Designer Spotlight

Preppy New England Architecture Gets a Modern Update

Designer Spotlight

Preppy New England Architecture Gets a Modern Update

Honoring the island's historic vernacular while celebrating how people want to live (and play) there today, Boston-based Patrick Ahearn has masterminded the design, restoration and renovation of more than 200 homes and other buildings on Martha's Vineyard.

Author of the new monograph Timeless (Oro Editions), Boston architect Patrick Ahearn designs houses — like this gabled Greek Revival in the Martha’s Vineyard hamlet of Edgartown — that balance preservation with innovation. Top: For this H-shaped, gambrel-roofed house in the Vineyard’s Katama plains, Ahearn took inspiration from the shingle-style Gilded Age estates of the Northeast. All photos by Greg Premru Photography, unless otherwise noted

If you’ve ever spent time in Edgartown, Massachusetts — the exclusive Martha’s Vineyard enclave known for its 18th- and 19th-century Federal and Greek Revival architecture — you’ve likely seen the work of Patrick Ahearn. But you probably had no idea that he, or any other present-day architect, had a role in shaping what you viewed there. And as far as Ahearn is concerned, that’s exactly the point.

As he tells readers in his new book, Timeless (Oro Editions), which I had the pleasure to help him write, “If I have done my job correctly, I will be like a ghost who visits in the night — leaving no trace and most successful when no one sees my hand.”

The down-to-earth, preppily dressed Ahearn has spent the past three decades focused largely on the Vineyard, especially Edgartown, where he’s worked on more than 160 buildings, including several of his own homes. And over the course of his nearly 45-year Boston-based career, he’s developed a reputation for creating houses whose highly traditional architecture somewhat counterintuitively helps their owners lead highly contemporary lives.

His projects — whether the renovation of a landmarked 1682 Greek Revival former blacksmith’s home in Edgartown’s historic district or a new-build shingle-style estate in the Boston suburbs — proceed from a firm belief in the importance of context and an unwavering commitment to preservation. He doesn’t consider history a straitjacket, however. Instead, as he recently reminded me, he believes “the past is the key to the future. We have to look to the past to see how to do the future right.”

If there’s a secret to Ahearn’s success, then, it’s his ability to smartly balance historic preservation with contemporary innovation. He’s intimately familiar with the various vernacular styles of classical American architecture, including their most minute nuances, but he also appreciates the importance of making houses for the way people want to live now.

Preppy New England Architecture Gets a Modern Update
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Preppy New England Architecture Gets a Modern Update

Ahearn’s restoration and renovation of Edgartown’s Captain Rufus Pease House, built in 1838, included the replacement of nearly every element of the Georgian colonial building. He did manage to save and reuse the original single-glazed windows, however, and he rebuilt the unique fence, whose design, he writes, “is a neighborhood signature.”

In the Pease house, Ahearn kept a little door — now sitting amid blue backsplash tiles — that connects kitchen and mudroom. “Historically,” he writes, “the cook would have used it to see who was arriving at the home’s service entrance.”

Left: The period-appropriate windows and antique floors of the dining room — located in a new addition that’s not visible from the street — match those in the restored original house. Left: Ahearn designed the new built-in shelves in the home office to match existing early-19th-century window moldings.

After it proved impossible to restore a 1910 shingle-style home on a harbor-front knoll in the Cape Cod town of Chatham, Massachusetts, Ahearn re-created it almost exactly, rebuilding it from the ground up and expanding it with a mirror-image gable that perfectly matches the antecedent.

Ahearn turned the building’s original living room into a large foyer. It now functions, he writes, “as the heart of the home.” It also offers views to the patio, pool and a new cabana from the front door. Such clear vistas through a house are something of an Ahearn signature.

Left: In the mudroom, Ahearn combined traditional but casual materials, including antique brick floors and horizontal V-groove boards, with more formal ones, such as heavy casing and molded panels. Right: The master bathroom is quite large, but multi-paned windows and more V-groove paneling keep the cottage aesthetic intact.

The service kitchens of century-old homes inspired the look of the Chatham house’s cooking space, which features wood floors and Carrara marble counters.

Ahearn clad the rear facade of the Edgartown Greek Revival — which includes a new service porch and mudroom entry on the left — in shingles. “In centuries past,” he writes, “relatively expensive painted clapboard was used only on front facades, a precedent I followed here.”

Ahearn added a two-story gabled structure to the Greek Revival’s original one, connecting the two via a breezeway finished with six sets of French doors. Not only does the light-filled area act as a circulation space, linking the entryway and living room in the old wing with the kitchen and family room in the new, but it also serves as the house’s dining room.

 

The entry of the yellow-clapboard Pease house — which still features the home’s original 1838 floors and balustrade — “immediately transports visitors back in time,” Ahearn writes. He replicated the design of the railing down a new flight of stairs to an added lower level, which was excavated during the restoration.

He may dress his projects with the antique floorboards and ceiling beams, carved case moldings, bubble glass, granite lintels and rubbed-bronze hardware of centuries past, but his interiors are characterized by plentiful natural light; easy, open flow from room to room; and strong connections between indoors and out. If those sound like modernist precepts, consider Ahearn guilty as charged.

Although his work today appears largely traditional — all gable and gambrel rooflines and white-clapboard or weathered-shingle cladding — Ahearn trained as a modernist. In the mid-1970s, he earned degrees in architecture and urban design from Syracuse University. (He now sits on the advisory board of the architecture school there.) And he grew up not in a home like those he now creates but an 832-square-foot ranch house in Levittown, the mid-century American ur-suburb on New York’s Long Island. These experiences weave their way into his work in surprising ways.

From Levittown, he says he developed an appreciation “for appropriate scale, and how the spaces between buildings can become just as important, if not more important, than the buildings themselves.” Levittown also provided insight into how the particulars of urban design — access to shared public outdoor spaces, bike and walking paths and yards that connect you to your neighbors — can foster a sense of community. That instilled in him a desire to create architecture for the greater good. As he writes in the book, he wants his buildings “to strengthen the urban and social fabric” of the places where he works and to improve “the lives of those who occupy, and interact with, them.”

After graduating from Syracuse, Ahearn spent time with some of the foremost modernist firms in the Boston area, not least the Architects Collaborative (TAC), a studio cofounded by Bauhaus guru Walter Gropius, and Benjamin Thompson and Associates, where he worked on the adaptive reuse of the 250-year-old shell of the city’s Faneuil Hall market, helping to turn it into the bustling shopping, culinary and cultural destination it remains today.

The H shape of the gambrel-roofed house in the Katama plains helps mask its significant overall size, as its wings make it hard to see the entire house from any one point. In the fictional narrative he created to help him design the building, Ahearn imagined it had been built in the late 1800s, then all but destroyed in the famed hurricane that whipped through the Vineyard in 1938. The story ends with his restoring the home to its former glory, decades after it was abandoned and left in ruins. Photo by Eric Roth Photography

 

“The past is the key to the future,” says Ahearn, seen here in Edgartown’s historic downtown, which he has helped to restore and re-enliven for a new generation of residents and visitors. “We have to look to the past to see how to do the future right.” Portrait by Randi Baird Photography

“What I learned from bigger urban design projects was largely about creating intimate outdoor space,” Ahearn recalls, “as well as a sense of portal, gateway and sequence — organizing the pedestrian realm. All that really applies, on a smaller scale, to how a house should be organized.”

In the residences he designs today, he arranges rooms along intersecting spines — galleries more than hallways — that provide sight lines down the length and breadth of a house before resolving themselves in beautiful views of sea and sky or dramatic architectural features, like a monumental local-stone fireplace. And he creates seamless connections from interior spaces to covered porches and on to terraces and lawns.

Ahearn makes sense of these spaces through what he calls “narrative-driven architecture,” a strategy that helps him balance preservation and innovation. For his own primary Edgartown residence, for instance, he conceived a small compound that looks as if it had been added onto and renovated over time. He began with the idea of a late-18th-century midshipman’s house with smaller, more formal rooms on the ground floor and bedrooms above, imagining that this was later expanded to occupy a barn behind that contains an open kitchen and great room. These structures form one side of a pool courtyard, beyond which sits a building that in the fictional narrative was a livery stable but actually holds a garage (which he prefers to refer to as a carriage house) at street level and a guest suite above.

Each building remains true to the scale and style of its neighbors — houses that actually are from the 18th and 19th centuries. But at the same time, the property offers the spaces a 21st-century family craves.

Recently, in the Boston suburb of Wellesley, Ahearn completed a home that borrows its cottage aesthetic from local Cape-style homes of the 1930s. Its U shape, with two wings extending off the back, serves to conceal much of its 6,000 square feet from the street. That’s a trick Ahearn frequently employs to ensure that a house’s scale “perfectly fits its context,” he says. Here, the wings have the added bonus of forming a private courtyard for a pool and cabana.

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Preppy New England Architecture Gets a Modern Update

To create his own ground-up Edgartown house, Ahearn invented a fictional — but very much historically based — story of a late-18th-century midshipman who built the shingled original, then expanded it with an attached barn and horse stalls in the back. In the narrative, the barn and stables were eventually converted to livable residential space, and a livery stable was added on the far end of the backyard. Photo by Michael Partenio, reprinted with permission from Beautiful Homes Magazine, © 2009 Meredith Corporation

Ahearn imagined that his midshipman had a liking for the Greek Revival style in vogue at the time, so he used a pair of columns and an entablature in his living room, which, he writes, “I thought of as the ‘former’ parlor.” (The slightly over-scaled girth of the columns is a knowing wink to postmodernism.) Photo by Michael Partenio, reprinted with permission from Beautiful Homes Magazine, © 2009 Meredith Corporation

Ahearn placed the kitchen off the double-height family room, in a space he imagined as the barn’s original horse stalls. He used salvaged-wood ceiling beams to carry that theme forward. The antique wide-plank floorboards extend throughout the house. Photo by Michael Partenio, reprinted with permission from Beautiful Homes Magazine, © 2009 Meredith Corporation

What Ahearn conceived of as livery stables from centuries past he uses as an outbuilding that flanks the pool, creating a private courtyard. The structure houses a herringbone-brick-floored space for his vintage cars on its ground level and a guest suite above.

The gambrel roof of another Edgartown house serves both to maximize the livable square footage on the upper floor, Ahearn writes, and to make the home feel shorter than it actually is. This, he continues, “creates a historically correct sense of scale” and a “feeling of appropriateness” that “extends to the detailing and proportions of the façade’s fixtures and trim.”

The foyer functions as the nexus of the two perpendicular spines of Ahearn’s floor plan for the house. More like galleries or arcades than hallways, these spines — which are another of the architect’s signatures — let rooms flow easily from one to the next and allow for enfilade views through a home.

Ahearn created a warmly welcoming and historically accurate atmosphere in the home’s library by making paneling, cabinetry and shelves from antique wooden floorboards.

 

A new outbuilding Ahearn added to the rebuilt and expanded Chatham property takes its cues from the original 1910 structure and serves as both pool cabana and carriage house.

Now, Ahearn is working on a 26-acre estate in the town of Skaneateles, in Upstate New York’s Finger Lakes region, designing a new gatehouse and a tennis pavilion for it and renovating its historic 1920s-era boathouse, whose Arts and Crafts aesthetic he describes as “fanciful and fun.” In addition, he’s just started planning a new coastal compound for a client turned friend whose earlier house, in the Vineyard’s Katama plains region, features in Timeless. Developing a scheme for 11 acres on Edgartown Harbor, Ahearn will craft what he describes as “a whole village” — a stone-based, shingled main house plus guest quarters, a barn-like carriage house, a boat house and further outbuildings — to shelter multiple generations of the family “on campus,” as he puts it.

Although he’s approaching his fifth decade in the business, Ahearn shows no sign of slowing down, and the new monograph — his first book — is hardly a swan song. His 12-designer firm still works on upwards of 100 projects a year, and he’s already talking about another book.

In his limited free time, he indulges his one passion outside of architecture: classic vintage cars. Ahearn has owned 300-plus over the years and has more than 20 now, the latest acquisition being a 1953 Studebaker coupe designed by Raymond Loewy. “I was on the hunt for it for fifteen years,” he says. “It’s one of the most important automotive designs of the twentieth century, and I finally found the perfect one in the perfect color combination: red with a white top and red leather interior.”

As with all things Ahearn, it’s the classic design details that matter most.


Patrick Ahearn’s Quick Picks

“This pedal car is very nostalgic for me. It looks just like the one I had as a child growing up in Levittown.”

“If I hadn’t become an architect, I would have been a car designer. I have a big passion for classic cars, including Porsches, and I used to own a VW bus back in the seventies.”

“I like the authenticity of this table. It is rich in texture and history without being overly formal.”

“English gardens are my favorite, and I can easily imagine this bench nestled in a lush green space. I like the simplicity of the teak wood contrasted with the elegant and graceful high-arched back.”

“The rich character of these copper lanterns would instantly elevate the facade of a carriage house.”


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