When college sweethearts Steve Nill and Marie Woolf reunited 23 years after graduation, it was kismet.
The same fateful week he picked up the phone to call her, she put a love letter in the mail—which he can still recite by heart. Woolf eventually moved into Nill’s Cambridge home, and the couple spent quality time together outside the city, often crashing on friends’ screened-in porches on Cape Cod. It was here they began to build their life together—and their dream home.
With a combined five daughters and two dogs from previous marriages, there was concern about moving everyone in together; but to them it was an opportunity to show the kids how to create a loving relationship. Woolf wanted a “kid magnet,” where all the girls, boyfriends, in-laws, and future grandchildren would want to visit. Knowing it would be hard to cram everyone together comfortably under one roof, they imagined three roofs connected by breezeways, like a row of connected cottages, low to the landscape. For help, they turned to neighbors, gathering a close-knit team of builders and designers.
Architects Ben and Denise Thompson, who also split their time between Cambridge and Barnstable, tried to get the couple to visualize how they wanted the house to feel. Ben, whose late father, Benjamin Thompson, was responsible for revitalizing Faneuil Hall Marketplace and designing the all-glass Crate & Barrel building in Harvard Square, wanted them to think of each space in terms of height and use. “They told us, ‘We just want a screened porch.’ I knew that they wanted a certain casualness,” he says.
“We tried to evoke the character of the neighborhood, but not have everything feel old,” says Denise. She calls their design strategy “choreographed spontaneity,” referring to how the house appears to have been built over decades.
Inside, the Thompsons drew from the imagery of older Cape homes like those the couple had rented over the years. It has a fresh, whitewashed look, with crisp tongue-and-groove walls and splashes of color. A wall of windows and folding doors opens up to a large screened-in porch overlooking a lawn that rolls down to the beach. In the summer, the family lives almost exclusively in this room, with a hammock, dining table, and comfy chairs. The ocean breezes waft through, eliminating the need for AC or bug repellent.
Much of the furniture was found at flea markets, and many materials used are more purposeful than precious. The wall up the staircase is covered in natural shingles, adding texture and suggesting the entire upstairs was an addition. Little nooks and shelves were added wherever possible for both decorative storage and creative ambient lighting. Off the dormered entryway, Woolf’s crafts room has a trellised ceiling with overhead outlets so she can clamp lamps above.
With a yacht club around the corner, the home is filled with nautical nods, especially in the kitchen where sail cleats serve as drawer pulls and thick rope holds up the overhead pendants. The master bathroom, adorned with galvanized mariner’s lights, leads to one of the property’s three outdoor showers. Around the house are many playful, beachy touches, including the stairway’s painted blue steps and the carved wave in the spindles.
Adjacent to the porch, a two-story cottage with sunny yellow walls and a Dutch door was built for kids and guests. It has two rooms upstairs—intended to be split into the girls’ side and the boys’ side in old summer home fashion—with single, quilt-covered beds. On the lower level, guests can peek through a back window to see who’s awake, out on the porch, playing croquet, or coming in from a swim.
One last hideaway offers a romantic escape: A widow’s walk off the main guest room is tucked into the roof, ensuring just enough privacy from rear neighbors while maximizing the expansive view of Barnstable Harbor.
At the beginning of the building process, Woolf was frustrated with Ben’s idea of trying to imagine how they wanted to feel in the home. Spending hours determining the height of the kitchen banquette seemed ridiculous until it became everyone’s favorite seat at the table. After two years of building—not to mention more than two emotional decades apart—Woolf now calls the Thompsons in tears over how good she finally feels. “People come and say they can feel the love in the house,” says Nill. “It’s reflective of the soul of our new family.”