Harmony on High

A clifftop house on Martha's Vineyard updates traditional New England style.
Text by Elizabeth Raines Beeler

Janice Florin and Don Barker decided to move up in the world―geographically speaking. Their Martha's Vineyard home lies "up-island," which means it's located west of the area's three main towns. "The word comes from nautical terminology―'up' refers to the increase in longitude as you go west," Don says. The house is up in another sense, too: It sits on the Vineyard's north shore, atop a 90-foot bluff that provides a breathtaking panorama of Vineyard Sound, the Elizabeth Islands, and Cape Cod.

Cedar and stone cladding helps the structure blend into its natural setting and―along with features such as a gabled roof and two-over-two divided-light windows―echoes New England's historic architecture. Yet the design by Hutker Architects feels decidedly contemporary. Residential designer Phil Regan calls the style "new regional vernacular, which uses traditional materials, forms, and scale but takes them into the 21st century." That suits Janice and Don, whose past residences range from modern homes in Chicago and Hong Kong to a converted 18th-century barn in England. And it has found favor on the Vineyard, where "life is different," Phil says. "You arrive on a boat and your house is on an unpaved road. Our clients here seem willing to try a fresh approach and have a little fun."

At first the couple thought of renovating the property's existing circa-1970 residence, but found it needed far too much work. Because the house was so close to the bluff, Janice and Don received permission from the town to build a slightly larger house, provided that they site the new structure in accordance with current setback requirements. Removal of the existing foundation could harm the bluff, Phil explains, so "we left it where it was and capped it with decking so that there would be no need to maintain landscaping so close to the bluff. The town liked the idea."

Instead of one imposing structure, the design consists of two smaller ones―living space in one, bedrooms in the other―with the entrance and a screened porch in a connecting breezeway. Granite steps with flanking rock walls lead up to the entrance. "The front path fosters a sense of discovery," says interior designer Liz Stiving-Nichols. "You don't see the amazing view until you get to the front door, or go beyond that to the deck."

Ample windows embrace the vista, which takes in passing ospreys, red-tailed hawks, and sailboats. The interiors defer to the scenery with low-profile furniture, muted fabrics, minimal window treatments, and a neutral hue on walls, trim, and ceiling. "We wanted nothing to distract from the nature outside," Janice says.

Intimate bedrooms nod to a simpler past. "The idea on the Vineyard is to spend time outdoors and with family. People aren't living in bedrooms," Phil says. "To maximize space and reduce furniture, we gave the bedrooms built-ins. They're beautifully crafted by a local contractor."

Outdoor activities here include lounging on the deck and descending the community's long wood stairway to walk on the beach or swim in the sound. A fireplace warms the cedar-lined screened porch, which Phil calls "a captivating space, especially in evenings, when you can see stars through the skylight." To blend the house with its environment, landscape architect Kris Horiuchi of Horiuchi Solien replaced invasive flora with bayberry, sea grass, and other plants that grow naturally on the shore.

Although they winter in Florida, Don and Janice always look forward to getting back to the Vineyard. "We've been coming here for 25 years," Don says. "Now we have this house, and every time we return we say, 'Wow!'"