A marina warehouse morphs into a Newburyport colonial home
Once, there was a neglected marina on the Merrimack River in Newburyport, Massachusetts, with dozens of abandoned wooden boats scattered about the property. A decade ago, Ron Guertin and his wife Barbara purchased it while living in nearby Newbury, Massachusetts. Ten years on, the marina is an entirely different place, with new docks, two homes, and one floating cottage. There are still plenty of boats, but they look fresh and well tended.
“To see it [the marina] when we got it—it was a mess,” Ron Guertin says. “We thought we’d get permits to do condos here.” The town had other plans, however, and did not provide the new owners with the necessary permits. Undeterred, the couple went in a different direction.
“We decided to clean up the marina and run it,” Ron says. “We did the docks over, also the electrical over. We did an immense amount of work, plus we got rid of the abandoned boats, and that was not an easy deal.” Today, their Yankee Landing Marina occupies three acres and offers 27 moorings and dock space for approximately 60 boats, just blocks from downtown Newburyport. The Guertins also moved into and redid the house located at the marina.
The “we” in Ron’s tale is a family affair: his son John began a career in carpentry when he was 13. His father recalls carpenters taking John under their wings when he was a teenager. Since then, father and son have done some 130 homes and condos together, the majority in Newburyport. “We strayed from here a few times, and we won’t do that again,” John says.
When the marina was finished, a slow economic climate left employees with extra time on their hands. Inspired by floating homes in Boston Harbor, he thought a similar idea might work in Newburyport. “We thought if we did something really nice—in granite, stainless steel—we’d be able to sell them,” Ron says.
Like the zoning of the marina, things did not work out as planned. “We weren’t able to sell it,” he says of the one floating home they did build. “We might have been a little bit before our time.” He had the idea to rent the home through Newburyport’s Essex Inn, which is run by John and John’s wife, Lori. “It just rents like crazy,” Ron says.
The 400-square-foot floating home now sits in a slip at one of the marina’s docks, surrounded by boats. Outside the shingled house, trailing pink and purple flowers spill out of window boxes in the spirit of Nantucket, John says. A small deck with a railing enclosing two chairs provides a front porch for watching the comings and goings of the marina. Inside, white bead board completely covers the walls and ceilings. Only the slightly gentle rocking divulges the water underneath. The rectangular home manages to encompass a bedroom, a bathroom, a kitchen with a small bar, kitchen table, and a sitting area complete with a pullout sofa bed and flat-screen television. A ladder salvaged from a 1963 Chris-Craft boat leads to an overhead loft. The floating cottage even comes with air conditioning. As winter approaches, it comes out of the water just as a boat would.
“Some people are dying to try it out and some people are skeptical,” John says, but everyone ultimately loves staying there. This past summer, it even drew attention from the television camera when Boston’s WCVB did a Chronicle feature on the floating cottage.
Now, just across the parking lot from the marina, stands the Guertins’ newest project: their home built of warehouse space once used to store boats. It was John who inspired such an unlikely transformation. “We were thinking about what to do next,” Ron says, when John happened to be on the roof of the warehouses and noticed the spectacular views. Ron soon found himself going up in a bucket truck to experience the vista himself, and the site for their next home was found.
Except, it was not that simple. Ron and John Guertin may have discovered a wonderful site for another home, but the town of Newburyport had to agree as well. Obtaining permits for the building was the most challenging part of creating the home and took more than a year, Ron says.
The state code was changing at the same time that they were designing the home, adding another layer of complexity to the federal, state, Federal Emergency Management Agency, hurricane and flood, and zoning board ordinances that had to be minded, says Ron Laffely of Fulcrum Inc. Architects, who did the plans for the home. In addition, a building that was primarily for marina use, with an office, was being transformed into a mixed-use building: a home with an office. The Guertins do not always use an architect on their projects, but given the complexity of the building, they knew they needed one this time.
When they eventually received permits, the Guertins had to remain within the original footprint and at the same height as the boat-storing warehouse and the side building connected to it. They also had to contend with the setting. Working along a riverbed as they were, Laffely says, “You never know what’s there. We had to put in a pile foundation, pile caps, bond beams. We had to do everything we could to make sure the building doesn’t sink.” On top of that, a mix of gravel and concrete made up the floors of the space when they began work, and pigeons roosted about the ceilings.
The layout of the new, 7,000-square-foot house reflects the sought-after view. On the somewhat minimalist first floor are a craft room, a playroom with a pool table, and an exercise room. It is upstairs where the couple does the majority of their living. With no children in the house, two spacious rooms on the garage side of the house both serve as offices; Ron’s faces into a stunning view of the Merrimack River. The kitchen and master bedroom are also on the water side of the house, although Ron warns that the river vista has its limits. “It’s a seasonal view, just in the summertime,” he says. “In the wintertime there are boats all over, and you can’t even begin to see the river.”
When it came to designing the new home from warehouse space, John and Ron were also extremely mindful of the area. “We have a lot of older houses [in Newburyport], so we tried to have the interior not look new,” Ron says. “We tried to have all the features an older Colonial would have. We’ve remodeled and rehabbed so many older homes we know the types of woodwork that came out of them.”
To that end, wide pine planks run the length of the second floor. They come in varying widths, up to 16 inches wide, just as an older home would have. “Back then it would be random what you’d get,” John says. He and his team were also able to have a little fun with the floors, walking on them in boots studded with nails to provide the dings and dents that centuries-old floors would have.
“We wanted everything to look old,” John says. Laid into the pine floors are brass floor grilles from Reggio Registers in Leominster, Massachusetts; they are also the company that provided the cast iron heat returns on the bedroom walls.
It seems to have paid off. “A lot of people come in and just can’t believe that the inside is new,” Ron says.
The home’s yard space is limited, so Ron says the decks serve as their outdoor areas and are the couple’s favorite spaces. Off of the living room, the Guertins tucked a deck into the roofline and hid it from sight below. Large potted plants, urns, and outdoor furniture offer a calming respite that could never be imagined when looking up from the driveway.
The expansive kitchen has water views and, of course, the wide pine floors. Cherry cabinetry hides the microwave and refrigerator. The cabinets also have nicks and dings to provide the appearance of age and display details such as finely lathed columns that are reminiscent of furniture. “The cabinets look like they grew there,” Ron says of the kitchen his son designed and installed.
While Ron praises his son’s skills, John is more modest, saying he recreates woodwork from photos his father finds in magazines. This happened with the two fireplaces on the second floor, both exquisitely detailed pieces of woodwork. John describes the fireplace in the living area as Greek revival style and the ornate bedroom fireplace, which has a built-in television, as more of a Georgian style. “We built it in the garage and brought it up in two pieces,” he says of the bedroom fireplace. John does his design work by hand rather than with a computer program. Above the living area’s fireplace, a flat-screen television retracts into the ceiling.
The Guertins tackled the decorating themselves. “We’ve had some experience,” Ron says with a laugh. They also had help from the Cape Neddick, Maine-based tj’s at the Sign of the Goose, where they bought many items. The relationship continued even after their home was complete. “We were looking for a wreath with starfish for the front door,” Ron says. “Lo and behold, one of the owners called me up and said, ‘We made one for you.’” Then he gave the wreath to the Guertins as a gift. Throughout the house are curtains that Barbara designed in her workshop in the basement: she filled a room off the poolroom with several sewing machines and yards and yards of floral and paisley fabric, much of which was used on the second floor. Framed photos of boats and local spots adorn the walls of nearly every room in the home. Wall colors are muted. Ron said they chose from just a few tried and true options for their own and nearly every home they build.
Yet another project done, Ron and John are looking ahead to their next venture, which is in the planning stages. You could say that their relationship at this point is on autopilot. “People ask, ‘How come he makes all these decisions?’” Ron says. “We’ve been doing it together for so long, you kind of think along the same lines. Like he says, ‘I have an idea,’ and I say, ‘I had that same idea!’” Ron used to travel to get many of the materials for projects, but at this point he mostly does administrative work, going over details with his son and checking in once a day on projects.
“I’m very proud of John,” Ron says. “There are very few carpenters I know who are as good as he is.” Every father should be lucky enough to have one in the family.