Call it a villa or hacienda, this coastal home is unique
Colonials, Cape Cods, and saltboxes with prim plantings are the status quo in most coastal New Hampshire towns, but David Pelletier was determined to follow his own drummer. Yet try though he might, he could not put his finger on exactly the home he wanted to build on the 33-acre lot he had purchased in 1993.
He spoke with several designer-architects, but their proposals left him underwhelmed. “Their designs were so conventional,” he recalls. “I was building my first home, and I wanted something personal.” Things were not looking good for the wannabe homeowner until the day he visited a friend, only to find him on a ladder scraping paint from his house. Apparently, this was not his friend’s idea of an ideal weekend recreation. “What you want is a house constructed of concrete blocks,” his friend joked. And that got Pelletier thinking.
Meanwhile, he was making periodic trips to Mexico. In fact, restaurateur Pelletier took every opportunity to steal away to this warm destination, where he felt an affinity for the art, craftsmanship, and haciendas. After one trip, he returned to the United States galvanized about the possibilities inherent in his property and leaning toward alternative building materials.
Then he heard about Steven Lee. Pelletier arranged to rendezvous at Lee’s own self-designed home. “I immediately liked the way he was living,” Pelletier recalls of their first meeting. “He built himself a European-style house, but the grounds and working studio are filled with sculpture and sculpture-in-progress. It reminded me of Mexico, and I thought, ‘This is how I want to live.’ I tossed all the other designs out the window.”
For Steven Lee, going the conventional route was never in his career cards. All it took was one month of living in Florence with his college art history class to convert him to a lifelong love of Italian architecture. It occurred to him that cement blocks would be a termite-free building material. That was the medium that Lee, a mason who grew up working in his family’s multigenerational North Dakota masonry company, used for building his own home—with an emphasis on all things Italianate. His connection with Pelletier, whose grandfather came from Sicily, was fortuitous. Two freethinkers who shared a vision began work on a unique Seacoast collaboration.
Originally, the house was meant to be small. It took 11 months from digging the first hole to finishing the shell of the original 2,600-foot design for a villa to be born. With arched windows, Beaux Art friezes set into the walls between the first and second floors, balconies to overlook the backyard, and curvaceous scrollwork set into the facade—everything was custom built. The main house floor plan with two bedrooms, a kitchen, a bumped out breakfast room, and a dining room is not drastically different from the norm, except that every curve is lovingly wrought and craftsmanship prevails. However, the buttresses, archways, friezes in the fireplace, and fascination with Fibonacci sequences were definitely not standard New Hampshire fare. “Nothing was ordered from catalogs,” Pelletier says of his dedication to custom artisans. The walls were decorated in daring Della Robbia hues softened with plaster-like strokes, and the floors were hand-painted in a checkerboard pattern of earthy hues; the result was unlike anything the locals had ever seen. Stage one was done.
The garden is part of stage two, which also included an addition to the house. While a small home is cozy, Pelletier needed office and garage/studio space and figured that his house begged for a suitable Italian garden.
The addition showcases Lee’s striking custom work. With studded and arched wooden castle-like doors, a wall of round “bubble glass” windows, a stained-glass Gothic rose window, and two narrow Gothic windows with pointed arches facing the garden, this is the most glorious office/garage/studio you will ever encounter. Inspired by the Brunelleschi dome, Lee and Pelletier call this huge room “the chapel.” It is attached to the house via a light-filled greenhouse corridor and sitting area.
Considering the architecture, the garden had only one way it could go: Italianate. It begged for a splashing fountain as the focal point and a pergola. But the tall, stilt-like pergola is unlike any other structure built to shoulder vines. At one point, Pelletier and Lee traveled together to Mexico where they studied columns that would support the upper beams of the pergola, creating custom molds for the formidable 16-sided supports composed of stone, pale pink amalgamate, and seashells. On the far side of the wide garden, another set of columns is freestanding, corralling a fire pit with council ring seating on its wall. The hacienda-style potting shed, soon to become a pottery studio, stands close by with its terra cotta tile roof and a phenomenal frieze on its ridge line. It is the most incredible Mexico-meets-Roman-forum marriage you can imagine.
The pool was not part of the original plan. But Pelletier was finding himself drawn outdoors by the garden in summer. So an infinity pool running parallel to the house now adds to the list of excuses to spend maximum time in plein air. Although the garden was originally a formal design, that concept was softened to fit with his lifestyle. As Pelletier lived in and communed with the space, he discovered that a relaxed feeling was most apropos.
For the garden’s installation, he connected with plantsman Thomas Berger of Garden Art based in Kittery, Maine. Keeping with the Mediterranean mood, Berger selected a combination of herbs, including lavender, ‘Berggarten’ sage, and creeping thyme—Thymus citriodorus is the only thyme that has proved reliably hardy—plus Russian sage and dianthus, which fill the axis from the breakfast room. The herbs repeat for continuity and mix with diminutive shrubs such as ‘Ruby Glow’ daphne, ‘Golden Elf’ spirea, ‘Tom Thumb’ cotoneaster, ‘My Monet’ variegated weigela, and Eastern prickly pear cactus along an undulating walk to soften the straight lines away from formality. Red Knock Out roses combined and ‘Rozanne’ geraniums provide repeated color accents. Meanwhile, wisteria slowly climbs columns to form a canopy above long dining tables, one composed of an antique door set on plinths.
Around the hacienda potting shed, a beautifully structural ‘Glauca’ Japanese white pine gives all-season interest and strengthens the Mediterranean ambience. A mixture of shrubs including Sunshine Blue gold-leaf bluebeard, Black Lace elderberry, and various hydrangeas add mass above Salvia nemorosa, Iris pallida, and other aromatic plants. There is also a pocket monastic garden with nasturtiums or other annuals spilling from a fountain-like urn in the middle of a foursquare garden beside the chapel. In addition, a grouping of containers on the back porch holds a collection of various textural sedums. The offbeat extends beyond the backyard. A hardworking but quaint fence-enclosed vegetable garden and a rock ledge garden flow in front. An ornate metal openwork gazebo frames a marsh that serenades the scene. And the bedroom upstairs as well as the veranda it shares with the guest room command a view of the entire spread.
During the summer, the entire space is used often. A hammock is suspended between columns with someone lazing in its embrace. Occasionally, linens hang beneath the pergola to dry. Kate Crowell, an artist and gardener, provides the garden maintenance while Berger continues to add input. Lee still fine-tunes the chapel for this work in progress. “This is a collaboration,” Pelletier says. “When you spend time getting to know people and talking about vision, what happens is magic.”