Inviting the Outside In

Using glass and color ingeniously to bring light and landscapes into spaces where Vineyarders live and learn and play.

To many people, the Island is all about being outside. Folks who spend their days in offices come to Martha’s Vineyard to enjoy the ocean air and offshore views. City dwellers who won’t walk a block from their apartments to the corner Quik Mart find themselves hiking all across our woods or along the shore. Executives who sip their morning coffees with their eyes glued to the business section spend hours people-watching from a street-side café in Vineyard Haven.

Little wonder then, that Vineyarders and visitors show such interest in buildings that make expansive and inviting use of the air, light, and vistas around them. Little wonder, too, that the architects who design these innovative buildings and rooms are in high demand. For them, it’s about more than setting a window in a wall in a certain way. It’s about precisely where and how a structure rises out of the landscape. It’s about what the structure is built of, how it’s finished, what it’s used for. Here you’ll find five Island buildings – well, four buildings and one boat, actually – that capture light, views, and our imaginations in the most arresting ways.

Oxcart Camp, Aquinnah

Oxcart Camp, looking over the stretch of Vineyard Sound known as Dogfish Bar in Aquinnah, blends so well with the surrounding beach grass that it appears almost to have sprouted from the dunes. From every perspective you see and feel an almost seamless transition between indoors and out. It’s a comfortable and beautiful summer home that also honors the environment. Multiple hipped roofs appear to echo the undulating grass. Exterior and interior paint emulate the colors of sand.

Designed and built in 1999 by Phil Regan of Hutker Architects in Vineyard Haven and Falmouth, most of Oxcart Camp sits atop the foundation of a home that had become run down. The owners wanted something better. “Their objectives were to create a house that was more comfortable, more weather tight, but deferred to the view. It was all about the view,” Regan says. Many visitors admire the aesthetics of the house, but Regan wonders, partially in jest, whether it would earn such praise if it were picked up and relocated to a wooded site mid-Island. “It’s easy for it to be a great house in that location because it defers to the view, which is fabulous,” he says.

Regan brought the outside into the home through the use of windows – no surprise there. But all the thought went into how to do it. “We wrapped the primary volume – two sides of it – entirely with windows, uninterrupted,” Regan says. “The windows start at about two feet off the floor, go up to seven feet off the floor, then there’s a transom window above that. So it’s all about natural light, sky, sun, sunset, stars, view – from two banks of windows.” In order to keep the view uncluttered, Regan enclosed the exterior decks with a cable rail rather than traditional wood. “Cable railings are almost transparent, so that when you’re sitting in the space you tend to see right through the deck and into the dunes and into the beach grass and into the water beyond,” Regan says. “If it were a traditional railing, it would feel more as if there were a visual separation or almost a wall between the interior spaces and the view beyond.”

There are no load-bearing interior walls; the outside walls can carry the weight – despite all that glass – because substantial headers above the windows support the roof. The windows themselves are double hung, with six panes over one large, uninterrupted pane. A seated viewer is treated to a virtually endless and undivided panorama.

Above each window, the three-pane transom raises the banks of windows to roof level and lets in additional light. Though the transoms are fixed, the sashes of the lower windows slide up and down, enabling ocean breezes to ventilate the home.

The color palette of the furnishings and most of the finishes in the interior were chosen to imitate the colors outside, smoothing the transition between inside and out. A few touches, such as the white bead-board paneling, the cabinetry in the kitchen, and framing that divides the light through some of the windows, preserve the traditional cabin-like feeling of the camp.

Regan also thought about how each room is sited with regard to the light. “The master bedroom has an eastern orientation and grabs some great morning light,” he says. “And it has some southern windows to grab some light through the course of most of the day. The living space has great westerly light. In fact, you can watch the sun set on the ocean. That’s a fantastic experience. And because the sun sets on the water there, you literally feel as if you have forty-five extra minutes a day. There really is an extension to the day out there.”

Visitors Center, Polly Hill Arboretum, West Tisbury
Maryann Thompson, of Maryann Thompson Architects in Cambridge, had quite a different challenge in bringing natural light into the Visitors Center of the Polly Hill Arboretum. “Because there are trees everywhere, there’s not a lot of light,” she says. “It’s very much a wooded kind of condition. What we ended up doing is bringing light in from above.”

She accomplished this with the use of huge skylights on one side of the roof and large, six-pane transoms on the opposite wall – a feat that she’s pleased with. “When you’re in the space,” she says, “you still feel like you’re in a forest.”

Thompson is an expert on transitions between inside and outside. She teaches a master’s course at Harvard on the subject. “One of the things that I always try to do is to create a continuum between the outside space and the inside space so you have a sense that it’s not a strong threshold. It’s a lot more of a blended threshold. You have an ambiguity between what’s inside and what’s outside.” With that in mind, Thompson, then in partnership with Charles Rose of Charles Rose Architects Inc. of Somerville, collaborated with landscape designer Michael Van Valkenburgh of Chilmark and benefactor David Smith to design the center.

The structure is a heavily timbered, light-filled, multi-purpose room with windows, windows, and more windows – besides the skylights and transoms. In addition to bringing in light, they blur the distinction between inside and out. The post-and-beam construction permits extensive glazing, even allowing glass panels to meet in the corners without mullions for a continuous view of the woods outside. The supporting timbers take their cues from the shapes of tree trunks. “When you’re inside, you feel related to a forest,” says Thompson.

Flat bluestone imported from New York, used in the landscaping, borders the Visitors Center, adding to the sense of continuity. A large pergola was installed immediately outside of the building, bringing together landscape and architecture. There is no air conditioning; it’s not necessary because all the windows can be opened to let in fresh air and breezes. (Though the arboretum is opened year-round, the Visitors Center closes in the winter.)

The main challenge was to design the building in a way that didn’t disturb the carefully planted flora; there are more than 2,000 plants on the grounds, which embrace more than sixty acres just off of State Road in West Tisbury, near the Agricultural Hall. Polly Hill of West Tisbury brought trees, flowers, and shrubbery from her beloved South and improbably grew them in the intemperate North. In the Visitors Center, a Scandinavian technique allowed the foundation to have a shallow underpinning that insulated the foundation against frost heaves, but disturbed little of the root systems of the surrounding trees. The forest stands close to the building, but it is undisturbed. “Everything I do, I try to do in a way that treads lightly on the earth,” Thompson says.

Laughing Water, West Tisbury

Artists come to Martha’s Vineyard from all over the world to paint the Island’s remarkable light. Geoffrey White, a West Tisbury architect, seeks to capture it in a different way. Using transoms, large windows, and ambient color, he lets it generously into the homes he designs, then tinkers with it until it becomes a noteworthy part of the design of the room.

“Natural light sort of defines the room, defines the space,” he says. In the living room of Laughing Water, his West Tisbury home, three large, twelve-panel windows facing west allow afternoon sun to flood in; the subdued shade of adobe pink on the walls cools that light as it lands.

A set of transoms, built high into a break in the ceiling, bends more natural light into the room. From the entrance, the ceiling slopes up and stops short of the adjoining wall. It then veers straight up, forming a type of oblong box, spanning the width of the space. The transoms are built into this box facing each other. One set is built into the wall abutting the master bedroom, and the other into an exterior wall. “Those windows [the exterior set] face south,” White says. “So southern light comes in and hits Arnold E” – a flat, wooden Sergeant Pepperish figure on a tightrope created by his artist wife Eleanor Hubbard. “Then it bounces down into the room.” The transoms also allow additional natural light into the master bedroom.

In almost every space, White plays this kind of billiards game with exterior light coming into the house. He bounces it off walls or captures it and shoots it deep into rooms. Skylights abut transoms. Windows come in many sizes and shapes, installed high or set into substantial portions of walls. Because the light caroms off surfaces or is absorbed by color, it’s never too bright or glaring.

White doesn’t stop with light. He’s also concerned with what the windows look out on. The three large mullioned windows in the living room are hinged at the top to open outward to 90 degrees, providing a broad view of the front landscaping. The rear garden, once featured on a national gardening show, is observable from the kitchen and breakfast nook through sliding glass doors. “‘Bringing the outside in’ expresses the goal of being more aware of the outside when you’re in the house,” White says. “You do that by being able to have a strong view.”

North Neck, Chappaquiddick

Not only was Bruce MacNelly of MacNelly Cohen Architects of West Tisbury able to bring the outside in to the house he designed on North Neck on Chappaquiddick, he brought the outside to the outside. The owner, who serves as the managing partner of a capital investment concern in Boston and San Francisco, is rather fond of boats – which became a prime consideration in the design.

The narrow spit of land that is North Neck (230 feet at the widest part, 28 feet at the narrowest), juts out into Cape Pogue Pond on Chappaquiddick. From a rise on the neck, there are panoramic views of the pond on both sides of the house. Although there was a house on the land, it was too small for the owner, his wife, and two teenaged children. But Edgartown Conservation Commission rules required that the new house be set back 100 feet from the border of what was already a slender piece of land. The solution? Build a shotgun house from scratch that honored the fragile surrounding shoreline. Because the structure would be long and narrow, MacNelly was able to add features that created a vaguely ship-like feeling. And to take advantage of the spectacular vista, the house was built upside-down. The kitchen, breakfast nook, dining area, living room, and two of the main decks are on the second floor, while the bedrooms nestle in the downstairs.

“The idea is there’s a glass box on top of a shingled box that’s more solid,” MacNelly explains. “The first floor is almost like the hull, and the second floor is like the cabins up above.”

The main entrance sits at ground level, in the center of the house. The entry is purposely informal – the owners wanted to avoid a Newport feel – and the shape and rustic ambiance of the door and the surrounding wood draw from the look and feel of the gangway to a wooden ship. The bedrooms are lined up along a hallway and have views of the pond, outer Edgartown harbor, and Nantucket Sound. The master bedroom has large windows on three sides, and the roomy tub in the master bath is situated right below a picture window. The décor is simple – the outside provides the drama.

The upstairs is open and bright, a series of rooms with little or no separations. A large stone fireplace dominates the living-room area and breaks the length of the second floor so that it hasn’t a bowling-alley feel. Behind the fireplace, a dining space bumps out in a bay window, followed by the small kitchen and an informal eating area. The structure is post-and-beam, the ideal configuration for expansive windows. Arched knee-braces throughout the second floor mimic the framing and joinery of a ship.

Through the large panes of glass that enclose the space, light bounces off the pond and saturates the living area. MacNelly kept away from double-hung windows because the horizon line would have fallen at the break and interrupted the view. Transoms above each large pane let air circulate, but keep the breezes from disturbing lighter objects around the room. Opposing eyebrow windows set high in the vaulted ceiling bring in afternoon and evening light. Custom doors allow light and air to enter at the far ends along the length of the home.

On the ends of the house sit large verandas, connected by long gangway-like decks that run along the sides of the building. “The conception of the house is based on the owner’s love of boats,” says MacNelly, “and the view is spectacular all around, so we wanted to take advantage of that, which is why we put the living space upstairs. But [the owners] also wanted to have some kind of outdoor space that ran all the way around the house as well.”

Conservation rules restricted the decks to a width of four feet down the lengths of the house. “But that contributed to the sense of it feeling like a ship,” MacNelly says, “because they weren’t big verandas. They were just little decks that you walk around. We put the larger verandas at either end.”

Miss Asia, Edgartown harbor

Miss Asia, owned and restored by Gerret C. Conover, who with his wife Paula owns the Charlotte Inn in Edgartown, arrived with its own set of challenges. Built in 1923 of mahogany on oak by Consolidated Shipyards of Morris Heights, New York, this sixty-two-foot vessel, designed long and narrow for speed, was commissioned by the Lawrence P. Fisher family of Fisher Body Works of Detroit as a commuter launch – a kind of limousine on Lake Michigan. Eventually purchased by the Astor family and returned to New York, she changed hands again in the mid-1970s and eventually ended up unwanted and neglected in Essex, Connecticut. Conover bought Miss Asia in 1987 and oversaw her restoration at Essex Boat Works. For nearly twenty years, she has been the Conover family yacht, summering in Edgartown harbor and returning to Essex for the winter.

“He has a real passion for all things antique – cars, boats, decorating the inn,” says his son, Gerret D. Conover of Edgartown. “We didn’t have pictures of the interior, but it’s safe to say that everything is a true antique and is appropriate for the age of the boat.”

Under Conover’s guidance, Miss Asia was stripped of all accoutrements that were not original. She received a true ice box for refrigeration, and
for the galley, the deep red linoleum used on counter tops and floors was specially manufactured in Scotland to match the original. She operates without radar or other modern electronics and is driven by engines originally installed in the 1950s, restored and running perfectly.

Mahogany, while beautiful and durable, tends to be dark. Light is absorbed easily, and the cabin of a vessel, if not carefully decorated, can look gloomy. The main salon – in which the Princess of Wales once enjoyed an Edgartown harbor cruise – is surrounded on two sides with two-foot-square windows that drop fully into the superstructure to take in an uninterrupted view and admit fresh ocean breezes. The forward windows tilt up for ventilation.

Down the sides of the salon, silk was laid over the mahogany and painted white. “He kept the walls all very light and neutral,” says Gerret of his father’s choices. “The salon is all white, the exception being the trim. It’s natural mahogany with a high gloss, which gives a nice framework to the window openings. It frames the views without distracting.”

The master stateroom directly below is narrow, with a bunk lining either side. Windows high in the bulkheads (walls) provide light, and shiny, white paint on the overhead (ceiling) and white carpeting on the floor spread it around. Conover used some of the same tricks in the galley, reflecting the light from the high-up portholes off high-gloss white paint on the overhead and bulkheads. Air is brought into the space by pointing traditional vents into the wind to collect and funnel it below decks. It’s the traditional way to help bring the outside in to a vessel of a type they just don’t make any more.