[Decor] Contemporary Nantucket Retreat
When Rebecca Ascher, a young Manhattan architect, was a student at Dartmouth College in the late 1980s and early ’90s, she spent many happy summer weekends on Nantucket, the island just south of Cape Cod. A classmate’s parents rented a rambling old house on Surfside Beach, a 10-minute drive from busy Nantucket Harbor, and they encouraged her to visit. Ascher retains strong memories of the sprawling, 8,000-square-foot dwelling, with its weathered cedar shingles and dune-front location. “The images of lobster and Champagne on the deck, followed by long walks on the beach, are still vivid,” says Ascher, now a partner with Joshua Davis of Manhattan’s Ascher Davis Architects. “We all ended up getting married, and then over the years we brought our husbands and our children to the house. It was a place for family and friends.”
The house, nicknamed Sandhill, had been built in the 1860s. For decades it was the summer home of Mary Mannering, a London-born stage actress whose career on Broadway blossomed around the turn of the century. Late in life Mannering abandoned the home, and it fell into a state of neglect; in the second half of the 20th century it was purchased and restored by the CEO of Northeast Airlines.
The parents of Ascher’s classmate had been renting the house for almost 20 years and had tried to buy it a number of times. “They looked all over Nantucket,” says Ascher, “but they could never get away from this particular beach, this surfside. It’s considered the nicest beach on Nantucket, with beautiful dunes that lead you from the house to the shore.” The parents were close to purchasing a property on another part of the island when Sandhill came up for sale about five years ago. Their long history as tenants meant that they had two decades’ worth of renovation ideas. Naturally, they called Ascher, who already knew the house inside and out.
In fact, the outside of the house was off limits: Nantucket has some of the strictest historic preservation laws in the country—part of the reason for its famously picturesque architecture—and the owners were told they couldn’t alter the exterior in any way. (Nevertheless, they were able to relocate the house 600 feet from its original site.)
Gone were the possibilities not only of adding rooms, but also of doing simple things like raising ceilings and enlarging windows. Luckily, low windowsills mean the house is filled with light and air, more so than if it had followed current building codes. And there was lots of space, which could be repurposed.
The clients felt that the original interior of the house was “ramshackle” and wanted to convert the old-fashioned layout into one that was light and contemporary—but not boxy or stark—with streamlined versions of traditional New England detailing. “They wanted the inside to be appropriate for a modern family,” says Ascher. “And since they knew it would only be used in the summer, they completely changed the interior to suit that function.”
The owners had hired established design firms for other projects in the past, but asked Ascher to decorate the interior and to make Sandhill “young and fresh and fun.” The furniture and decor are crisp and white, with pops of red, blue, and orange. The style is “Nantucket meets Miami,” says Ascher. “It has a relaxed elegance to it. You can come off the beach and sit down and not worry about the sand on your feet. The floor has a slightly beaten look, to go with the sand-duney nature of the site.” At the same time, Eero Saarinen Tulip chairs around a dining table, a Piero Lissoni cocktail table in the living room, and a high-arching Foscarini floor lamp in the family room add cosmopolitan flair. The clients love books and words, and handwritten script is a recurring motif: on throw pillows, on the fabric of the office chairs, on the dining room’s pendant light fixtures.
The grounds surrounding the house were designed by Piet Oudolf, perhaps best known for planting the High Line park in New York City. “The owners love gardens and wanted a very romantic, very feminine landscape,” says Ascher. “It’s not a formal garden, but it’s meticulously planned, and it has a natural, whimsical feel, with lots of different textures that mirror the rugged Nantucket landscape.” Working with his High Line collaborators, the landscape firm James Corner Field Operations, Oudolf laid out meandering paths that cross meadows of tall grasses and hardy perennials.
The interiors of Sandhill mirror the natural world outside. Painted wood paneling and oak and ash millwork evoke the island’s wild spaces; glass tiles and polished stones in the bathrooms echo the pebble-lined shore. To Ascher, the process of modernizing the house recalls the way the ocean acts on driftwood: smoothing out its rough edges and softening its color, while preserving its underlying geometry. “Sandhill is streamlined, but it still has a lot of character to it,” she says.