A dedicated design team updates a Chilmark charmer.By Jennifer Sperry | Photography by Eric Roth
Small in stature but long on history, Look House is an architectural fixture in the pastoral, pint-sized coastal town of Chilmark on Martha’s Vineyard. Located just a quick walk from the heart of town, Beetlebung Corner, Look House has stood stalwart for a century and a half, its cheerful yellow front door punctuating its unpretentious colonial façade.
“The barn portion of the house—which contained a kitchen, living room and loft bedroom—was built in the 1870s,” recalls the owner. “It was moved forward, closer to the street, in the 1890s, when the small back wing was added. It was originally home to the Looks, one of the island’s founding families.”
PRESERVING THE LEGACY
The owner’s grandmother, Ruth Harris, purchased it in the late 1960s, starting her own family’s legacy of caretaking the landmark. The Harrises didn’t make many alterations in 50 years, and purposely didn’t change the home’s moniker.
“We hew to tradition very enthusiastically; we’ll always call it Look House,” says the owner, who inherited it two years ago and yet involves the entire family in any decision-making. “We all collaborate on any changes or issues; it’s truly a family home,” she relates.
Even while they respected and, more importantly, enjoyed the charm of their real estate jewel, the changing of the guard from grandmother to granddaughter represented an ideal time to build on its potential. The limitations of 19th-century beginnings were becoming increasingly evident: a foundation of rocks and sand, powder post beetle damage, no air conditioning, an outdated kitchen and not enough bedrooms and bathrooms.
EXPANDED LIVING SPACE
“Since the house is designated on Chilmark’s historic map, we had to meet certain requirements; in essence, the front exterior had to remain the same,” says the owner. The family hired West Tisbury-based architect Kate Warner to generate more living space in the rear. “She added a second story to the back wing, and very cleverly joined the new roof to the old roof peak, creating really beautiful angles in the two front upstairs bedrooms,” the owner continues.
Warner also greatly improved the home’s overall flow by rearranging its living spaces, swapping the locale of the stairs, a bathroom, closets and even the back entry, eliminating pokey, ill-used nooks along the way. Her resourcefulness transformed the two-bedroom, two-bath house into a much more accommodating four-bedroom, three-bath retreat.
A specialist in the restoration of old homes, island contractor Michael Carroll of Michael Carroll & Friends Construction worked his own magic on the project. His team began by stripping the house to its studs, lifting it up and pouring a full concrete foundation underneath. The original wood windows were restored, a modern HVAC system installed and the original trim, inside and out, reproduced.
IMPROVED INTERIOR DESIGN
Rounding out her island-based team, the owner relied on Martha’s Vineyard Interior Design to fine-tune the remodel. Project Manager Lauren Morgan came onboard at the exposed stud phase, helping the Harrises make vital decisions about their future interior, from the kitchen cabinets’ Shaker profile to the fireplace surround’s detailed millwork. Her role was all the more vital considering the owner lives in California. “It was definitely a long-distance design process,” notes Morgan of the two-year-long project. “We scheduled weekly phone calls, I sent her product links and Mike and I walked her through the progress with FaceTime.”
Morgan’s meticulous approach ensured consistency from room to room and resulted in a variety of delightful, past-honoring details. She sourced crystal doorknobs to hearken back to the home’s period glass versions, and added intrigue to the dining room’s vaulted ceiling with rafters clad in original timbers.
Another nod to the past is the living room’s unique dogwood relief rosettes, reproduced exactly from the original versions using a cast made by the owner’s aunt.
The designer also continually problem-solved, from adjusting to the web of HVAC components to carving out as much room for storage as possible. “We utilized every square foot of space, putting built-ins wherever we could,” says Morgan.
When the owner asked if a pass-through between the kitchen and living room was possible, the designer made it happen. Sneaking two stools and open shelving into the scenario resulted in a cozy bar on the living room side.
Even while Morgan honored the home’s vintage roots, she also modernized its look with clean-lined, comfortable furnishings and a light, airy color palette of cream, beige and blue—made interesting with layers of texture. “There’s definitely a mid-century influence,” says Morgan, adding, “and everything is very durable. The rugs are all outdoor rugs by Dash & Albert, and the G. Romano sectional’s fabric is stain resistant and virtually indestructible.”
True to Chilmark’s historic codes, the gracefully transformed home–to the delight of both the history-loving Harrises and the community—still looks unchanged from the street. Not only is the front portico the original—it was removed and reattached during construction—but that recognizable front door is still cheery and welcoming.
“We went through swatch after swatch of yellow, looking for just the right shade. Ultimately we ended up with ‘Yellow’ by Benjamin Moore,” laughs Morgan.
With the cottage’s original charm preserved, the family looks forward to many more summers spent together.
“My dad and his sisters and I summered there as kids, and now my son, who’s five, can join in the tradition,” says the owner. “We purposely chose a crab for our door knocker, and we can’t wait to teach the next generation how to crab, sail, fish and fully enjoy the island.”