Over the Moon
When the couple bought the home its foundation was nil, the roof was starting to sag, and, in some spots, the floor was sloping at a six-inch grade. “It has everything to do with that view—the horizon, the waves, the moon,” says the homeowner of The Sheiling. “The moon over the ocean is the most spectacular thing.”
“It has everything to do with that view—the horizon, the waves, the moon,” says the homeowner of The Sheiling. “The moon over the ocean is the most spectacular thing. From here I can watch it cross from one end of the sky to the other.” In the main guesthouse, she even named a room “Moon Watch.” Each room in the main house and guesthouse has a name—“Whale Watch,” “Captain’s Quarters,” “Rose Cottage” and “The Potting Shed” are some. The names are bolted to each door on pieces of custom-engraved whale ivory (a maritime decorative art known as scrimshaw), a decorative touch that echoes the jumping-off point for much of the home’s interior design.
“I always imagined that it was a sea captain’s house,” says the owner. She doesn’t know when the original nameplate bearing the words “The Sheiling” was affixed to the front of her Nantucket home, but when she and her husband bought it in 2000, she was told that “sheiling” was Gaelic for “a haven of rest for seafaring people.”
She soon discovered that wasn’t entirely true—a sheiling is actually a hut built by shepherds who’ve taken their herds to graze the highlands for the summer—but either translation would make sense considering that rest, sheep-raising and seafaring all figure prominently in Nantucket’s history. Some more detective work revealed that the house was built in 1880, about 30 years after the whaling industry bottomed out and around the same time that tourism had become a driving force of the island’s economy. So it’s most likely the home originated when some captain of industry, perhaps of Scotch descent, decided to build his summer home on a sought-after spot along Siasconset’s south bluff.
Whatever its past, when the couple bought the home its foundation was nil, the roof was starting to sag, and, in some spots, the floor was sloping at a six-inch grade. “The house was in need of some TLC,” says Jennifer Riolo, an architect with Lyman Perry Architects, a firm with offices in Nantucket and Pennsylvania that has a long track record of restoring homes on the island.
One of the first objectives was insulation. The couple planned to use the home year-round—and eventually for retirement. They frequently host parties and weekend guests, so they wanted rooms suited for entertaining and also some intimate spaces for smaller affairs. Jeffrey Spoelker, the Lyman Perry principal in charge of the project, crafted a plan to lift the house and pour a concrete foundation with the help of Ron Winters, a general contractor and owner of Thirty Acre Wood in Nantucket. While the house was on stilts, they built a basement, increasing the living space by 2,000 square feet. Once the structure was back on solid ground, they built an addition.
Spoelker added about 15 feet to the rear of the house by extending the stem of the original T-shaped plan, lengthening the existing gambrel roof so effortlessly that it’s impossible to tell where old ends and new begins. A new guesthouse was built on the adjoining lot, set back to preserve the ample lawns and gardens of the original property, and to make room for a freshwater pool.
Throughout the main house, the architect collaborated with Debra Blair, a Manhattan-based interior designer and principal of Blair Design Associates, to add the kinds of exquisite architectural details that would befit a prominent sea captain—crown moldings, wainscoting, built-in shelves, wood paneling, detailed antique fireplace mantels.
Blair suggested carving out space for a butler’s pantry next to the dining room, in part to house the owner’s extensive collection of porcelain trays. “She has wonderful collections,” says Blair. “We designed with these in mind.” The palette of the main room at the front of the house was inspired by the owner’s blue-and-white Chinese export porcelain collection. Blair found its perfect complement—a Manuel Canovas chintz with a pattern of blue-and-white ginger jars, vases and tableware floating against a khaki ground—for some couches. “That was a way of balancing the porcelain,” says Blair, “and being a little whimsical about it.”
This room’s grand proportions came about after the team conceived of opening up a parlor and living room encircled by an indoor wraparound porch to create one dramatic space punctuated by columns and a coffered ceiling. Blair arranged furniture groupings to split the room into three separate, well-defined sitting areas. An orderly row of 1950s sash windows—one of few interior details worth salvaging—snakes around the exterior, affording a wide-angle view from every vantage point.
In the dining room the owner wanted to evoke the feel of a stormy night at sea. Blair commissioned Brooklyn-based faux painters Faust Decorative Arts to treat the woodwork. They painted it red, then navy, then rubbed it down with steel wool and finished it with a black glaze. Paired with the gold-leaf ceiling, the effect is positively Venetian, especially when it’s candlelit.
Another fanciful take on the seafaring life can be found in an upstairs room with a “Captain’s Quarters” nameplate on the door. This teenage-boy’s bedroom has a mahogany built-in berth bed and a captain’s table alcove lit by a hanging onion lantern, a perfect spot to spread out maps and charts. A ship’s ladder leads up to a loft where a fanlight window looks out onto the island, and the walls are painted with a mural depicting every phase of a whaling voyage. “You feel like you’re below-ship, and then you’re coming up on deck,” says the homeowner. The adjoining bathroom has an authentic yacht sink.
Most of the furniture and antiques, including tea caddies, Nantucket lightship baskets, woolies—the nautical scenes sailors sewed while they were at sea—and whaling ephemera are from local dealers. Wayne Pratt, owner of Wayne Pratt Antiques in Nantucket and Woodbury, Connecticut, found the bulk of early-American furniture, including a mid-1700s Connecticut River Valley corner cabinet with its original blue paint that is now embedded in a kitchen wall. Lynda Willauer Antiques in Nantucket and Greenwich, Connecticut, is the owner’s source for porcelain, as well as other furnishings.
Island scrimshander Charles A. Manghis was commissioned for several projects. He engraved rectangular pieces of antique ivory with illustrations that mimic Rockwell Kent’s Moby-Dick chapter headings to decorate the billiards table in the basement game room. And hanging in the breakfast room off the kitchen is an intricate Manghis-engraved scene of historic Nantucket Harbor on a 19th-century pan bone, one of the bones that makes up a sperm whale’s jaw.
“My vision,” says the owner, “was to take this myth I’d created in my own mind and create the history of the house as a sea-captain’s house.” With the story so well told, a modern-day visitor would never know the difference.