A place to call Home
Scaling down creates new possibilities
When considering where to retire, experts recommend evaluating your needs now and what you will need as you get older, and then coming up with a wish list.
That is what one Portsmouth area couple did. In 2008, living in Rochester, New York, they were looking north of New York City for a place to retire. As academics who had spent considerable time during their careers doing field work in remote locations, they desired a town and a house that would be a hub for birthdays, holidays, and summer vacations with their adult children, their spouses, and three grandchildren.
The wish list also included a location that was on the coast with a view of the water. It had to be near an international airport and have cultural and inspirational offerings. The wife enjoyed a workshop that she had taken at Strawbery Banke and suggested looking in the Portsmouth, New Hampshire, area.
They wanted a house with history but knew they would need modern conveniences, especially as time went on. An updated kitchen was a must, as were good views, an office, and space for books. Lots and lots of books: so many, they filled 200 moving boxes.
The house they found has a view of the Piscataqua River eastward toward the Isles of Shoals and north to Maine. Although in a historic district and therefore under restrictions as to how it could be renovated, the house was built in the 1940s, and so not considered a historic property. It sits back from the road surrounded by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century houses.
The building spanned a couple of eras: besides the 1940s, an addition was added in the 1970s. There were two front doors. Inside was a warren of dark, dated rooms. A two-story great room with an oversized north-facing window was tacked onto the exterior. One of the master bedroom windows had been turned into an interior window overlooking the great room. The third floor had been converted into a separate, tiny apartment.
The couple knew significant renovations were needed to meet their purposes.
Before signing the papers, they asked their architect, Lisa DeStefano, principal at DeStefano Architects in Portsmouth, to determine whether it was worth renovating. If no, the search would continue.
The couple had engaged DeStefano well before finding the house. Her work stood out to them because she specializes in renovations and, according to the husband, “Her style was the most in tune with our aesthetic.”
DeStefano’s answer was full steam ahead. “The location was spectacular,” she says. “The challenges were the flow on the inside and the aesthetics on the outside. But I could see that there was a base upon which my team could meet the couple’s needs.”
The owners remained in Rochester during the design and build phases, visiting about once a month. “Managing from long distances is not an ideal way to renovate a house,” the husband says. “Communication can be challenging.”
An inspection revealed the house needed a new furnace and roof. However, when the siding came off, there was significant deterioration underneath—rot and mold—which meant new clapboards. As renovations often do, the project turned into a more complex and expensive job than initially expected.
From start to finish, the renovation took three years—two in the design, planning, and approval stages, and a year to build. The plans and materials had to be approved by the Historic District Commission.
“We had five to six months of meetings,” DeStefano said. “We’d design, then meet, then discuss so that every detail on the exterior was inspected, measured, detailed, and approved.
“The commission asked, ‘Given that one part of the house was from the 1940s and the other from the ’70s, which era were we trying to bring it back to?’ We wanted to respect the surrounding houses but didn’t want a false facade.” The renovation is based upon the original footprint and follows the commission’s guidelines as to square footage, cubic feet, and height.
Another challenge was how to layer the design so that the house did not look like it was just plunked on top of a rock. “We did this by creating layers on the facade—decks, front porch, trim—so it cascades down and settles in,” DeStefano says. “The landscape design helps as well.”
From the front, the garages are not visible. Meander around and more of the house unfolds. A large deck is cantilevered over the garage. DeStefano added details with balustrades and large brackets to draw the eye away from the garage doors.
The exterior reflects the location in its color palette. To keep the house from standing out from its neighbors, they chose colors drawn from the huge boulder near the garage. The gray clapboards are not wood but cementitious siding. The color is impregnated into the material and should never need painting, a bonus in a marine climate.
The white trim is also a wood impostor. Made by Azek, a composite material that does not absorb water. It looks and feels like wood but does not need to be painted. The owners say it looks the same as when it was first installed four years ago. The Historic District Commission approved the materials.
“Another challenge was the verticality of the building,” DeStefano says. “It was similar to a Back Bay row house, or townhouse, with floors stacked on one another. How do you effectively connect the living areas without always going upstairs and downstairs?
“We did this with the staircase,” she continues. “It’s wide and graceful. It’s more than just getting from floor to floor. By building shelves and putting the homeowner’s collections in the shelves it becomes a focal point, a piece of art. Moving from floor to floor becomes an experience.”
It is the most striking feature of the house. Light from the third floor spills down the maple steps, brightening the area. Large and open, it has multiple levels and shelves holding books and mementos. It is known as a “good morning” staircase because it goes up a flight, then splits in opposite directions to separate wings of the house.
There are four floors. At the bottom are the basement, mudroom, and garage. The large entryway, living area, kitchen, and breakfast nook take up the first floor. Three bedrooms and two baths make up the second, and an office, bunkroom, and bath for the grandchildren are on the third.
Most people as they get older would not embrace a four-floor house with a twisty-turny staircase. On DeStefano’s advice, the couple added an elevator. The elevator goes to the basement and the first two floors but not to the third because the roofline would not allow it.
To keep the house snug and warm, there is a geothermal heating system. Performance Plumbing and Heating in York, Maine, installed the system and all of the plumbing.
The wife is serious about cooking, so the kitchen had to be practical and functional as well as bright and light. The Atlantic Design Center in York, Maine, did the design.
The couple chose Ivory Fantasy for the granite countertops. The cooktop is Wolf, the refrigerator and freezer drawers, Fisher & Paykel. The table in the breakfast nook is not an original Saarinen, but a grandchild-proof imitation from Ikea.
The couple did a lot of formal entertaining in their previous home and wanted something more relaxed, so they decided to forego a dining room. There is a drop-leaf table behind the sofa in the large living room. From Design Within Reach in Cambridge, Massachusetts, it can seat up to eight.
Since built-ins for books were a must-have, DeStefano designed the house to include more than 200 linear feet of bookshelves, even in the mudroom.
“Those books are a lot of weight,” DeStefano says. “They influenced the design of the stairs. One wall is dead weight, which had to be accounted for all the way to the ground.”
The wife did the interior design and decorating, right down to the doorknobs. She used a subdued color palette so as not to distract from the views and to highlight their art and collections from all over the world. The interior paint is all Benjamin Moore’s Aura line.
The gardens are the husband’s domain. Since the existing landscape had to be dug up to install the geothermal system, he used the opportunity to design and build a new garden. A raised terrace made of reused stone and brick covers the geothermal wells and provides a sunny spot to relax.
La Louve, the private garden of Nicole de Vésian in Provence, France, inspired his design. She used small, tightly clipped shrubs, low walls, and brick terraces to create intimate spaces. The owner has interpreted de Vésian’s style for New Hampshire’s climate, using cold-hardy materials and plants.
Before the renovation, sets of massive granite steps anchored the two front doors. One set stayed, and the other was used to unite the garden terraces. The terraces and the stonework on the garage facade are by J. B. Leslie of Eliot, Maine.
Four years after completing the renovation, its success is evident. “It was a lot of small rooms. By opening them up and reallocating their functions, the flow and circulation now work for present-day needs,” DeStefano says. “Every inch of the house is functional. What a joy to see them in the home years later, knowing their wish list and how everything about it works.”
The husband credits how much they enjoyed working with DeStefano for much of the project’s success. He recommends consulting or engaging an architect very early on in the renovation process. “A strong, positive relationship with your architect is critical,” he says. “It’s an investment in a service that repays time and again. So many people just look at an architect’s bill and get the willies. It’s the best money you will spend. We’d go back to Lisa in an instant.”
“Perhaps more than some people, our house is very important to us,” says his wife. “Maybe it’s because we spent so much time in remote areas, in the field, and we lived so basically. This house reflects our personal style, and it’s where our family get-togethers happen. How lucky we are is evident every single day.”
Yet it is more than the house that satisfies them. “Portsmouth is filled with retired people who are interesting, committed, and community-oriented, people who want to contribute,” the husband says. “There’s a high level of engagement, of volunteering, of giving to the community. It’s a rich place to live in.”
His wife agrees, and adds with a smile: “I saw a pickup truck that had a sign: ‘I love it here.’ That sums up how we feel about living in Portsmouth.”