Summers on Martha's Vineyard are sacred for Diana and Roy Vagelos, their four children, their children’s spouses and their seven grandchildren. The members of the Vagelos clan travel from all ends of the country to gather on the island off the Massachusetts coast. “They think summers in the Vineyard are better than anything else,” Diana says. So after decades of squeezing into summer rental homes, in 1998 the Vageloses bought 80 acres of forested hillside overlooking the Vineyard Sound and the Elizabeth Islands and approached a local builder, South Mountain Company, about a house.
The extended family needed space, and they planned to build four houses over time. For the first—the main house—no one was crazy about building something humongous, which would have disturbed the wooded site’s natural balance and displaced several large oak trees. So South Mountain, a group of designers and builders that pays particular attention to how their homes blend into the landscape, proposed two smaller houses connected by a covered breezeway. The Vageloses had their solution.
The first home and a guest house were tucked down into the woods near the water. When it came time to build a third, the family had thoroughly explored their land and fallen in love with a hilltop spot with spectacular views. “For several years we would hike up there, rest and meditate, and think how beautiful it was,” Diana says. “We couldn’t not put the house there—it was just too good.”
While the South Mountain team agreed the hillside site was magnificent, it wasn’t without challenges. “Our biggest concern was keeping the house from breaking the tree canopy above it,” South Mountain cofounder John Abrams explains. “The house would have this wildly expansive view, but we didn’t want it to be too much a part of everyone else’s view from the water.”
“We always keep in mind not just what the family sees from inside, but also what the community sees from outside,” says South Mountain co-owner and designer Derrill Bazzy, who managed the project. “This site was very visible from the water, so we tucked the home’s second floor up into the roof line, and from the water it looks like a one-and-a-half-story house instead of a three-story house. Even though it’s perched, it’s somewhat settled in.”
The water views were down a north-facing slope, presenting another challenge. “It was easy to get fixated on this stunning view,” Bazzy says, “but we had to think about really windy, cool days—about having nice spaces without the view that are protected from rain and get southern sun.”
The northern exposure also made it harder to fulfill the Vageloses’ wish that their home be filled with light. The designers opened up the house so sunlight from the south side could spill all the way through. On the north side, a large uncovered terrace overlooks the hillside and the water.
Abrams and the South Mountain team were glad for the sound relationship they’d built with the Vagelos family when it came time to build the covered walkway they’d promised. As soon as the builders put up posts for the breezeway, everyone realized it would be ugly. “The design for the walkway roof looked good on paper, but as we stood on the site and absorbed the space, we all had the same visceral reaction. The structure we had proposed was simply a violation,” Abrams wrote in his book, The Company We Keep (Chelsea Green, 2005).
Abrams took a deep breath and approached the owners with an alternative to the roofed structure: Carry an umbrella. “John was funny; he said he would make sure we had a place to keep umbrellas so we could go from house to house even in bad weather,” Diana says. “Next thing we knew, we had two terra-cotta chimney pots, one at the main house, one at the back door of the guest house, with two umbrellas in each one. Who could say no to that?”
Old wood, local talent
Designed to offer both large gathering spaces and quiet, intimate spots, the 3,900-square-foot hillside home is used by several different families at once, with cousins bunking up together. Its open floorplan accommodates several families, and the designers also provided plenty of cozy nooks and crannies. “The kitchen can handle several cooks, and people can spread out into the rest of the great room,” Abrams says. “But they also can close the pocket doors to the music room or retreat to the study off the stairs for some quiet.”
The spacious, airy great room was designed around massive white-pine timbers salvaged from a Providence, Rhode Island, warehouse. “We really love the soft color and the traces of history in the wood,” Bazzy says.
“The wood is so beautiful, and the carpentry’s to die for,” Diana adds.
Most of the home’s exterior and interior finishes are crafted from logs that sank to the bottom of Florida’s Choctawhatchee River around the turn of the 20th century. In addition, sassafras trees from the site were used for the entryway. “So much of what happens with our interiors starts with the wood,” South Mountain co-owner and interior designer Dierdre Bohan says. “It really informs what the space will be like, and everything then balances and highlights the wood.”
Stone is another important element in the rustic interiors. Bazzy tells of a mason who searched stoneyards until he found a single piece of arched granite (an old roadway curb) for the fireplace hearthstone. “That’s the beauty of the way we build—we can let our subcontractors and carpenters experiment,” he says. The work of local artisans figures prominently in the home—from the handpainted bathroom tiles to the artwork from island galleries—and that’s just the way the Vageloses wanted it. “We feel like we’re good friends with everyone who’s contributed to our houses,” Diana says. “And that just feels right.”
A Conversation with the Homeowner