As earthmovers groaned and power saws whined, one of those giant turtles, the pride of Wellfleet, MA showed up at the site. It might be fairer to say, showed up not just at the site but one can only assume his site; a kettle pond occupied by his terrapene carolina line since the last Ice Age.
Slowly, he took in the construction like an unsmiling foreman: a red canoe tied to a long dock, ferns, blueberry bushes and beech trees to be received in amended soil, and up the slope from the pond, a rectangular 1600-square foot main house joined to what was once a fishing shack, an 1100-square foot deck and a breezeway which separates a 570-square foot guest house.
Along with other emigre architects of the post-war era summering and building on the Cape—Marcel Breuer, Serge Chermayeff, Walter Gropius, Eero Saarinen, among others—Finnish-born Olav Hammarstrom (1906-2002) sought to place himself and his clients ever-closer to its salt sprayed nature.
And what better way for Hammarstrom to accomplish this than with his Modernist, stripped-down aesthetic? “There was even a tree growing through the deck,” recalls landscape architect Keith LeBlanc of LeBlanc Jones in Boston who joined Caroline “Coty” Sidnam of SPG Architects of New York and local builder Jon Ziperman of Cape Associates in bringing Hammarstrom’s idyll on a private pond into the 21st century.
Now one could argue that to truly get back to nature—all the way—one must spend the summer en plein air, communing with the turtle. So, the question for Hammarstrom and for LeBlanc and Sidnam was how to get back, but not too far back. How to strike a balance between rough and refined.
“Clearly, the house had deteriorated over the years. Plumbing worn out, leaks in the roof, electric not safe, and Nor’easters had pushed it precariously close to the edge of a dune. Not a soft, rolling dune but one more like a cliff,” said Sidnam, who was rejoined by Ziperman who characterized the project as an archeological dig. “With gut jobs like this, you have to keep peeling back layers and layers, correcting the structure as you go to prepare the house for what you are about to do to it.
When Sidnam’s long-term clients found the Hammarstrom house was on the market, they purchased it with an eye to fixing it up and selling it. Mid-century modern was one of their favorite periods, and this would be a way of getting involved. Their Cape house at the time was an iconic “big old box but not an interesting box” recalls Sidnam. As the project progressed, her clients decided to fix this far more interesting box and move in, rather than sell.
If you enter the main house from the parking area, turning right, your gaze travels far, all the way from the guest bedroom (not to be confused with the guest house), past the kitchen, the fishing shack/family room to the far wall of the bedroom beyond which Sidnam added an outdoor shower.
Long views in open plans are fine, but where’s the privacy, one asks? There aren’t any partitions. The answer is in the form of floating interior cubes, one for the master bath and one for the kitchen that creates visual, if not actual privacy, blocking some sight lines, and revealing others. To extend the view to its fullest on the pond side, the South and most important side, it’s interesting to note how cleverly Sidnam put a hidden panel pocketed in the wall of the kitchen cube, extending kitchen counter. When the panel’s open the long view of the deck and pond becomes that much longer, and while closed the evening’s dirty dishes are conveniently hidden from sight.
By adding large sections of clerestory glass to the pitched roof of the fishing shack/family room, Sidnam found a way to light up its aged and darkened knotty pine. A purple B&B sectional sofa, and Eames lounge chair and ottoman enlarge on the Modernist theme from the newer, Hammarstrom part of the house where other icons can be found: Arne Jacobsen dining chairs, an Eero Saarinen Womb Chair & Ottoman, and Knoll seating fabric in sapphire.
Fifteen thousand years after retreating glaciers scooped out the kettle pond, which remains the focus of the property to this day. It was up to landscape designer Keith LeBlanc to make that focus a bit sharper. In place of rotting railroad ties delineating various outdoors spaces, LeBlanc employed native plants, trees, and stone to create, in his words: “a dramatic unfolding in reaching the pond. You can get a glimpse of it from the road and then you have to descend thirty feet. It’s a narrow drive. You’ve got to pull over in the sand and gravel to let another car past. In strict compliance with National Seashore regulations, we used the native beech trees (which have the virtue of keeping their yellowed leaves through winter) to purposely maintain that narrowness and that feeling of a secluded home in the woods.”
“It was very unclear where you were supposed to park, or how to get to the front door. We re-graded the parking court and for a more gracious pedestrian experience, once you’re out of the car, we enlarged the aperture of the stairs going down to the house. Some of the stairs, in fact, are wide enough to extend beyond the paving into the plantings. Drawing closer to the door there’s a grove of Black Gum trees LeBlanc planted. The trees like wet feet he explained and signify to visitors their increasing proximity to the pond. LeBlanc points out how the Gum Trees verticality juxtaposes with the house, accentuating its horizontality.
On the other side, through the breezeway, stone steps leading to the dock become more irregular, offering a wilder experience than the more refined parking court. As he descends, one can safely assume the resident turtle approves of this and other updates to timeless Modernism.
© Louis Postel 2017, first published in New England Home as Mid-century Modern in Wellfleet