Learnings from Nantucket

Originally published in 

I am looking at my favorite photograph of my summer house in Nantucket. It is not a particularly pretty picture. It was taken on a cloudy and gray day. You cannot see the beach, or the moors, or much of the house itself. What you can see is this: in the foreground a man, dressed more like a European tourist visiting a church than a beachgoer. He is wearing jeans and a beige pull-over sweater. A large camera bag is slung over his right shoulder. He is standing near the bushes, bushes I know to be prickly and filled with poison ivy. He is holding a large camera in front of his face. The camera is pointed at a rather ordinary-looking shingle-style house.

I, the photographer, am standing behind the man. I am taking a picture of him taking a picture of my house.

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For me, this small house, which I stayed in every summer from ages 6 to 35, has always been framed:house as House. Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and John Rauch completed it in 1972, and shortly thereafter it gained renown. Architectural historian Vincent Scully called it “what modern architects have always said they most wanted: a true vernacular architecture—common, buildable, traditional in the deepest sense, and of piercing symbolic power.” It is also where I lost my virginity, was proposed to, had my biggest family fights.

In 1971 my parents and my aunt and uncle commissioned the then-little-known firm of Venturi and Rauch to build two adjacent summer houses on Nantucket, hereafter known as the Trubek and Wislocki Houses. The clients for the houses were a pair of related families with limited funds. My house, the Trubek House, is “complex and contradictory,” following the title of Venturi’s 1966 book. My aunt and uncle, the Wislockis,

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commissioned the contrasting “ugly and ordinary” one. Our house boasts a cut-off corner, a Palladian and double-paned windows. The Wislocki House is the more traditional cottage. They were built to blend into the landscape and architectural history of the island. They fit into the environment because they are like the old fishermen’s cottages of that island and like 19th century shingle style vacation houses of New England, too—weathered grey to mold into the grey-green foliage and soft blue seascape.

I don’t know who the man in the photograph is, but I suspect he was a graduate student from Penn, or a foreign architect studying postmodern American architecture, or just a Venturi buff. I admire his studiousness, his eschewing of the beach for roof slope lines.

There were always architects in the bushes. I would be doing the dishes, or playing poker, or changing out of my swimsuit, and I would see someone walking up the path or a car slowing to a stop on the road. Usually, I would go out and greet the visitor, offer a tour, and quote what various critics had said about the house. I liked the attention.

And it was warranted. By any reckoning, the front porch of the Trubek House, almost as large as the first floor, is the most beautiful place in the world. The exteriors have a family resemblance and so do the plans. Both ground floors are essentially one large room leading on to a broad porch overlooking the sea, with kitchens tucked into corners. As a kid, I played tetherball with a buoy roped up onto the large middle pillar; in my twenties, I smoked cigarettes and drank gin and tonics with my friends.

Usually, though, I would just sit, rocking in the weathered wicker chairs that peopled the porch, and gaze at Pocomo. These…are…serene and restful places, full of understanding of the nature of their island. On cloudy or windy days, the waves rocked in rhythm with the chair. On a clear day, I could see Coatue, the peninsula that hugs the bay, and behind it the larger peninsula, Great Point, surging straight ahead into the ocean. From my perspective, Great Point ended directly in front of the porch, way out into the sea. There, a lighthouse stood.

Mine was the front bedroom, the smallest of the three on the second floor. In it is a floor-to-ceiling window; given the roof line, that made the window about four feet tall. The sections too show ingenuity, for while the exterior form may be borrowed from a vernacular, Venturi and Rauch have used every cubic inch of space within that form, so that the roof form is read within each bedroom. My window looked out on another window—a large, double-hung one that blew in during Hurricane Bob while I huddled on the floor of the kitchen, the only room in the house not studded with glass. I would sit on the floor of my bedroom and watch relatives walking on the path between the houses or from the driveway, carrying groceries. The houses are sited so as to look toward the water. First seen from the rear, they are set far enough apart to create a sense of openness, yet close enough to be perceived as a pair. If I peered down, I could see my mother or sister or uncle walking up the spiral staircase in between the two windows. The spatial complexities around the staircase are noteworthy.

In my drifting postcollegiate years, I spent a few off-seasons in the house, working in town, getting to know the moors as they reddened and the brutality of early spring wind. I stayed in my parents’ bedroom on the third floor.  The master bedroom is perhaps the house’s best space—a private hideaway up in the eaves.

Up there, you can barely see the ground beneath—one feels at sea, the room a captain’s cabin accessible only by a mastlike spiral staircase. The Trubeck [sic] house has a divided Palladian corridor which allows light into the staircase and the upstairs bathroom. I never felt colder than on March nights in that heatless room, and I have never, to this day, felt more at home.

In the summer of 2001 my family sold the Trubek House, my aunt and uncle the Wislocki one. They made a killing. That the house was built by Venturi and Rauch did not increase its resale value, though. The Trubek House, I believe, is owned by a hedge-fund manager from New York.

Last Thanksgiving, I went back. I drove to the house, emptied for the winter, and peered into those same double-paned, oversize windows I’d looked out of for so many years. Historic preservation laws and codicils state that the new owners cannot change the structure, and, in following with architectural tradition, they will always be known as the Trubek and Wislocki Houses.

That gray, blustery November day, I noticed that grass had replaced the prickly brush, and new, generically puffed-up houses loomed ominously to the left and right, but mostly everything looked the same, that same slip of shore, that same view from the porch.

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...Venturi creates a totally different and equally valid image of America, of the empty horizon, the lonely island, and the Viking sea...I walked to the stairs that lead down to the beach, turned around to face the house. …the houses stand up, very tense, taut, and lonely, like individuals trying to speak to each other, Americans in their predicament here…. Scott Fitzgerald...somehow knew all about it: “So we beat on,” he wrote in Gatsby, “boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”  My back was to the waves, and the wind off the bluff was so strong I had to widen my stance to stay upright. I took a picture. No one saw. 
 

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