Archives for category: Howlets

Being asked to do something that you have never done before, and with which you have no experience, can be an intimidating request. A voice in your head shouts, “you don’t know how to do that, just say no, you’ll make a mess of it.” Ignoring the voice, I plunged ahead and dived into unknown waters. Luckily the waters were not shallow.

Heather Atwood asked me to design a memorial bench for her mother. The bench was to be placed at Howlets, Heather’s home. The first decision to be made was, where on the property the bench should be placed? We agreed that it would sit in a small shade plant garden tucked at the edge of the property. Discovering the bench as one strolls about the property, rather than it standing out in a prominent “main event” kind of way, was the right subtle treatment for the bench. Sitting in this semi-hidden spot would provide a welcome, contemplative retreat.IMG_1416

The best design for the low-key setting was a large single block of granite with the initials of Heather’s mother carved on the face. Large single blocks of granite can look so heavy and cumbersome when placed in a garden. To make it less squatty and lighter looking in appearance, two semi-hidden stone block feet about the size of large shoe boxes underneath the bench elevate it and make it “float.”

For Heather’s mother’s initials, CCL, we wanted a script style that fit the bench design. After a search through several seaside cemeteries we found a font that we both liked. Bold yet light. The letters would be set in a rectangular shaped frame cut into the stone. During our search of cemeteries we happened upon the grave of Gabrielle de Veaux Clements, a painter who shared a home with Ellen Day Hale, the builder of Howlets. It was a totally unexpected and serendipitous discovery.IMG_1419

Dave McGibbon, stonemason, began the task of splitting the large oblong piece of granite from an even larger rough stone. So that it will blend in with the stone wall behind it, we decided that the finish on the bench should not be polished and shiny. The slightly dimpled surface, called bushed, gives the bench a time worn visage. With time, the fresh cut granite will age and darken and become like the lichen covered and weathered stone wall close by.

Working on a history-laden property like Howlets is always daunting. But the addition of this memorial bench on the property somehow felt right, like adding yet a new layer of beautiful patina on the old home. I am glad I took the plunge.


leslie's dinner party guests 6Where better to have a birthday dinner with all women than in a house that was built one hundred and two years ago by a woman? Ellen Day Hale designed Howlets as an artist studio for herself in 1911. Hale was no hack artist. Her paintings are still hung today in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The house was passed onto her niece Nancy Hale, who wrote articles for The New York Times and many novels in the room.

Heather Atwood, food writer and current owner of Howlets, decided to host a milestone birthday dinner for her friend Leslie, having Leslie’s female friends from all over the country to dinner. Many hands went into making the evening a hit. Leslie came up with the guest list of seventeen friends from near and far, Heather and Sofia created the menu and did the lion’s share of the cooking, and I got the large studio’s dining table ready for the celebration.

leslie's party photos good light 7In keeping with the low key color palette of Howlets (better to let the stones speak), the table’s linens and napkins were a linen tea stained color and the flowers were all white. Luckily, no trip to the florist was needed — all of the flowers came from our garden. Phlox, Rose of Sharon, potato vine and three types of hydrangea were marshaled into place.

Heather placed the napkins in an embroidery hoop and traced the initial letter of the guest on the napkin. A needle and thread were left with each napkin. These served as place cards for Leslie’s friends. No idle hands were noted after dinner as all of the women took up the hoop and embroidered their initial on the napkins.

leslie's party photos embroidery copyI suspect that Ellen Day Hale would have enjoyed the collection of women talking, laughing, creating and celebrating. The studio’s history of strong and talented women is still very much alive in its second century.leslie's dinner party photo 5

Dreams can be so perplexing sometimes. You wake up and think where on earth did that come from? The meaning of a recent dream I had was crystal clear and most pleasurable. It all stemmed from an old tree.

There is a gnarled and wizened apple tree at Howlets, a hundred year old stone house, of which I have the pleasure of acting as project manager. Howlets sits on an exposed-to-the-sea piece of land with rock ledge and a thin layer of soil sitting atop. In the front yard there is a very old and twisted apple tree that has somehow stayed alive in this most inhospitable spot. Buffeted by sea salt-soaked rain and heavy winds, it is a most unlikely place for a fruit tree to thrive. Fruit trees need trimming, thinning and pruning on a constant basis. This apple tree had been clearly cared for over time but in recent years had been let go. Sucker growth spurted directly skyward and limbs crisscrossed each other. Beneath all of this tangle there was a proud survivor.



Having lived in Japan and watched the way in which the Japanese trim their old fruit trees, I had a clear idea as to what the tree should look like. Looking carefully at the old cuts made on this apple tree, someone else, years ago, had the same vision. The form just needed to be brought back. I very much wanted to trim the tree myself. As I began the process, a Zen-like feeling settled in and I just knew instinctively what should go and what should stay, like sculpting. The whorled trunks were cleared of sucker growth, the thick growth at the ends of branches thinned and the shape brought back.

After a debrief of the work with David and Heather, the owners of Howlets, and a glass of their wine, I went home and fell into a dreamful sleep. In the dream my profession was very specific: expert trimmer of only aged and visually interesting cherry and apple trees. Dressed in a rough shapeless linen coat and chewed up straw hat, I happily travelled the world, carefully trimming these ancient specimens for appreciative and fascinating clients. A wide variety of surgical-like snippers and clippers accompanied me, each one designed for a specific pruning task. These tools of the trade were all tucked neatly into a heavy canvas fold over envelope with individual pockets complete with leather closure straps.

Everyone needs a dream of what they want to do when they finally grow up. My sleep-fueled unconscious found the perfect career, taking full advantage of my OCD-ish tendencies. Now I just need those adoring clients ready to fly me in to prune their trees.



Growing up we always had dogs. When they would dig holes in the garden or yard, my father would egg them on by saying, “dig for the Chinaman!” The first time he said it, I raced inside to check his geography on our globe. He was off by quite a bit, but it made for entertaining — if not a bit xenophobic — play for the dogs.

This remembrance kept cropping up as we hauled buckets of mud up and out of a quarry behind Howlets. This small quarry, actually called a “motion” (the term for a one- or two-man quarrying site), had begun to fill up with muck and debris over the years. It felt like we were digging for China.

Shovel in hand

This summer’s drought-like conditions dried up the motion to the point that the bottom was visible. How clean and tidy it would look from the kitchen windows if only we could remove the gook! The entire Rabin/Atwood family was pressed into service over the course of a week’s time. Buckets and wheelbarrows were filled and hauled up and out again and again. Picture the Sorcerer’s Apprentice sequence from Fantasia, except rather than carrying buckets of water we had buckets of muck. In an attempt to be encouraging, Heather offered that the gardens would love this rich compost being removed from the seemingly bottomless pit. It was a bit of a cold comfort for our aching backs. As the wide granite steps left by the quarrymen began to reappear from under the detritus, the original shape of the motion came into view. The stone removed from this motion was used to build Howlets in 1911. As we contemplated the men carrying the stone from the earth instead of mud, we stopped whining about our labors.

Mucking about

When the snow melts and then the Spring rains come, this small quarry will fill up again and provide tidy eye candy from the kitchen’s french doors. After the back breaking labor, it had better. . . . The price we pay for beauty.

From quarry to home

Circle the wagons

Sometimes, a problem is so big, it calls for a big, loud and growling solution. Such was the case recently at Howlets. After two large trees were taken down and a long-forgotten kitchen garden was cleared of years of unchecked growth, we were faced with a 10-foot high pile of brush filling the parking spaces for two cars.

As readers of this blog know, Howlets is a 100 year old stone house overlooking Folly Cove in Rockport, Massachusetts, purchased last year by friends David and Heather. The grounds of the property had unfortunately been neglected, save for the lawns being mowed. David and Heather and I hashed out a plan to “take back” the grounds. David has been digging up the kitchen garden of briars, saplings and other unwanted volunteer growth — and he has the scratches on his arms to prove it. Heather has been weeding, replanting and restructuring a long narrow garden bed which hugs a sweeping stone wall. Two old, half-dead locust trees were removed by a professional tree service and the usable wood cut into fireplace lengths. Some of the remaining crowns of the large trees were thrown on the ever-growing pile. A parking spot for two cars at the bottom of the driveway had been sacrificed for the woody detritus that seemed to grow exponentially.

Feed me

Once Spring had sprung, how to get rid of the eyesore was on all of our minds. A wood chipper, of course! What is it about men and their fascination with power equipment? Boys and their toys, I suppose? As I excitedly drove off  to hitch up the rented wood chipper to my station wagon, I tried not to focus on the Freudian answer to that question. The yellow beast was much larger than I imagined, and as I got a quick lesson on the intricacies of its operation from the rental agent, nagging thoughts of performance anxiety began to rear their ugly head.

Bump and grind

All fears were put to rest as the engine sputtered to life and began to chew up pieces of wood as big as my arm. During the course of the six hours that it took to work through the pile, we watched the beast’s revolving sharp teeth pull the branches into the grinder, conjuring images from gory movies (Fargo, anyone?). The possibility of drawing back a bloody stump kept both David and me hyper vigilant. Fortunately, no ambulance trips to the emergency room were necessary and the woody mountain we called Everest was finally conquered. Sir Edmond Hillary had nothing on us that day, at least in our own minds.

After several recent encounters with houses with names, I have been pondering the phenomenon. Grand estates lend themselves to names. Do lesser abodes deserve to be named as well? What does the name of the house say about the namer? Just how famous do you need to be to name the house after yourself?

Up The Mount

The Mount in the Berkshires announced the social stature of its owner, Edith Wharton. It sits on a small rise, not a mountain, but then the name alludes to the lofty social position of the great writer.

The Vanderbilts’ Marble House in Newport, Rhode Island, describes the mansion perfectly. But ironically the Vanderbilts referred to it as a cottage. I suspect that the Vanderbilts knew that the words marble and cottage are not normally used in the same sentence when describing a house.

Faded glory of Grey Gardens

Grey Gardens in East Hampton, New York, owned at one time by an aunt and cousin of First Lady Jackie Kennedy, was named after an estate in England. The intent behind the name was probably to convey cachet. It’s ironic then that, after the 1972 film documentary and more recent Broadway musical about the squalor that Big Edie and Little Edie Bouvier Beale lived in, Grey Gardens now conjures images of rotting food, broken windows, and raccoon squatters.

Often on this blog, I have written about Howlets, a stone house in Folly Cove, Massachusetts built by the Hale family. Despite a family history encompassing Nathan Hale, Edward Everett Hale, Harriet Beacher Stowe, the painters Ellen Day Hale, Philip Leslie Hale, and Lilian Westcott Hale, and oddly enough, Helen Keller, the Hales nevertheless chose to name their summer home Howlets, meaning baby owls. The name suggests a certain humility.

Naming a house after your self is the ultimate act of ego. Sometimes it seems earned. One thousand-acre Appleton Farms, a land grant to Samuel Appleton in 1638, is the oldest continuous working farm in Massachusetts. This Ipswich, Massachusetts farm hosted many luminaries in its day, including the Duke of Windsor who hunted foxes on horseback there. As recently as a few years ago an Appleton still lived on the farm. It is currently owned by The Trustees of the Reservation and is very much an active farm. After nearly four centuries, the Appleton name has proved its staying power.

And sometimes naming a place after your self is just an indicator of a healthy self-regard. I recently stumbled over two such homes in Palm Springs, California. Villa Fontaine is named after the film and stage actress Joan Fontaine and Casa Liberace named after the pianist and vocalist. (Somehow the descriptor “pianist and vocalist” seems so inadequate to describe him, doesn’t it)? A good sense of self is important in life and absolutely vital in the entertainment business. The ownership of these homes has long passed to others, but the original plaques proudly remain. Staying power of a different sort.

LeFrak City is a sprawling 5,000-apartment complex in Queens, New York built in the 1960s. In his day, the developer Samuel LeFrak was the Donald Trump of his time. Years later, when LeFrak was asked about Donald Trump and his building of Trump Tower, LeFrak sagely responded, “a peacock today, a feather duster tomorrow.”

In the early 1980s, my parents led The Solana Recyclers, a still thriving organization dedicated to building environmental awareness in southern California. They were early pioneers in creating ways to make recycling as easy as possible for residents of California communities. With this personal history, it was fitting that I took on the task of making recycling convenient for David and Heather’s family at Howlets. If my parents could do it for southern California, surely I could do it for one house in Folly Cove.

We all stuggle with where to put all of the yogurt containers, wine bottles, milk jugs, newspapers and junk mail which we are encouraged to recycle these days.  Convenient and aesthetically-pleasing storage is a challenge. Such was the case in the kitchen at Howlets. There were no current cabinet areas that could be sacrificed to use as recycling space. Fortunately, there was an empty area next to the cellar stairs crying out for a custom-made recycling center.

Recycling made beautiful

With the help of Michael Tocantins, a Gloucester carpenter, we were able to create a spacious recycling corner which fits right in with the character of the 100-year-old house. The space now accommodates three pull out bays, each with two receptacles inside, an orgy of space for the mountains of glass, paper, metal and plastic that seem to multiply like rabbits in a family of cooks. A spot for just plain old everyday trash was also incorporated into the design.

Michael started by building a “carcass” for the recycling center. The “skin” of the recycling center was made from old storm shutters that we had unearthed in the basement. These are the same shutters that were also repurposed for a headboard. Check out the earlier post entitled “Are they shutters or a headboard?” for details on the history of these shutters. The weathered grey shutters were flipped upside down in order for the reveal on them to act as a place to slip your hand in to slide open the bins — no handles needed to sully the clean architectural lines of this piece. The inside sliding mechanisms were ordered from Reva Shelf.

Recycling made convenient

The wide and long counter top is the same granite material that we used on the other counter tops in the kitchen, a softly creme-veined black granite. There are also two electrical outlet plugs for charging cell phones and laptops sunk into the top of the counter surface. On the end of the unit are three light switches that control the kitchen and cellar lighting. As the counter is directly at an intersection of a traffic pattern that bisects the entry to the kitchen from the living room and the stairs to the cellar, this added counter space has also proved to be a helpful staging area for all items coming and going.

After a few adjustments of the sliding mechanisms and bins that were initially not functioning optimally, the management of the kitchen detritus at Howlets is now easier by far. One of the owners’ daughters told me that it is her favorite “thing” about the house.

I trust my mother, still serving on the Board of Directors of The Solana Center for Environmental Innovation (the organization’s new name), would approve.

Like mother, like son

Global influence

Some readers have requested that I include a close up of the light fixture that appears in the distance in the third photo of the last post. Having struggled with the desire to please and the wish to “always leave them wanting for more,” I have succumbed to the former. Here is the photo of the globe with netting that I chose for the junction of the entrance to the kitchen from the living room and the stairs to the laundry room and mud room. The shape mimics the hanging pot rack and adds some softness to a room with sharp edges. Both of these round objects ease the angles.

Click on image to enlarge