Passionate about Block Island history, one couple designed a home worthy of preservation.

By Kathleen Riquelme
September 03, 2008
Tom McWilliam

Some houses begin as frantically scribbled sketches on a cocktail napkin. Others spring to life from an architect's drafting table, with careful consideration given to views, tree lines, and sun exposure. But the story of this handcrafted home in Rhode Island has an unusual beginning―it was built around a pole.

Located on the vacation destination of Block Island, just 12 miles from the mainland, the pole served as a practice mast for members of the Life-Saving Service (the Coast Guard's predecessor) to rehearse rescues more than a century ago. Decades later, when architect and jack-of-all-trades John Gasner decided to build on the pole's property, he wasn't sure what to do with it. After much deliberation, he decided to keep the relic right where it's always been.

Originally he built a workshop/studio on the spot, later using it as a gallery. Today, John, his wife, Pam, and their three children―Will, Noah, and Julia―have transformed the space into a summer home with the pole running through the middle.

Members of a 1,000-strong band of hardy year-round residents, the family spends the coldest months in a winterized house next door to their summer home. But when the weather's warm, they escape to their hand-hewn retreat, which boasts an enviable location between the crashing waves of Crescent Beach and the calm waters of Harbor Pond. With beachcombing, raking up clams at low tide, and reeling in striped bass in the fall, the family has a never-ending supply of activities at their doorstep.

For preservation-minded John and Pam, who have long worked to safeguard the vernacular island architecture, even more satisfying than their ocean view is the reaction of first-time visitors. "They think I restored the house, not that I built it," John says. "They say it looks 100 years old."

To achieve the aged appearance, John designed an exterior compatible with the prevailing architecture. "I used natural materials and kept things simple," he says. John employed construction techniques akin to those of the late 1800s, eliminating plywood and relying mainly on locally milled woods. He had windows custom made at a mill shop that's been in business since the late 19th century, and crafted the outer walls from weathered white cedar shingles.

John and Pam took an organic approach to the interiors as well. "The framing pays homage to the Early American homes on Block Island," John says. Pine-board floors and rustic furnishings in the living room suit the home's beach finds―from the balusters fashioned from driftwood to a tree trunk-turned- coffee table that John ferried home in the family's trusty Boston Whaler.

The Gasners dressed up the kitchen with a coat of crisp white paint on the walls and ceilings and steely blue on the floors. The lifesaving practice mast now serves as a pot rack before bursting up through the floor of the master bedroom.

Upstairs, on either side of the central common space, the children's bedrooms have partial pine-plank walls. "It's a narrow building, so I wanted to keep things as open as possible," John says. In the master bedroom, the bed is positioned to look straight through the common space to sweeping vistas of the Atlantic. "We wake up looking at the ocean," Pam says. "What could be better than that?"