July 1, 2010
Text by Erin Marvin Photography by Michael Partenio
The cedar shingles that wrap this small Nantucket house have only just begun their slow fade to silvery gray. A neat white gate sits tucked into a tall straight hedge, behind which dozens of pink and white blooms vie for attention while an American flag flutters lazily in the saltwater-laced breeze. Adirondack chairs recline on the lawn, basking in the warm summer sun. A large back deck offers plenty of seating for impromptu fêtes and visiting friends.
At first glance the house is a vision, the epitome of casual coastal living. But the newly renovated home was not always so picture perfect: the original post-and-beam house had windows too small to capture outdoor views or afternoon light, and the yard was nothing more than untended scrub. It was on the market for years, in need of a visionary to coax out its natural charm.
Who better than the renowned design team of Bierly-Drake?
Though Lee Bierly and Christopher Drake have made a reputation for themselves by creating elegantly refined interiors for many of New England’s elite, they left formality at the door when reimagining this house as their own relaxed island home.
The duo bought their first house on Nantucket twenty-five years ago, an in-town cottage that, at a mere 430 square feet, was smaller than most local hotel suites. But both wanted to invest in a real home on the island, in a lifestyle.
They soon outgrew that first tiny cottage and, over the years, moved several times around Nantucket before they began craving a place to set down more permanent roots. “We wanted to have a little more land in a more rural environment closer to the ocean,” says Drake.
Still, they weren’t looking to build a grand house for posterity, full of formal rooms they didn’t need. They knew they wanted something casual, comfortable. “Too many people build a house that’s too big and they never use it,” says Bierly. “We just wanted a house for us—for two guys and a dog.”
When Bierly and Drake first stepped inside the small square house, they looked past its imperfections and saw only possibilities. “We walked into the space and closed our eyes and could see it completed,” recalls Drake.
“I knew exactly where I wanted everything to go,” adds Bierly.
It was a labor of love they gladly undertook. Working with builder Ron DaSilva, the team tore down interior and exterior walls, moving the kitchen from the north side of the house to the southwest corner and relocating all the rooms on the first floor. They also reworked the facade, adding more expansive windows and a spacious back deck to capture breathtaking vistas of the lawn and ocean beyond. A fourteen-foot-square cupola perches atop the roof and offers 360-degree views of the island and Nantucket Sound.
Rather than dividing much of the interior into separate rooms, public spaces on the first floor—the living room, dining area and kitchen—all blend into each other under a high, knocked-out ceiling that gives the house an airy, loft-like feel.
“It’s more about enjoying the volume of space and less about the formality of living,” says Bierly. “The fireplace is not in the living room—it backs up to the kitchen island, and so what? We didn’t want to design the house around the fireplace when it wouldn’t suit our use, so now it’s merely a backdrop in one part of the kitchen area.”
“What we do for a living as designers and architects, we did here for ourselves,” says Drake. “We have this adage that you have to build a body before you can put clothes on it—the house has to function first before you can decorate it.”
No buying trips or client approvals were required to furnish this home: they already had everything they needed. Each treasured item of furniture, antique, artwork and accessory that Bierly and Drake have collected over the years has moved as often as its owners.
“The pieces in the house have been with us since we’ve been on the island,” says Bierly. “We didn’t add anything; they move with us and get relocated and find new homes and new places.”
A column that was used to hold ship models in the dining room of the last house is now positioned next to the master bed, the perfect nightstand. Two antique red French tea caddies have become twin lamps in the upstairs library. A set of five brass garden hose nozzles gets prime placement on a cabinet in the foyer. Throughout the house, everyday objects are elevated to art.
White walls don’t feel stark or cold, but become a canvas for the owners’ eclectic collection of colorful Americana—Ozarks folk art, duck decoys, an old-fashioned gameboard, antique quilts, a Nantucket basket that belonged to Drake’s mother, wooden bowling pins, a sign from an old general store—Bierly and Drake know the provenance of every piece. Stacks of books are not just accessories, but beloved art and design tomes that have been read and re-read. For all its quiet sophistication, the house still feels like a “shoes off” kind of place; nothing feels untouchable.
And though they did build this house just “for two guys and a dog,” the couple love to entertain and the small forty-by-forty-foot house can still hold a crowd; during one summer party, rain drove all 200 guests inside and everyone fit comfortably. An eleven-foot-long trestle dining table (headed by an antique Orkney chair on each end and lined with old-fashioned bamboo director’s chairs) can accommodate an intimate dinner for two or seating up to fourteen.
Outside, the landscape is resplendent with rosa rugosa, hydrangeas, peonies, dogwoods and ornamental cherry trees. A rolling green lawn dusted with fragrant lavender offers plenty of open space for the owners’ beloved golden retriever, Speedo, to roam and run.
For most people, it would be hard to envision a time when the grounds were nothing but scrub—“There wasn’t a blade of grass on the two acres!” says Drake—but visionaries like Lee Bierly and Christopher Drake could see it all along, and can see themselves living happily here for many years to come.
Interior design: Lee Bierly and Christopher Drake, Bierly-Drake Associates
Builder: Ron DaSilva, Better Homes & Kitchens