Tower House

History of a Seacoast landmark

Tower LvRmPhotographed by Rob Karosis / Produced by Marsha Jusczak Simple furnishings and hues echoing sea, sky,
and sand complement the views.

As World War II engulfed Europe and raged in Japan, the United States was increasingly vigilant about protecting its coastline. German U-boats prowled the North Atlantic and submarines were detected alarmingly close to shore. The threat of a large-scale attack could not be ruled out.

A Sentinel on the Shore
To help defend the United States, the Army built a series of observation towers/batteries along the East Coast. Rye Ledge Base-End Station, location 139, was built in 1943 to augment activities at Fort Dearborn (now Odiorne Point State Park) in Rye, New Hampshire, and Fort Foster in Kittery Point, Maine. A main house and concrete tower were the central parts of the design.

While the U-boat threat along the Seacoast was real, these towers were not designed to search for those vessels. Navy blimps and aircraft were the prime tools for submarine spotting. Rather, the towers were built to look for and guard against enemy battleships.

TowerHouse 04The tower house began as a US Army observation tower before being remodeled as a private home, which in turn was razed to build this new residence. Photo by David J. Murray, ClearEyePhoto.com

At Rye Ledge Base-End Station, the concrete tower had narrow, horizontal window slits for line of sight on possible enemy ships. Jutting from the tower were several observation levels. The bottom level was intended for Battery 205 out of Fort Dearborn, while the middle level was for Battery Seaman, also out of Fort Dearborn. The top level was intended for Battery Curtis out of Fort Foster. The anti-aircraft intelligence service used the roof deck. Searchlights were installed on each side of the house, which was connected via wire to the Isles of Shoals and could communicate with other bases in the line of defense. In all, six towers were built along the New Hampshire coast during World War II.

It is hard to picture that 1940s coastline now, but take a minute to imagine the scene at night. Because of the blackout, there is utter darkness save for whatever light the moon provides. Few cars pass on the road, but those that do have half their headlights painted black. Homes are sparse and scattered; the tower is surrounded primarily by sea and sky. For those inside, the atmosphere is tense, yet there is a certain boredom at the same time. Hour after hour, they scan the horizon, watching for any sign of an enemy ship slipping toward the coastline. Daytime hours bring a bit more activity—fishermen hauling their catch, the odd sailboat—but mostly the watchers endure the tedium of being constantly on alert, praying that the only boats on the horizon continue to be friendly ones.

TH Before combinedThe previous home dates from 1967. It appeared in Architectural Digest in the 1970s. 

In 1945, the war ended, and with peace at hand, the Army no longer needed the tower stations. Radar replaced base-end towers, which were no longer used except in the case of radar failure. Some towers passed to the Navy for harbor defense, some were loaned to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for observation use, and others were torn down or abandoned.

Modern Mystique
In 1966, the federal government sold Rye Ledge Base-End Station at public auction. While the structure itself was not particularly appealing, its location was. It was purchased by Edward Samara and substantially remodeled in 1967. The Samaras loved their unusual home, which they used as a summer residence. Architect Ralph Harris of Hampton, New Hampshire, was careful to preserve the home’s historic elements, turning the central barracks area into one large living room and converting the rooftop radar station into a crow’s nest-style sundeck. He also added a tall, cedar-shingled tower to the left of the house. Harris kept the original observation slits in the concrete tower, but installed large banks of windows in both the tower and the main house. The result was an ultra-modern design that married geometric shapes and multiple levels; it quickly became a coastal landmark.

 Tower FirePlaceThe living room fireplace is made from rustic fieldstone & reclaimed barn board.“I remember when the tower house was converted from the Rye Ledge Base-End Station into a residence,” says Ralf Amsden, architect and owner of Living Spaces Architectural Associates LLC in Rye, New Hampshire. “I thought it was a work of art. As an architectural student, I found it the most exciting design I had ever seen on the New Hampshire seacoast—most homes here at that time were pretty traditional. This broke all the rules. I often wondered what it was like inside and what it was like way up on the roof deck. The vertical tower, with its five-sided geometry, was particularly inspiring.”

Lisa Samara Ross grew up in the tower house, which the family called Rye Ledge. “Cars would literally get into accidents on that corner because drivers were trying to look at the house, Ross says. My dad eventually put up a gate because we had people knock on our door in the middle of the night, asking for a peek inside.”

The furnishings were classic 1960s Art Deco, adding to the home’s unique appeal. In the living room, crisp white walls contrasted with bold pops of artwork and a white shag rug graced the floor. Chrome and silver accent pieces complemented black leather Italian furniture, sleek as a race car. Elsewhere, the walls themselves were vivid colors—bright red in the kitchen, silver in the tower stairwell, which also featured wall-to-wall mirrors. “This house was my dad’s labor of love,” she says. “He oversaw every detail. I loved the sundecks with their panoramic views and the main room because of the décor. The home took my breath away every time I walked in.”

Tower Kitchen Natural colors and clean lines are prevalent throughout the house, including in the kitchen, where dark wooden cabinets by Jamie Gowing Cabinetry contrast with the stone on the island and countertops.

Not only were locals and tourists fascinated by the home, so were celebrities. “Chuck Connors, who starred in the TV series, The Rifleman, came by on the day that the crane was fitting the sundeck into place,” Ross says. While his son was at Phillips Exeter Academy, Connors took regular drives along the coast; he watched the house take shape and had stopped that day to chat with Samara.

Rye Ledge was featured on Boston Chronicle, in New Hampshire Profiles and Yankee Magazine, and on the cover of Architectural Digest. Although many remember seeing the cover in the 1970s, an exact date for this issue could not be confirmed.

A Rumor of Hollywood
In the seventies, the house began to attract attention for more than its unusual looks. Farrah Fawcett, one of Hollywood’s most beautiful actresses, and Lee Majors, her equally handsome husband, were rumored to be shopping for a home on the New Hampshire coast. The story was that they had set their sights on Rye Ledge.

 Tower Ext DoorDetailThe stone facade on the exterior of the home’s lower level recalls the nearby rocky shore.

It is easy to see how “Farrah fever” gripped the region. Fawcett was at the peak of her popularity. She was star of the television show Charlie’s Angels, and her stunning swimsuit poster broke sales records worldwide. She adorned countless magazine covers and even her hair—that tawny, wavy mane—was copied as women sought the “Farrah flip.” While Majors was not quite in Fawcett’s stratosphere, he, too, was a movie star and played Steve Austin in the hit television series The Six Million Dollar Man. They were Hollywood’s “golden couple” come to New Hampshire!

“I grew up in this area, and everyone was trying to get a glimpse of her,” says Keith Lemerise, Coastal Home’s publisher. “There were numerous Farrah ‘sightings’ along the beach. People were excited to think she might be buying a house here.”

A long-time local resident, who lived near Rye Ledge and knew Ed Samara, confirms that Fawcett and Majors rented a house on Straws Point in Rye for two summers. The resident, who wishes to remain anonymous, says that years later, Majors acknowledged to him that he and Fawcett had been interested in renting or buying the tower house, but that had never come to pass.

TowerHouse 12The tower house has commanding views of the ocean from Jenness State Beach to the north, the Isles of Shoals straight ahead, and Cape Ann to the south. Photo by David J. Murray, ClearEyePhoto.com

After Rye Ledge’s brush with Hollywood, it continued as the Samaras’ summer home, a tenure that ended in 2003. “We enjoyed many summers there while I grew up,” Ross says. “My kids played there, too. But when my dad passed away in 2002, the house lost its life, so to speak. My siblings wanted to sell the property and I did not have the means to keep it. Not only was it my home, it was a landmark with a unique history. Still, in some ways it was fitting that the house went just after my dad passed. One was part of the other.”

A New Vision
The tower house had always intrigued Michael Spinelli and his wife, Jane Coakley. They purchased it in 2003 with plans to restore the home and live there. Unfortunately, restoring the home turned out to be impossible.

As fate would have it, Spinelli asked Amsden, who had long admired the home, to consult on possible restoration of the house. Upon inspection, major obstacles were uncovered. “There were potential issues with the foundation, and while the conversion from the Army station to a residence was striking to look at, the construction was poor. Major repairs would have needed to be done for the home to continue to be viable,” Amsden says.

Tower RoofDeckAfter much discussion, both Amsden and Spinelli concurred that the best course of action was to demolish the home and build anew. “It was not a decision we took lightly,” Amsden says. “We both loved the look of this house. But it could not be repaired and remodeled successfully. Because the tower house had been a local landmark, we agreed to keep some of the architectural features that made it special, so the new design retains a tower and flying roof deck. For the rest of the look, we went with a combination of New England and contemporary. The home’s shingle siding and roof overhangs are a nod to that New England aspect.”

The small lot required that the three-car garage be part of the first floor. The new design also placed the foyer and family room on this floor. The second floor contains three bedroom suites, and an open plan kitchen/living/dining area. An elevator takes you to the third floor, where the primary living space is situated. Because the living room faces north, Amsden added extra skylights to bring in more light.

 The way the house is sited, combined with its angular design, takes maximum advantage of three different ocean views—to the north, Jenness State Beach; straight ahead, the Isles of Shoals; and to the south, Cape Ann. “The views are spectacular,” Amsden says. “The kitchen looks out toward Cape Ann, while the dining area gets a panoramic view of all three locations. The third floor is home to the cathedral-style living area, the master bedroom suite, and a small den/office, all of which have amazing vistas. You can enjoy the ocean from anywhere in the house.”

Tower MasterBdRmThe master bedroom enjoys crisp sea breezes all day long, thanks to large windows and a balcony. Because of a neutral color scheme and
minimal furnishings, nothing detracts from the spectacular views.

The rebuild required obtaining a height variance, since the new tower is 52 feet high. A stairway within the tower provides passage up to the flying roof deck. Amsden incorporated a special steel frame design to make the flying roof deck possible.

“Standing on that flying roof deck is an amazing experience,” Amsden notes. “That moment alone made the project worthwhile. You can see everywhere, and it is perfect for entertaining.”

The Tower House Today
Spinelli and his wife enjoyed living at the tower house, but in 2010 they decided to sell. The new owners are keeping the design essentially the same, except for adding a family room to the first floor and changing some of the interior décor to suit their tastes.

Tower MediaRoom

The couple prefers minimal furnishings, letting the stunning ocean views dominate the décor. “The interior design creates a comfortable, welcoming, and natural set of rooms that can easily be maintained and enjoyed by this young family and their many guests,” says Shaler Ladd of Shaler Ladd Design Company in New York City. The living room, done in earth tones, is one wide sweep of sea and sky thanks to windows all around. A massive stone fireplace stands out on the only windowless wall. On the lower level, the new Cabana Room is the primary family room/entertaining space; it features a wet bar, teakwood paneling, and woven grass-cloth walls along with neutral-colored furnishings. Most striking is the configuration of wooden beams on the ceiling. “We installed steel beams to help support the upper levels of the house, then wrapped them in teakwood,” says Peter Kasnet of Peter G. Kasnet Inc. in North Hampton, New Hampshire. “This created a unique spoke-wheel effect on the ceiling.”

The dining room, built in the front turret, has extensive, unobstructed ocean views. The walls are soft gold and the coffered ceiling is coated with a metallic treatment that reflects the light, creating a bronzed effect. Throughout the home, it feels like the outdoors has been brought indoors, to breathtaking effect.

“Although it is not the original tower house, we feel it maintains its spirit,” Amsden says. “The design is unique and unexpected and, in a small way, pays homage to the innovation that went into the first property.”

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