A Guesthouse on Boston’s North Shore

June 17, 2022

A guesthouse on the ocean becomes an exercise in easy living…and of restoring the native topography.

Text by Jorge S. Arango    Photography by Greg Premru

Building a home, especially near flood-plains or protected wetlands (during a pandemic, no less), can feel like a Sisyphean task. But for the design team who erected this 1,800-square-foot guesthouse on the North Shore of Massachusetts, it was literally an uphill climb.

The owners purchased a parcel adjacent to their main house, says designer Jim Gauthier, “for their grown children to use as their families grew. Everything had to be family friendly and withstand wear and tear.” The lot’s tiny existing house came down, and architect Paul MacNeely was hired to design a new one.

“The site was so powerful that the architecture for us became very simple,” MacNeely explains. “It would be a New England cottage, but how we think about it today, and it would become a kind of staircase that led from the main house to the beach.” Translation? New England-style cedar shakes and vertical cedar siding but with clean modern lines and more glass to ease the transition from the traditional main house to the organic coastline.

Because the lot sat on a granite ledge almost level with the main house, the new cottage was notched into the rock to prevent it from obscuring ocean views. This required blasting to excavate granite, exposing the beautifully dramatic geology of the ledge and, also, creating a recess in it for a firepit patio further down the slope. From there, landscape architect Doug Jones designed steps to convey people to a lawn, then a meadow, and, eventually, the beach.

Builder Kevin Cradock estimated he’d remove 100 cubic yards of granite. “It turned into 650 cubic yards to get the house situated properly,” he recalls. “We took some of that material to cover the foundation,” making the cottage appear as if it grew directly from the ledge. Jones used more stone to build a radial wall that flows from that foundation, bordering the edge of the ledge and partially encircling the firepit patio below.

To accommodate the steps to the lawn, Jones cleared the hillside of invasive species and non-native plants that hid not only the ledge but also the base and trunk of a majestic dawn redwood. This elegant tree became the focal point of the descent on this side of the house (a driveway on the other side also accesses the beach).

The overgrowth was replaced with new plantings of switchgrass, winterberry, holly, shadblow, bayberry, and other native specimens. The base of the hill was a floodplain, he adds, “So we planted native coastal varieties that could receive brackish stormwater.” Back up the hill, stone paths and a new pool and pool house connect the main and guest houses.

Gauthier, who also designed the interior of the main house, says, “We wanted a simple, contemporary interior with cool shapes, color, and interesting textures that would be a contrast to the more traditional main house. Our work is fun; we don’t take ourselves too seriously. And the clients are well-traveled, so they appreciate the mix of elements.”

To these ends, Gauthier explains, “We used reclaimed barnboard on walls as a reminder of an old sea shanty,” but mixed it with concrete-tile floors, a sleek white-lacquer kitchen, a Moroccan carpet, and a retro-looking fireplace in the living room. Pops of greens and blues in mix-and-match patterns add levity on sofa pillows, an ottoman, a striped chair, and on what Gauthier calls a pixilated “nana-ish” wallpaper in the powder room. Indoor-outdoor fabrics abound.

“The irony,” says the designer, “is that they’re thinking this might actually become their retirement home, and they’d give the kids the main house because they love the ease and charm of the cottage.”

Project Team
Architecture: Paul MacNeely, Tim Stewart, Eck MacNeely Architects
Interior design: Jim Gauthier, Susan Stacy, Gauthier-Stacy
Builder: Kevin Cradock, Nathan McBride, Kevin Cradock Builders
Landscape design: Doug Jones, Chris Shirazi, LeBlanc Jones Landscape Architects