Archives for category: Pigeon Hill

IMG_1164This backyard practically begged for an overhaul. Back “yard” is being kind. In truth, it was simply a sea of blacktop, able to accommodate enough cars for a small shopping center. While the blacktop previously served as the driveway for the house, it has been replaced by a new gravel driveway at the other end of the property. The blacktop now mainly served as an eyesore and a conduit in heavy rains. Indeed, water ran down the blacktop, pooled at the back door and then made a beeline toward the basement of the house.

Blacktop sea

Blacktop sea

The blacktop had to go. Thus began a plan to replace it with a much softer garden retreat, with rooms for a potager, a sitting area, and a privet screened single car parking spot.

The blacktop stretched up an incline to the property line. A rotted post and rail fence that divided the property from the uphill neighbor had disappeared under a jumble of overgrown mint, wild roses and morning glories that no longer bloomed. The roots of this tangled mess of vegetation were rapidly spreading and coming up into the gravel driveway and kitchen garden of the neighbor. A take-no-prisoners approach to all of this unchecked growth was the first order of the project. A backhoe clawed away the blacktop, the tangle of roots, the fence, and a low crumbling stone wall hidden underneath. A tabula rosa was now in place.

Backhoe magic

Backhoe magic

Defining a garden space and giving it visual boundaries with stone or earth is known in garden parlance as “hardscaping.” A five-foot high and fifty-foot long wall constructed of stone does not get any more “hard.” The wall replaces the tangled miasma and runs the length of the planned garden space. The stone wall, which is more sculpture than wall, will give the new garden a visual reference, define the space, and impart an enveloping feel of privacy. The current plan (garden plans are always subject to change) is to have vegetables in beds below the wall and climbing hydrangea vines planted every ten feet running up and along the wall. The foliage will merge at the top of the wall in a seemingly connected cap running the fifty foot length. Separated from the vegetables by a short hedge will be a space for chairs and a table, for reading, light dining or just vacantly staring out at the ocean. A lot of patience and time are required for this plan, something in short supply from this writer.

A wall rises

A wall rises

Dave McGibbon, stonemason, created the wall. He has the patience of Job as he eyes the stones for the wall and then places them by hand, some weighing several hundred pounds. When the wall is viewed from a distance the stones undulate and dip in sinuous lines creating a movement which carries the eye along its long length. The outward appearance of this beautiful stone wall belies its inner structure. It has the outward appearance of a dry stone wall. The totally hidden cement block, rebar, and mortar within give it the strength it needs to support the neighbors higher level driveway on the uphill side.

The garden spaces will expand the “walk around” space in the yard and allow the owners to stay busy in the summer. (As if more busy-ness is needed.) The stone wall frames the space and provides a destination for the eye from the lower yard. Rest assured, the loss of the strip mall sized parking lot will not be lamented.IMG_1104


During a recent kitchen renovation of a 172 year-old structure that was a barn in its former life, an odiferous discovery was made. As the carpenters sawed through the joists and beams, a strong cow urine smell wafted up. The powerful aroma had been trapped inside the wood fibers all these years, just waiting to be released and remind us that cows once lived here.

In 1840, Ezra Eames built this barn to house the cows at the farm that marched up Pigeon Hill in Rockport, Massachusetts. An enormous hayloft on the top floor stored the hay for the bovines in the winter. The farm existed for a bit less than a century. At some point, the farm house, field worker house, apple pressing house and barn were all sold off separately.

Sometime in the late 1930s, Justine D. Ferris, a retired business woman and artist from Boston, came upon the barn and had the extraordinary vision to realize the barn could become her home and studio. She drew up the plans for the transformation herself. Justine had previously worked at both Harvard University and the Office of Public Welfare in Boston, but now was looking to immerse herself in art. In 1957, The Boston Globe featured an article about Justine and her remodel of the barn into artist studio and living spaces. From the dusty cow barn, she created a duplex, splitting the building in half, one side for her studio and living space and the other for rental.

The space Justine created for her studio is two stories with exposed beams throughout. She bumped out the existing space seven feet complete with gambrel roof lines. She also put in a huge northern facing skylight. Northern light for studio space is thought to be best as it casts no direct sun shadows. Unfortunately, old studio skylights are notoriously leaky and lose heat in the winter. The skylight was removed during a later owner’s renovation, leaving behind visible ghost marks on the wall where the skylight used to be. But despite the subsequent alterations, the studio’s character remains intact. The room is still flooded with light from both North, West and East.

Exposed beams from the 1840 post and beam construction were painted olive green at some point by a later owner. The paint has been recently stripped and the warm wood beams now catch your eye as they run through the white rough plaster walls. The dowels used to pin the barn together during its 1840 construction are still visible. The soaring two story interior remains dramatic, unlike many of the old cavernous studios in Rockport that have had second floors inserted after the buildings ceased to be used as studio spaces. The exterior stone curving staircase entrance that Justine had built for her clients’ visits still graces the northern side of the building. While Justine’s paintings are difficult to find, a good friend did recently find a portrait of an unknown woman signed by Justine D. Ferris.

Two fellow artists penned a two-part poem about Justine’s life entitled “A Medley of Melody to Justine Ferris,” dated September 16,1947. In the ode to Justine by fellow artist Ruth Berry, she references the studio and barn, “. . . The studio still a magnet is / That draws us all together / From days of yore to Rockport shore / In rainy and fair weather.” The other author of the poem Mariam Tibbetts speaks about Justine’s renovation of the barn: “Soon out of beam and loft and rubbish pile / The barn uprise into stately hall / With Lady Elm sweetly straight beckoning at the garden gate / And the star-set skylight welcoming all.” The elm is now long gone, probably a victim of Dutch Elm disease, but the beams and loft remain. Although the two-storied studio ceiling and living room do indeed rise upwards to eighteen feet, some poetic license was taken with the “stately hall” line.

This old barn near the bay has transitioned from bovine shelter to artist studio and now re-purposed home. This old artist-colony studio may yet have another budding artist in its future. Cows, probably not so.

Click on any photo to enlarge.