A Shipshape Chilmark Home

On its twenty-fifth anniversary, the Island’s first Robert A.M. Stern house retains all the freshness of its architectural (and nautical) vision.

Lawyers Sylvia and Albert Cohn stood on the deck of their north shore home this August to supervise the installation of a new bronze compass rose, designed by Anthony Holand of Tuck and Holand Metal Sculptors in Vineyard Haven. A debate went on about whether contractor Leo DeSorcy of the DeSorcy Company of Vineyard Haven should line it up according to magnetic or true north. True north – the house’s alignment – won.

The event is worth noting not just because Al Cohn had been waiting for a long time for a compass. This summer the Cohns celebrated their twenty-fifth anniversary of living in a special house. Finished in 1981, it is the first on the Vineyard designed by New York architect Robert A.M. Stern, now dean of Yale University’s School of Architecture. The Cohn house has been featured in Architectural Digest and appears in a range of books about architecture, including Keith Moskow’s Houses of Martha’s Vineyard (Monacelli Press, New York City, 2005). Small by today’s standards, the house measures a mere 3,500 square feet. But the Cohn house looms large in terms of design and livability. “It’s one of the best little houses he’s ever done,” says Sylvia Cohn. Stern partner Roger Seifter, the project architect who supervised construction, seconds that assessment.

“I still think it’s one of our strongest designs,” he says. “[Stern] jumped at the chance, because he always wanted to do a house on the Vineyard.” Stern has gone on to build four larger Vineyard houses.

Seifter worked on the Cohn project as a young man, and in the process fell in love with the Vineyard. He and his wife were married on an octagonal section of the Cohns’ deck twenty-five years ago, and they come back to the Island on vacation every summer.

Pure architectural beauty may not necessarily mesh in execution with comfort and accommodation of a family’s needs. In the Cohn house it does. “In a way, they sort of educated us,” Seifter says. “They wanted something that was significantly architectural without screaming architecture.” Responding to a rise in the cost of energy in the 1980s, the Cohns wanted a house that was livable and energy efficient. Sylvia proved pragmatic to a fault about what she wanted, and both asked for a home that fit in with Vineyard architectural values. That meant design standards adhering to the Shingle Style.

“A lot of them look dated,” says Seifter. “The Cohn house still looks fresh.” It also needed to meet the strict height restrictions and setback requirements of the town of Chilmark.

The house reaches across a sandy hill like a boat ready to be launched into the Vineyard Sound below. In reality the hill is a colossal dune made of sand that blew up over the years. There are no rocks anywhere in sight. Passersby don’t cross the view. You can sit on the screened porch overlooking the Elizabeth Islands or stand on a three-sided expanse of deck that mirrors the shape of the house and extends it by 30 percent. On a clear day you can see all the way to Newport.

The original Cohn house, sitting on the same three-and-a-half acres that once was the site of a sheep farm, burned down in 1979. “I’d had a house with wide-open spaces,” Sylvia says. Big and barn-like, it convinced her she wanted something cozier the next time around. With five children to raise, Sylvia wasn’t looking for a big place, just one with lots of different areas for different activities. “We did learn from the first house,” she says. “We had an opportunity to correct a lot of things.”

Al circled the Vineyard, surveying other houses, so his new one would fit in on the Island. “We built very low key,” he says.

“We wanted to avoid ending up with a house like some of the monstrosities being built at the time,” adds son Joshua, a lawyer like his father.

The Cohns found their way to Robert A.M. Stern Architects with the help of Paul Goldberger, for twenty-five years the architecture critic for The New York Times who writes now for The New Yorker. First they hired Stern to renovate their 1928 Georgian Colonial in New Jersey – “The same year I was built,” Al jokes. By the time Stern started on the Vineyard project, he had worked closely with his clients and knew them well. Robert A.M. Stern Architects did the interior design as well as the architecture.

“He’s absolutely brilliant,” Al says. “He knew how the house had to sit on the land.”

Stern followed through on the Cohns’ main goal: to capitalize on the view and the prevailing winds. A screened porch provides the focus for living and stays cool because it catches the prevailing southwesterly breezes. So does the master bedroom.

Al thinks of his home like an old ship’s hold, complete with wooden ribs. There are nautical touches throughout, both in the architecture and the interior design, for good reason. Al and Sylvia’s first date took place on a sailboat, and the Cohns continue to be a sailing family, keeping a catboat in Menemsha harbor after waiting eighteen years for a slip.

Growing up summering in her family’s waterfront home in Woods Hole, Sylvia took an excursion to Nantucket after she finished college. There she met a crazy young man who had sailed up from New York in his new thirty-foot sailboat and invited her to sail with him to the Vineyard.

“It was the first time I set foot on Martha’s Vineyard, which I’d been looking at all my life,” Sylvia says.

“I’ll sail you back to Woods Hole. Can you cook?” Al asked. From there they went to New York, after Sylvia alerted her family that she wasn’t returning to Woods Hole, and the rest is history.

A circular gravel driveway brings guests to the front of the Cohn house. A large, round window on the second story picks up the idea of the curve, as do other elements in the home. Like a mariner’s spyglass, more windows line up from outside to inside, growing smaller as they move from foyer inward to the master bedroom and closet wall. Just opposite the front door in the entry hall sits a black-and-white enamel wood stove, evidence of the Cohns’ energy consciousness, although Sylvia confesses it has yet to be used. Pocket doors section off the house to preserve heat.

Blue-and-white French tiles in the kitchen reflect the color of the water and also appear on the fireplace in the adjoining dining room. Informally designed, this dining room turns easily into a do-everything space for games such as Scrabble and Monopoly. Few areas in the house separate people. Yet there is room for privacy. A fireplace inglenook – a room within a room – in the living room provides the perfect place to curl up and read.

Nautical implements adorn both the house and the deck, where the house’s shingled exterior wall flares at the bottom in traditional Victorian style. Much of the maritime gear came from Dogfish Bar, a shallow area off Gay Head (now Aquinnah) where many ships have come to grief. A Menemsha fisherman snagged a large anchor in his nets and sold it to whoever paid to repair the damage to the nets. The Cohns took the deal. Al carried the heavy anchor chain up from the harbor, and it now edges the driveway circle. In the house, a railing on the second floor landing uses netting to protect small children and animals from falling into the stairwell.

An outdoor shower consists of five layers of latticework, leaving it open to the air without exposing bathers. Knowing that Al loves to bathe outdoors, Stern designed a second shower on the upstairs porch off the master bedroom. It’s Al’s favorite spot in the house. Matching chimneys balance the lines of the rooftop, although one of them actually hides a window that brings light to a bathroom.

Like a boat, the Cohn house has no wasted space. Bureaus in its six bedrooms have been built into the knee walls of the roof. Twenty-five years after the fact, Sylvia admits what Stern recommended at the start: “I’d make it bigger, with just a little bit more elbow room. For instance, I would add a study for myself.” But the house is so efficiently designed it cannot really be expanded. It has five bathrooms, but Sylvia didn’t think she needed the powder room Stern had suggested. “Everything Bob said, I should have done,” she says. “He understood how we lived; he knew our family dynamics.” Originally the Cohns left the land surrounding their house in a natural state, but in recent years they’ve opened up the landscape bit by bit to create a play area for their grandchildren.

From the start, they were aware of the extremes in up-Island weather, asking for a double-walled foundation and all the posts to be cantilevered so the house would withstand a hurricane. Its windows are double-glazed and only now have begun to leak.

The relationship between builder and architect often determines whether a building project will work, since for the most part, construction takes place outside the owner’s control. Leo DeSorcy’s father Donald executed Stern’s plans. Leo describes his father as a little like a drill sergeant with far too many brains. According to Sylvia, even though the senior DeSorcy and Stern’s personalities could not have been more different, the two got along well.

The Cohn house would have been difficult for most contractors to build, but Donald DeSorcy, the tobacco-chewing Vineyard Haven builder, now retired, has two degrees in engineering. Challenges such as the double foundation didn’t faze him. Nor did the deceptively simple-looking curve and geometric corners of the deck.

“This is really tough to do,” says an admiring Al. “Whoever thought that so much had to go into such a decision?” Everything in the house is hand-crafted; nothing comes from a factory. DeSorcy produced all the necessary building materials in his workshop, which was then on Beach Road in Vineyard Haven, from the windows and the molding to the Adirondack chairs that he made as a house gift for the Cohns. The shop was small and heated only by a wood stove, so when it came time to glue together the giant circular window made for the front of the house, DeSorcy or one of his crew had to spend several winter nights in the shop keeping the stove stoked. (DeSorcy has since moved to larger quarters on State Road in West Tisbury, although the Beach Road shop still does duty as an office.)

Leo handles upkeep for the Cohns, picking up their “to do” list every Memorial Day weekend. Leo was fourteen when his father began building the house in 1979, and he did work on it, although mostly he remembers pretending to strum a banjo on a shovel. While the project was underway, the Cohns owned two Old English sheepdogs that loved to dig holes. Workers used to complain to Donald about missing tools, until they uncovered a cache of them, buried like bones. The house, built almost entirely with Vineyard crews, including Raymond Fauteux, Joe Leonard, Ronald Ames, and others now dead, took three years to finish.

The Cohns moved into their north-shore house in 1981, the summer that Sylvia, now retired, took the bar exam. She invited their first house guests, who arrived to find a wood workshop still set up in the living room and eight workmen on the site. “How could you invite us to this house?” they asked. But from the very beginning, the Cohns found it met their needs.

“It serves us,” Sylvia says. “We don’t have to serve it. Nature adapted to us.” The only challenge nature has given them is raccoons. They found a way into the house through the deck column that conceals a chase, or pipe niche, for an upstairs shower. Soon the animals set up housekeeping in the attic, leaving stains on the ceilings but disappearing in the summer. It took Leo two years to oust them.

Hurricane Bob, on August 19, 1991, offered evidence of how solidly the Cohn house is built. Sylvia was planning an anniversary dinner for her daughter Priscilla, who had married at the house the year before. When she went to the market, Sylvia could hardly get through the door, and most shelves were already almost bare. The storm broke on the way home, snuffing the electricity. Luckily, Sylvia had pre-cooked a beef fillet and brought out wedding cake saved from the year before. She turned melted ice cream into French vanilla sauce. The Cohns placed a grill in their concrete bulkhead to heat up water for coffee and held their party by candlelight.

“We were kind of a haven, because this house is so sturdy,” Sylvia remembers.

The Cohns have maintained a close relationship with their builder, and Sylvia says, “I still kind of feel he lets us use his house. We all care about it. The house has become its own being.”

What Sylvia loves best about it is the way the house provides a perch for watching the Island weather: seeing clouds come in, the sky change, storms slide by. “You can be mesmerized,” she says.