What’s New Around Here?

After nearly three hundred years of tinkering, the Pesches’ place in Chilmark is just about perfect. For now at least.

Through the woods and past a field where horses roam, the looping dirt road meanders unexpectedly close to North Road in Chilmark again before arriving at the historic Jethro Athearn homestead, handsome and defiant in its embrace of time. It’s a stately place, two-and-a-half stories with a central chimney, overlooking terraced gardens, a fruit orchard, and ancient stone walls. With five bedrooms, three full- and two half-baths, the house is both spacious and practical. It looks as if it has stood here forever.

But this is not where the homestead’s story began. The home was built around 1735 in West Tisbury, near Tisbury Great Pond between Tiah’s Cove and Pear Tree Cove, where it remained in the Athearn family for several generations. In the 1990s, a descendent of the family – Leonard Athearn, a prominent figure in preserving West Tisbury history – approached antique house restorer Benjamin Clark to let him know that the family wanted the old house to be saved, but not at its original location and by someone else.

Clark and his wife, Susanne, purchased the home themselves, disassembled it board by board, and meticulously reconstructed it on eleven acres of farmland in Chilmark that was once a part of the actor James Cagney’s estate. (Eight of those acres were put under an agricultural restriction and are currently leased to nearby North Tabor Farm.)They also added a new ell with a modern kitchen, laundry room, and master bed and bath.

Daniel and Ellen Pesch and their dog, Bosun, in the kitchen of their Chilmark home.
Randi Baird

Along the long driveway where the home now stands, the Clarks also reconstructed an eighteenth-century barn and carriage house, the latter of which has been repurposed as a home theater and gym. On the other side of the main house they designed and built a stone garden house with brick floors and a copper sink. The structure complements the extensive gardens that Susanne designed on the premises with inspiration from famed nineteenth-century English
garden designer and horticulturist Gertrude Jekyll.

Susanne based her gardens on Jekyll’s plans for a specific garden from an Edwardian mansion set high in the Surrey Hills in the 1920s. Jekyll’s decisions informed Susanne’s use of walls and steps, as well as the general layout of plants and the distribution of warm and cool colors. On the sloped hillside is an orchard featuring persimmon, apple, plum, sour cherry, pear, and pawpaw.

The estate feels like a place out of time, and it served as the Clarks’ home for about twenty-five years before they decided to sell. That led to the storied home’s next chapter.

Daniel and Ellen Pesch, an OB/GYN at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital and an attorney, respectively, had not been aggressively looking for a new home at the time, but had casually conveyed interest in finding a property with more outdoor space to Peyton Wallace at Compass Real Estate. They had largely given up on finding the right property until they pulled down the driveway and saw a house they loved instantly. “Once we saw it and realized it was essentially a new old house, we were sold,” Ellen said. “All the woodwork, wide plank floors, and seven fireplaces certainly helped as well.”  

Modern furnishings update the look of the formal living room.
Randi Baird

The Pesches wanted to honor and embrace the historic elements of the home. At the same time, they had been living in a more modern house in West Tisbury and knew it would be an adjustment.

Joe Grillo of Tashmoo Restoration in Vineyard Haven was brought in to update the bathrooms and office space. He attached a master bathroom to the bedroom and installed a new foundation in two-thirds of the new ell. “The problem with restored historic homes is that you end up with a building that is neither level nor plumb,” he said. “And the challenge is keeping the look old, while a portion of the buildout is new.”

To achieve real living spaces with modern amenities in a way that does not feel disjointed from the rest of the home, Grillo used old wood planks that had been stored in the home’s rafters for flooring. Interior designer Mary Rentschler of Rentschler & Company Interiors in Vineyard Haven was enlisted to create an aesthetic that was both conscientious and comfortable, integrating a few more modern comforts.

“Preservation was of utmost importance,” Rentschler said. “Surfaces got dark with time. We just needed to clean it up a bit.” She calls the project both a challenge and inspiration: “Working with the quirks that time imposed, without obliterating the treasures of time.” 

Hollow beams with sunken lights were added to increase light in the dining room.
Randi Baird

The main entryway, which houses the charming main stairway, did not have much in the way of natural light. “It was like a dark little cave,” Rentschler recalled. But she decided to take advantage of the dimness and do a test run with wallpaper, using a pattern with saturated color that wouldn’t suffer over time thanks to the lack of light.

The Pesches loved it. “Wallpaper feels quaint but also a little bit updated,” Rentschler said.

The stairwell became the first of many wallpapered small spaces in the home. Off to one side of the entryway is the parlor, a formal living room for meeting and greeting guests and perhaps enjoying an afternoon tea or evening cocktail. It’s cozy and compact, featuring a fireplace and modern furnishings.

On the other side is a spare bedroom. Just beyond is the dining room, its low ceiling and textured lath walls of another era.

Historic details are complemented by modern-day conveniences in the kitchen, part of the newer portion of the home. The flooring is made from wood planks that had been stored in the home’s rafters. Marshall Farm Wood-Works on Chappaquiddick handcrafted the stools.
Randi Baird

Snug and subdued, the dining room is perfect for dawdling meals and vibrant conversations around the oversized farm table, perhaps with a fire roaring in the large fireplace. But it too was dark and, as with the rest of the house, switches and outlets were sparse and in peculiar places. To alleviate that, hollow beams were installed across the ceiling and equipped with wiring for sunken lights, creating more ambient lighting without disrupting the mood. You’d barely know they were there, save for the small but significant soft glow they cast. The addition of lighting wherever possible throughout the house also served to help integrate the Pesches’ sizable art collection into the décor.

Off the dining room is a former borning room, a peculiar pantry-sized space. When the Pesches first saw the house, the fact that it had a room once dedicated to childbirth was, while not necessarily providential, nonetheless notable to Dan, who delivers babies for a living. The Pesches have given it a new life as a bar room, with textured wallpaper, a copper bar, and shelving for fine glassware.

While the rooms in the newer portion of the house were not as low and dark as the historic rooms, there were changes to be made in the details. In the kitchen, Grillo built granite-topped cabinets and Rentschler introduced the Pesches to local woodworker Collins Heavener, of Marshall Farm Wood-Works on Chappaquiddick, who made custom stools for the island. The kitchen now has a strong contemporary feel, with an espresso machine tucked into a corner here, a state-of-the-art fridge there.

The kitchen has a spectacular view of the south-facing terraced garden and a glimpse of North Tabor Farm’s fields, where in the summer the Pesches delight in hearing conversational murmurs of the farmhands at work.

Randi Baird

The master suite also was designed with a garden view in mind. The high, almost cathedral ceiling in the bedroom and a chic master bath lend the back wing an air of distinctiveness.

Though the view is bucolic bliss, the home wasn’t designed with that as its main goal. The home was intended to protect its occupants from the elements, to provide warmth in winter and shade in summer – as it has seemingly for ever. It was built with reverence for the parts of human life that take place inside, as evidenced by a roomy kitchen, space to entertain, and comfortable bedrooms.

More than anywhere else in the house, the rear stairway brings the visitor back to the earlier centuries. It is small and steep, worn thinner in the middle by countless footsteps. The second floor holds three bedrooms and one-and-a-half baths, a common room, and Ellen’s home office with a custom desk also crafted by woodworker Heavener.

“This is a house meant for year-round living,” Ellen said. “It’s a house meant to really be lived in.” Its sturdy bones, combined with the Pesches loving renovation, resulted in a home that affords shelter, comfort, hospitality, and charm in equal measure – with a thought-provoking side of history to boot.

Comments (1)

John Williams
West Tisbury
Simply lovely
March 24, 2021 - 3:32pm