Leaps of Faith

Searching for the best place to one day spend their retirements, theologians Emilie Townes and Laurel Schneider took a chance on Oak Bluffs.

From their home overlooking Farm Pond in Oak Bluffs, Emilie Townes and Laurel Schneider have a water view that stretches to the eastern horizon, interrupted only by the ribbon of road running along State Beach between the pond and Nantucket Sound.

The couple are both theologians at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, where Townes was until 2023 the dean of the Divinity School and Schneider is a tenured professor in the religious studies department. They bought the two-story cottage in 2016 from Island photographer Alison Shaw and her wife and business partner, Sue Dawson, who had owned it for close to thirty years and raised their family there.

For Townes, the purchase was an act of blind faith and trust: the first time she saw the house was on the day they closed the sale.

“That’s love,” said Schneider, who had found the property on a flying visit to the Vineyard during the college term.

Academics Emilie Townes (left) and Laurel Schneider (right) spend summer breaks and sabbaticals in their cozy home with their dog, Winnie, on Farm Pond in Oak Bluffs.
Randi Baird

Townes recalls the video Schneider sent of her first look at the house.

“In every room, Laurel’s going, ‘Oh, wow. Oh, wow.’ And, ‘Well, I think we found our house,’” Townes said.

“And then she got to upstairs and walked out on the balcony and it was the biggest ‘Oh, wow.’ And I thought, ‘Yeah, we’re probably gonna have to buy this place. I hope we can swing it.’”

The price was higher than Townes and Schneider’s target range, but the century-plus-old house was everything they were looking for – and more, in ways they’d never imagined. It proved to be the peaceful respite they were seeking while on academic breaks. It also became the center of their locked-down world during the pandemic.

“This is a place we would really like to retire to,” Schneider said.

The top-level balcony provides stunning views and a close-up of the chimney designed by Lew French.
Randi Baird

“This is our seventh year, and we’ve not regretted it,” said Townes.

Along with ample natural light, water views, and that wow-inducing upper balcony, the four-bedroom, three-bathroom cottage has natural wood floors, plenty of built-in shelving, and a showpiece Lew French fireplace with a driftwood mantel facing the wide front windows in the cozy living room.

French, the Vineyard-based craftsman whose designs in natural materials have elevated stonemasonry to a fine art, built the fireplace and chimney in the 1990s while Shaw was working on a series of photographs of his work for the Boston Globe magazine.

“We asked him for a design…but that’s not how he works,” Shaw said. “This is the beauty of his work: Lew does Lew, and I mean that in the most complimentary kind of way.”

The updated kitchen retained its original mismatched flooring.
Randi Baird

To the left of the fireplace, behind the wood stove, French created a stucco wall, embedding rocks into the material and adding a half-moon-shaped window. French’s colleague, Richard Iammarino, built the custom cabinetry, including beadboard bookcases in the living room and study, open shelving in the dining room, and a window seat in the living room.

Thus renovated and updated over the years as Shaw and Dawson raised their family there, the cottage was in solid shape when Schneider and Townes bought it in 2016. “There was nothing that we had to do to move in [because Shaw and Dawson] had taken meticulous care of it,” Schneider said. 

Make that almost nothing. The kitchen, as befitting one that served a family of four for decades, was “a total gut,” Schneider said.

Working with Island builder Bruce Stewart, the couple added a farmhouse sink, new tile, open shelving, and an antique ceiling lamp they found in Nashville. 

Bosch appliances, including a new gas stove, soon followed.

Plum-colored walls add playful drama to the light-filled dining room.
Randi Baird

“We originally kept the old appliances, but then they started to go all at once,” Schneider said. 

The only thing that they didn’t change was the original mismatched wood floor, which was made from different colors and widths of board.

“We like the fact that none of the floors matched,” Schneider said. 

More recently, the couple added a pair of first-floor porches that wrap around the cottage.

“It had no porches except upstairs,” Schneider explained.

Townes and Schneider wanted a covered porch to serve as an entertaining space at any time of day.
Randi Baird

Now, a sunny side porch holds rocking chairs in warm weather, while a screened-in back porch with mahogany decking and decorative sidelights provides dining and entertaining space protected from the elements.

“We have a family member who can’t be in the sun, so to not have a place here where she could…go outside when she visited just didn’t feel right,” Townes said. “To have that now really makes us happy.”

Both porches were designed by architect Chuck Sullivan, of Sullivan + Associates Architects in Oak Bluffs.

“We are so pleased with the care he took to get our idea into reality, and in a way that worked with the requirements of conservation and zoning,” Schneider said. 

The upstairs bedrooms feature eye-catching colors such as deep periwinkle.
Randi Baird

Jason Forend, of JMF Building & Remodeling, was the couple’s contractor. “It was important to us to stay as local as possible,” she said.

The additions, paradoxically, have given the house a more authentic Oak Bluffs cottage look, she continued. “Everyone we know in the neighborhood agrees that it makes the house look more balanced.”

Townes and Schneider also updated the home’s energy systems, replacing the old kerosene heater with modern, electric heat exchangers and – after making their way through a web of Oak Bluffs regulations – a rooftop solar system.

“We actually had to fight for the solar. Chuck [Sullivan] was the hero,” Schneider said. “Except for the month of January, it takes care of all of our electrical needs, and we are producing for the state as well,” she added. “We do have fires in the fireplace, and the wood stove is there as a backup, but it’s really a very efficient house.”

Winnie makes herself at home.
Randi Baird

For the walls, they chose paint shades in coastal blues and neutrals, with a vibrant plum color in the dining room to set off the white-painted woodwork. One of the four upstairs bedrooms is periwinkle purple, while another is a sunny, saturated yellow. Also upstairs is the balcony, which commands an even more sweeping water view and allows a close-up look at the chimney.

With very busy academic schedules, most years they have not been able to use the home in the off-season other than holidays. This year, however, they’ve been on sabbatical and are researching topics for their next publications: Schneider is looking at the limits of dystopic imagination; Townes is researching democracy, Afro-pessimism, and Afro-futurism. 

As they relaxed in the living room with their dog, Winnie, adopted as a rescue some ten years ago, they admitted the Vineyard wasn’t a slam-dunk first choice when they began looking for a second home. While Schneider had visited the Island in the 1980s and her brother Paul Schneider has lived here for decades, Townes had made one trip, in 2005, to visit a friend.

“I actually wasn’t all that impressed on the first visit,” Townes said. “It was August, which is not the time you want to come and get a sense of the place.”

Randi Baird

Then, after a long acquaintance through academic circles, she and Schneider began dating around 2010. At the time, Townes was the associate dean for academic affairs at Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut, while Schneider was teaching at the Chicago Theological Seminary. Their long-distance relationship included a Thanksgiving trip to the Vineyard, followed by a series of summer rentals after they were both recruited to Vanderbilt in landlocked Nashville.

“We both hated leaving proximity to big water, and I had been hoping to get back to New England for years at that point, so going to Tennessee was a step in the wrong direction,” Schneider said. “We agreed if we accepted the Vanderbilt jobs, we would commit to spending a portion of our summers on the water somewhere.” 

In search of a place where they could summer first and retire later, the couple initially cast a wide net, looking up and down the Eastern seaboard in between trips to the Island.

But the coastal Southern communities they visited didn’t feel right to the couple, while even such New England spots as Provincetown didn’t have the Vineyard’s diversity.

“On the one hand, there’s the fact that we’re queer, and on the other hand is the fact that we’re mixed race,” Schneider said.

“The Vineyard has it all.”