A clifftop house on Martha's Vineyard updates traditional New England style.

By Elizabeth Raines Beeler
June 05, 2008
Deborah Whitlaw Llewellyn; styling by Liz Stiving-Nichols

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

Cedar and stone cladding helps the structure blend into itsnatural setting and―along with features such as a gabled roofand two-over-two divided-light windows―echoes New England'shistoric architecture. Yet the design by Hutker Architects feelsdecidedly contemporary. Residential designer Phil Regan calls thestyle "new regional vernacular, which uses traditional materials,forms, and scale but takes them into the 21st century." That suitsJanice and Don, whose past residences range from modern homes inChicago 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 unpavedroad. Our clients here seem willing to try a fresh approach andhave a little fun."

At first the couple thought of renovating the property'sexisting circa-1970 residence, but found it needed far too muchwork. Because the house was so close to the bluff, Janice and Donreceived permission from the town to build a slightly larger house,provided that they site the new structure in accordance withcurrent setback requirements. Removal of the existing foundationcould harm the bluff, Phil explains, so "we left it where it wasand capped it with decking so that there would be no need tomaintain landscaping so close to the bluff. The town liked theidea."

Instead of one imposing structure, the design consists of twosmaller ones―living space in one, bedrooms in theother―with the entrance and a screened porch in a connectingbreezeway. Granite steps with flanking rock walls lead up to theentrance. "The front path fosters a sense of discovery," saysinterior designer Liz Stiving-Nichols. "You don't see the amazingview until you get to the front door, or go beyond that to thedeck."

Ample windows embrace the vista, which takes in passing ospreys,red-tailed hawks, and sailboats. The interiors defer to the scenerywith low-profile furniture, muted fabrics, minimal windowtreatments, and a neutral hue on walls, trim, and ceiling. "Wewanted nothing to distract from the nature outside," Janicesays.

Intimate bedrooms nod to a simpler past. "The idea on theVineyard is to spend time outdoors and with family. People aren'tliving in bedrooms," Phil says. "To maximize space and reducefurniture, we gave the bedrooms built-ins. They're beautifullycrafted by a local contractor."

Outdoor activities here include lounging on the deck anddescending the community's long wood stairway to walk on the beachor swim in the sound. A fireplace warms the cedar-lined screenedporch, which Phil calls "a captivating space, especially inevenings, when you can see stars through the skylight." To blendthe house with its environment, landscape architect Kris Horiuchiof Horiuchi Solien replaced invasive flora with bayberry, seagrass, and other plants that grow naturally on the shore.

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