The Olsons of Farm Pond

Artistry, whimsy, and ingenuity bring an Oak Bluffs home back to life.

This year, he’ll replace the weathered latticework surrounding the deck. Then he’ll think about building a second arbor. And window boxes. Or maybe light-blue shutters instead. And, with the consent of the building inspector, a tiny shed near the road.

It’s hard to imagine Don Olson at rest. When he’s not running a road race or taking a dip in Nantucket Sound or playing the “back one” on a little golf course, Don cheerfully wields a hammer or paintbrush about the one-and-a-half story cottage he and his wife Joan own in Oak Bluffs.

“I’m happy as a pig in manure when I’m mowing the lawn,” he says.

The work never ends, and it’s no wonder: The four-bedroom house is a century old, it lies in the fast lane of the northeaster highway, and reason of all reasons, Don is a free-flowing spigot of inspiration. It’s a fitting occupational hazard for the sixty-four-year-old artisan who makes his living as a decorative painter and interior designer. Don’s favorite golf course, by the way, is his own – two holes nestled in the mounds and native foliage of his backyard. Before the town conservation commission pulled rank, it was a four-hole course that Don designed and built on this cozy nook between Farm Pond and Seaview Avenue.

Yes, it’s that cozy nook, near the end of the bike path from Edgartown. The home site has forever drawn the attention of passing motorists, cyclists, joggers, and power walkers for its can’t-miss-it perch at the gateway to Oak Bluffs. Since Don and Joan acquired the property in August of 1990, regular passersby have witnessed its evolution from simple and weary to simply inviting. The understated exterior is a superb foil for the artistry and whimsy Don and his daughter-in-law Kelly, a decorator, have incorporated inside. Off-Island, the two are partners in Kelly Olson Interiors in Natick.

Like many a Vineyard home buyer, Don was a longtime vacation renter who eventually caved in. Upon buying this foreclosed property during a moment of weakness in the housing market, Don replaced the failed cesspool with a new septic system, and – well, why not? – brought in truckloads of extra dirt to reshape the steep yard into a gently rolling landscape. After Hurricane Bob laid waste to his soil and toil in 1991, Don repeated the work, only to be defeated anew by the infamous Perfect Storm that October. Don surrendered the job to a contractor and turned his attention to the house.

On an afternoon not long after the two storms, the Olson family sat in the breakfast area, gazing through the studs of their gutted building, wondering where to begin. “We were scared to death,” says Don. It’s a dubious statement. Don, wife Joan, son Don Jr., and especially son Erik, a seasoned spare-time carpenter, had already restored a few homes with their own hands in Natick and Framingham. In this newest challenge, the family rebuilt the interior rooms, moved the front entrance from roadside to pond side, erected a three-sided deck and an arbor, installed multi-mullioned windows, put a balustrade around the roof of the attached garage, and turned the garage itself into a separate living space. Kelly joined the act after marrying Erik and apparently vowing to love, honor, and spackle. In less than five weekend-warrior years, the work was done.

“If I had to wait for other people to do things, I’d go crazy,” says Don.

Don sums up the decorating theme in one word: beach. It’s a worthy approach for a house that generously embraces the sunrise over the Sound and the sunset over the pond. To Don, the theme is as much about lifestyle as it is about looks. “It’s a house you don’t have to worry about,” he says. “You can put a wet glass on the table, your feet on the furniture.” Heck, you can even write on the kitchen wall, as evidenced by a riot of messages scribbled near the phone. The kitchen counter, made of wooden floor joists, defies wear and tear. The sand-friendly foyer is paved with glazed Mexican tiles inlaid with wood. In the rest of the house, the flooring consists of eight-inch spruce planks that need no more attention than a yearly wash with a bleach solution. Don liked the look of the small knots in the spruce, to say nothing of the affordability. “Price is a factor in everything we do,” he says. To make the upstairs flooring a deeper hue, Don mixed what he found in the kitchen – old coffee, tea, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce – and boiled it into a custom stain. “For two weeks, the floors had this beautiful coffee smell.”

The Olsons liberally blend their furnishings, too, which come from sources as disparate as flea markets, antiques shops, yard sales, dumpsters, salvage yards, Home Depot, Pier 1, the family’s homes on the mainland, and Don’s inventions. “Don and I are both idea people,” says Kelly, “but he’s got more vision. He’s still training me.” The vanity in the powder room, for example, combines an old dry sink with a second-hand bowl. Gradually, one realizes that birdhouses and cages are everywhere – old, new, big, small, simple, ornate, high on a cabinet, low on a floor.

“I finally figured out why I love birdhouses,” says Don. “Each time I buy one, it’s like buying another house – for about nineteen dollars.” If a furnishing is spanking new, Don is apt to rough it up a bit. After Oak Bluffs artist Donna Allen painted detailed flowers on the Home Depot cabinets in the kitchen, Don lightly sanded them – with her permission.

In the two front upstairs bedrooms, the Olsons installed beadboard paneling to recapture a period look lost in the process of insulating the walls and ceiling. Double headboards in the grandchildren’s room were cut to twin size; ducks in relief disguise the seams. Fluffy white linens and pillows cover the beds of the grownups, gracefully hiding plywood frames. Other furnishings – an old vanity, a new bistro set – are small enough not to overwhelm the spare dimensions of the rooms. Double closets were restored as single closets with shelves on the side. “How many hanging clothes do you need on a Vineyard vacation?” Don asks.