to get ready for summer.

When it’s time to go back to New York, she tries to look at it positively: “My time here has given me renewed energy for my life in the city. I always arrive on the Island with a smile on my face; as soon as the plane door opens, I’m breathing and relaxed.”