I love houses.  And the stories that lie behind houses.  The builders and craftsmen.  The past and present owners — illustrious, infamous or  everyday good people.  They all play a part in the place you call home.

Successfully grafting one’s own needs and personality on an old house is a delicate surgical process.  A sloppy closing stitch or ill-advised “lift” can have alarming results.

I recently had the amazing good fortune to be asked to be involved in the planned work on Howlets, a stone house built in 1911 that sits above Folly Cove on Cape Ann, Massachusetts.  Howlets is an old English term for baby owls and makes an appearance in the witches scene in Macbeth:

Lizard’s leg, and howlet’s wing, / –
For a charm of powerful trouble, /
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

Sun on Howlets' stones

The Shakespeare reference fits the home’s storied artistic and literary past.  Since its construction, the home has been owned by the Hales, a family of Boston Brahmin overachievers.  Family members studied under Monet at Giverny, displayed art at Boston’s MFA, became the first female reporter for The New York Times, and wrote for The New Yorker.  I’ll provide much more detail on the house and its former owners in later posts.

Heather Atwood and Tom Stockton

This is the first time that the house has been sold out of the Hale family since it was built. David Rabin and Heather Atwood will be the next stewards of the house.  David is a cardiologist in Salem and Heather writes the food column and blog Food for Thought.  Somehow Heather has also managed to talk me, a very late arriver to the technology revolution, into creating this blog about the stories behind houses, starting with the tales of Howlets.

David and Heather have asked me to help them give the house an update to meet their family’s needs.  We are resolved to honor the strong integrity of the house and its former residents.  No unfortunate “improvements” or trendy additions allowed.  The plan is to bring up the current state of the house just a degree, so that when the work is finished, the end result will be barely noticed.  That goal, however, is no small task.  The original charming European-style windows all need to be refitted, weather-stripped, storm windowed and re-hung for year-round living.  A new septic system must be dug.  And a new heating system must be installed in an unheated artists studio with 28 foot ceilings – a room large enough for a small private airplane to be parked!  We will also need to perform numerous other upgrades, both large and small, and of course furnish and decorate the interior.  All done with hopefully no slip of the “taste” knife.

Having, in a moment of weakness, taken on this blog, I hope you will join me in my ramblings over the coming months.  I will be providing descriptions and photos of the renovation work at Howlets, telling stories about the home’s former owners, neighbors and craftsmen, and sharing my thoughts about design.  For a little variety, I will also share stories on the ongoing restoration of an 1840 barn-turned-home-in-1940, the place my partner and I call home.  We also call it Grey Gardens, which (if you’ve seen the movie) may tip you off to the shape it was in when we bought it.

Next blog:  A photo tour of Howlets, pre-renovation.