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Barely dry

The polyurethane is barely dry on the floor in the studio at Howlets. After 100 years of wear and tear, the wood floorboards had a very dull dark — almost black — appearance. A thorough sanding and three coats of poly brought the detail of the graining of the southern yellow pine springing to life. The huge new window allows loads of light into the room. Now the light reflects and bounces off the floor, instead of the floor absorbing every ray. Previously, the stone walls, dark floors and old glass block window gave a gloomy, almost dungeon-like feel to the large room. No longer.

David and Heather’s youngest daughter practices piano in this room. Upon seeing the floors redone, she told me, “I had no idea this room could be made so beautiful, it now feels joyful.” Indeed.

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You light up my life


In the depths of the basement or the heights of the attic, we all have a favorite piece of old furniture that cries out “repair me” each time you pass by. The voice inside your head says, “I really should do something about repairing that.” Somehow it never gets done and keeps getting pushed to the bottom of the proverbial to do list. It all seems to be just too much of a bother to begin researching where to take such an item for repair. The contrarian voice shouts, “Oh, that old thing, you can just find a replacement for less than it costs to repair it.” The romantic side of you coos, “That is such a unique piece that has such an amazing ________ (fill in the blank).”

Re rush me

Such was the case with a Gustavian chair that Heather and David brought with them in the move to Howlets. The rush seat was in dire need of replacement and nail heads were popping out from the bent wood trim, snagging and pulling any article of clothing that came near. Rush seats are made from a natural material and have a decidedly rustic look and feel. The chair is Gustavian in style and has a grey flat paint with faded gold hand-painted details. In 1717, young King Gustav III, a Swede, returned from court in France to ascend to the throne. Having become intrigued by the French furniture he saw, he promoted furniture design reflecting both French and Swedish tastes. The marriage of the two styles is slightly whimsical and very easy on the eye, with the fussiness of the French style toned down and made more approachable.

The chair at Howlets has been languishing in a deshabille state for a while. Now that there is a perfect place for it at a drop-down desk recently built into the studio’s bookcases, the time had come for the chair’s rescue. But where to get the seat re-rushed? An internet search and many phone calls brought too many dead ends. There are many places in the area that will do caning, but very few that specialize in seat rush.

New life for an old post office

Heritage Industries in Peabody is a part of Northeast Arc, an organization that enables people with developmental and cognitive disabilities to maximize their potential. One part of the organization is a workshop in an old post office on Foster Street in downtown Peabody, Massachusetts. The individuals that work there specialize in press cane, fiber rush and porch weave. The workshop began in 1969.

I recently had the opportunity to visit the workshop. The building itself is a gem. The decommissioned post office has an old WPA Roosevelt-era mural in the lobby. The front lobby is a gallery that showcases art work by Heritage Industries members. In the back of the building where the sorting of mail and packages used to be performed in the former post office days, a workshop now exists. On the day I visited, there were three craftspersons working on replacing the seats of chairs. Finished pieces awaited their owners to put them back into service. Butt sprung and split chairs anxiously stood at attention in neat rows ready to be refreshed. Doug, the assistant manager, showed off examples of the rush repair and told me that the type of rush that was on the Gustavian chair was only done by one of the craftspeople, unfortunately not there that day. The chair will wait its turn. No rushing the rush.

Waiting room

The workshop also makes handmade brooms that look as if a European story book character should step into the room and begin sweeping the floor of a thatched cottage. Out of the several styles created in the workshop, my personal favorite is a whisk broom with a curved gnarled wood handle. Hansel and Gretel spring to mind. There are many other brooms of varied shapes and sizes, including a hearth broom and a long handled broom made for waving away cobwebs. They are all beautifully crafted and each one unique. The prices start at $20.00. I wanted one of each.

Swept away

Check out to see the lifelong services that Northeast Arc provides its members.

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Now that the back hoes, dump trucks, and blasting equipment are not tearing up the driveway with reckless abandon, work has begun to repair the havoc wreaked on the steep front drive to Howlets. In addition to repairs, owners David and Heather wanted to extend the driveway a bit closer to the mud room entrance door so the schlep from car to house is not such a trek. A stone path from the driveway to the mud room is also in the mix. With an arm full of groceries, the steep slope of the house’s front yard becomes more obvious with each laborious step. The existing driveway is crushed stone and is perfect for the setting of Howlets against sea and stone. A blacktop driveway would undoubtedly be more practical for snow plowing and run off, but would give the place a “Housewives of New Jersey” look. Sometimes sacrifices need to be made for aesthetics. Think of those uncomfortable but dressy knock out shoes that you wear to special occasions only.

Tread on me

Stone driveways are also permeable and act as natural filters for the oil and other pollutants from cars. The residue seeps into the ground as opposed to running down blacktop into street storm drains and then into the nearby ocean.

The old driveway has been slightly regraded in problem spots and re-dressed with roadpack — a combination of soil, crushed stone and stone dust. The new extension to the driveway is at the front yard’s steepest incline and consequently presents some issues. Because of the risk of erosion, crushed stone on this portion of the driveway would not have worked well. Instead, we are installing a “tire track” driveway, composed of two strips of stone pavers with roadpack in between. The tire track design fits the home’s casual summer community vibe perfectly. Dave McGibbon, a local stone mason, is sourcing the stone from a local quarry, choosing the pieces he wants for this job, splitting and laying the stone on site. All of this is done by him and him alone. He fits all of the pieces together like a recipe puzzle for a harmonious blend of stone soup. Watching him work is like watching a painter create a painting. It is true artistry and one that thankfully is still being practiced on Cape Ann. Dave McGibbon is one of the best kept secrets on Cape Ann. He has re-built sea walls so this job is no doubt child’s play for him. However, he carefully considers each gentle turn and slope of the new driveway extension both for aesthetics and for water and snow runoff.

One hundred years ago, the original owner Ellen Day Hale hired local stone masons to quarry stone on site and build Howlets. How great that, so many years later, David and Heather continue to utilize the local material for which Rockport is named.

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Dual drive

Hammer on stone

To bring Howlets back to its glory, we needed an all-star team. Fortunately, we have not lacked for big league talent. Two of the key players restoring Howlets have been Jim of Jim Fritz Carpentry and Steve Dupuis, an electrician with Noble Electric. Working with Jim and Steve has been a pleasure.

Restoring an old house requires not only a vision, but an ability to adapt to the realities at hand. In my head, I usually have a clear picture of the result I want to achieve. It seems so simple. But inevitably, problems arise. A century-old house presents unwanted gifts at times. Jim and Steve have had to roll with the punches that both the house and I have delivered.


The wiring at Howlets was a hodge podge of updates performed over many years. The most immediate need was to bring the electrical service up to date. Old wiring ran to nowhere and, in any event, was inadequate for the needs of a modern family. The old service panel was hopelessly outdated and the electric service came through the closest neighbor’s house! The phone lines run up from a different neighbor’s house, hop from tree to tree, and run through Howlets’ basement, passing in one side and then out the other in order to provide phone service for yet another neighbor. While you have to love the old time folksiness, the randomness created a logistical nightmare for the electrician Steve. Indeed, we are still working out all the interconnections with the neighbors. But Steve has brought the house’s electrical system into the 21st century. The new electrical service was brought up underground under the driveway from the street, which necessitated digging and blasting through the stone ledge for the service line. The new septic system involves an electrical pump that pumps the effluent uphill to the leach field. As Steve put it, “this job was a big challenge: the house is made of stone, built on stone and on Granite Street — that about sums it up.”

Work bench marvel

Jim Fritz of Jim Fritz Carpentry has been at the center of giving the house the necessary nips and tucks. All of the exterior storm windows and screens needed to be refitted, reglazed, weather stripped and in some cases rebuilt entirely. In order to retain the European-style casement windows, we needed a new system that eliminates the need to climb on ladders each spring and fall to exchange storms and screens. A latch system was devised so they can be removed and installed from the inside. I found out after some research that the old zinc button numbering systems are still made. Each screen and storm will be numbered and a chart made depicting all the windows in the house so that they can be changed out with relative ease — and without climbing ladders. “Keeping the old look of the house” is the mantra that we keep repeating as all of the carpentry decisions get made. Jim also removed the mock cherry upper cabinets and built open shelving in the kitchen, built a book case in the living room, moved a wall and built new closets in the master bedroom. He built a wine cellar and created a mud room in the walk-out basement. He removed a picture window above the kitchen sink and replaced it with a casement window matching the one near the kitchen table. New floor to ceiling bookcases were custom made in the studio. His biggest challenge was installing the huge studio window. He quietly and efficiently worked through the (numerous!) installation intricacies. Jim has turned out to be an ideal match with Howlets. When interviewing Jim for the job, it was immediately obvious that he “gets” old houses. He did not suggest either installing skylights that open by remote control or replacing all the wooden casement and sash windows with vinyl clad picture windows (as did other interviewees).

A recent unpleasant drama at Howlets illustrates the character of Steve and Jim. Two pit bulls appeared out of nowhere and chased Martha, the family dog, into the basement and began attacking her. Steve, who luckily was working nearby, came to the rescue by cutting off the air supply to one of the dogs that had sunk its teeth into Martha’s stomach. Martha went tearing upstairs and hid under a bed. Hearing the commotion, Jim ran up after her to determine how badly she was injured. An emergency visit  to the veterinarian and lots of stitches later, Martha is recovering well. Just another instance when Steve and Jim saved the day.


How often have you stumbled across a poorly lit room fumbling for the light switch or lamp cord?  Or sat in a room with harsh lighting thinking that the person you are talking to has aged decades and then realized that it is just due to harsh shadows?

Drama unlimited

Good lighting choices are essential for the ambiance of the room and the tasks that need to be performed there. Lighting designers take all this into consideration when lighting a room. However, a lighting designer was not in the budget at Howlets, so the task fell on my staff of one, me. After struggling with the lighting for the studio, no doubt the most important room of the house and the space that has to be lit perfectly, I had the good fortune to meet Mark Sterns at a social event. Mark is a senior manager at Philips Lighting and he has been an invaluable resource for getting just the correct lighting for the studio ceiling. The reaction when first time visitors see the studio is usually a phrase starting with the word holy and ending with an expletive. The eye immediately shoots upward to take in the cathedral ceiling twenty-eight feet above and arched window set in stone. In planning the lighting for this room we wanted no hanging light fixtures. Mark suggested that the lighting come from one side and flood the opposite side, making the ceiling itself a light fixture. The lighting will be on dimmers and temperature controls so the mood can be changed to suit the time of year and occasion. On a hot summer evening, the light can be set to cool blue tones or, in freezing February, set to warm Malibu sunset tones. Table and floor lamps will be used for tasks and candles for dinner parties. Although we can’t assure that all the lighting changes will produce Dorian Gray effects, we can certainly give it a valiant effort. Now, where to store Dorian’s portrait?


The kitchen at Howlets was in need of a lighting re-do as well. The large lollypop bulbs screwed into the ceiling provided overall ambient light but provided no subtlety. I decided to replace them with a series of inobtrusive track lights to provide task and drama lighting. There are granite walls in the kitchen which, when lit from above, cast eye pleasing shadows and bring out the texture and color variations of the stone. A combination of flood and spot lights were used. The spots are aimed at the work stations on the counters. There are several stations in the room so it was necessary to place the tracks and spots strategically. A light from behind a person standing at the counter will cast a shadow on the work station; a light too far in front of the person will throw light into the eyes. The upper cabinets on one wall of the kitchen were removed and open shelving was put up. This change necessitated a series of under-the-lower-shelf puck lighting to place enough light on the cream-veined black granite counter work spaces. One of the objectives with the lighting in the kitchen was to have the features of the room noticed, not the lighting fixtures. One large statement hanging fixture above the stairwell to the cellar is the exception to this rule. This fixture mimics the shape of the newly installed pot rack, which replaced a hanging glass cabinet.


The kitchen is now complete with the exceptions of a trash/recycling station being custom made and a fresh coat of paint on everything. The basic layout of the kitchen remains unchanged from a renovation done about ten years ago. However, the counter surface was changed from a green and black tightly specked granite to a cream-grained black granite. The soapstone sink and new faucet replaced the British racing green ceramic sink which was in vogue for about ten minutes ten years ago. Two undercounter refrigerators replaced the large refrigerator that blocked the view of the granite walls. This change also added another counter work space on top of the undercounter refrigerators.

Romancing the stone

The kitchen now fits the house and is a pleasure to be in. Heather has already used it for a cooking video in her online Food For Thought column at the Gloucester Times. I had not realized when asked to give the kitchen a makeover that I would also be designing a studio set. Metro Goldwyn Mayer, pay attention.

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The new window in the studio at Howlets has been installed and looks stunning. The existing window comprised of glass brick and red brick had been inserted sometime in the 1950s, we guessed, and although sturdy and storm proof did not do the room or house any favors visually. As the building is 100 years old, the original window most likely resembles the new window style we chose. The window faces North as do most windows in artist’s studios. Northern light casts no direct sunlight shadows and is said to be the most optimal for painting. There is also a large alcove for the painter so that the light source is above and behind the artist. This room was designed by an artist and the longer one spends time in this room the more that becomes obvious.




The window and ceiling in this room are the main event. The window’s gentle stone arch, complete with alternating beige and grey stones and a keystone piece of a darker color that distinguishes it from the rest of the stonework, shows what care the original stonemason took when building the arch. The Etruscans are given credit as the first civilization to use the arch, although they used it underground in foundations to support buildings. After the Romans conquered the Etruscans, they began using the arch above ground in their architecture. Thank Zeus they did, as the window in the studio at Howlets would not be the same without the arch shape.

Demolishing the glass and red brick in the old window was a gargantuan task. Jim Fritz and crew from Fritz Carpentry drilled, sledged, hammered and smashed out the old material. Old masonry was chipped away from the stone to make way for the new window. The window came in four parts and was fastened together on the shed roof below and then lifted into place as one piece. The new window is attached to the stone with steel screws at 11 points and water stop caulk applied to the outside. From demolition to finished installation, this window took less than a week, efficiency and teamwork at its best. I wish I could have been as efficient in the research, design and ordering for this window. It was months in the process. We hope the owners David and Heather agree that it was worth the wait for this Andersen custom-made window. Now, instead of looking at a mash up of red brick and glass brick that brought to mind an MBTA subway station, your eye picks up the graceful arch and perfectly proportioned divided light window.

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Mac and mats

This weekend, I had the pleasure of meeting Mac, a very engaging twelve year old running a thriving business distributing rope door mats. Now, these are not your run-of-the-mill door mats that you wipe the mud off your shoes without a second thought.  Nor are they the large box store variety with dubious phrases written on them (e.g., “Wipe your Paws”). These mats are a feast for the eye and, as each one is different, a one-of-a-kind work of art.

And the mats are good for the environment. The doormats are woven from old rope no longer used by fisherman because of new rules requiring that lines sink, not float, in order to protect the Northern Right Whale. Mac tells me that she can tell the difference in the individual weavers from looking at the designs. The weavers’ personalities come out in their color combinations.

About a year and half ago, Mac was at a Lobster Festival in Maine and saw the mats. After an hour long conversation with David Carter about his mats, she gave him her contact information. The next day he called and Mac now has 18 vendors in four states and has sold 2,500 mats. She recently was a guest speaker at the local Rotary Club. Do I need to remind you that this dynamo is twelve years old?

As readers of this blog are aware, the front yard at Howlets was dug up in order to sink a new septic system. The resulting dirt and, when it rains, mud is constantly tracked into the house in clods.  Unusual, practical and beautiful door mats for all the exterior doors (of which there are six) were desperately needed.  The usual ho-hum choices kept rearing their ugly heads. Like the first flower in the spring which the eye so badly craves, Mac’s mats popped into view. The search for the perfect mats was abruptly ended.

Art work on a sea of stone

Mac and her mother Marcy were gracious enough to invite me over to take a look at the wide array they have in an outbuilding on their property. As the top mats were peeled back again and again to reveal ever more choices, I was reminded of buying an oriental rug in Morocco. The mats for Howlets need to be on the quieter side, as the house does all the talking, and of a hue that mirror the sea and surrounding stone. Mac helped me pull together a series of six mats that all complement each other and take the stone house, its setting and the sea into account. Think of the darker watery backgrounds in Monet’s water lily paintings, translated into a door mat.

As Mac put it so perfectly, “I like old stuff made into new stuff.”  In addition to being 100% recycled, where else can you find absolute form and function in one item all for $35.00? Mac’s mats are available on Cape Ann at:  Cape Ann Marina, Toodeloos, Willow Rest,  The Emerson Inn, Utopia and Vidalia’s. For more information on Mac and her mats, check out

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As the summer winds down, we feel the urge to grasp every last gasp of summer. My favorite part of New England’s summers is, at the end of the day, sitting with a glass of an adult beverage in an idyllic spot watching the light slowly fade.

A dog, a sugar house and sunset

A destination away from the main living area of the house gives you a respite from the realities you face in the more lived-in rooms, like the spot at the kitchen table where the bills get paid or the discussions about Johnnie’s report card takes place. A short walk away, even if it is just a few steps, mentally carries you to a different place. Ideal is a separate building, like an old garden shed or, as I used in a project in the White Mountains, a long unused sugar house. The sugar house sat away from the main house on a slight knoll and provided a view of a meadow below and a ridge of hills in the distance. Sitting in that shack as the sun slowly sank over the trees, the stresses of every day life felt very far away.

Awaiting the perfect end to the day

At Howlets, sitting on the front stone porch as the sun sets over Folly Cove takes all the sharp edges of the day away. (Or is it the superb wine that David and Heather pour that does that?) Another idyllic “away” spot at Howlets is the recently rebuilt stone patio ten steps from the kitchen door with ocean views. On a visit last week, Nora Lind, nee Harden, a grandchild of former owner and author Nancy Hale, remembered Nancy having lunch every day in the summer, weather permitting, on the stone patio. The spot must have given the author a mental distance from her morning writing sessions in the studio.

As the land at Howlets slopes to the sea, shrubs, rock outcroppings and trees create outdoor rooms. Over the years, these spots have grown up and are now a tangle of undergrowth. The plan is to take back these spaces and make get away spots for reflection, escape, reading or just plain avoidance. A bench next to a break in a stone wall where a path leads down to the rocky beach will make an ideal mid-point respite stop or, better yet, a breather on the climb back up to the house.

In our  “never out of touch” era, a place close by to go to be out of touch — even if just for a bit — in order to disconnect and recharge works wonders for the spirit.

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The work in the studio, the jewel-in-the-crown room at Howlets, is in full swing. Our goal is to make the studio comfortable year-round by adding heat and insulation. Because much of the work is planned for the ceiling, 26 feet above the floor, there was no question we needed a staging structure of which Michelangelo would have been proud. Unlike Michelangelo and his helpers, most of the work on the staging in the studio will not be done lying down.

Walk the plank

Because the staging is rented only until August 28, the clock is ticking. In all, the staging will be used for six different projects. Jim Fritz of Fritz Carpentry, the general contractor, will use it first to tape off the rafters and nail strips for the sheetrock to be applied. Steve, the electrician from Noble Electric, will run the wiring for the ceiling fan, smoke and fire detectors, lighting and a heat exchange thermostat. March and Martin will then use the staging to spray insulation between the rafters. Jim will use it again to fasten the sheetrock to the strips. Enos Painting will paint the sheetrock a crisp ceiling white. Finally, Jim will remove the protective tape to reveal a soaring 100-year old ceiling with all of the modern conveyances hidden behind the insulation and sheetrock. Between each rafter, soft lights from below will sweep up to the ridge pole line.

An infallible check of the work

Completing all this work by August 28 will be a challenge. The music that keeps playing in my head is the music from the scene in Fantasia, the sorcerer’s apprentice. Faster and faster the proverbial buckets of water need to be emptied. As the deadline draws near, the music plays faster. Did Michelangelo feel this pressure from Pope Julius II (known as “il papa terribile”)? Luckily for Michelangelo, the Pope’s staging was probably not rented from Lynn Ladder and Scaffolding with a strict return date.

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First impression

When choosing a new mailbox, what do you consider? Is it big enough to hold the voluminous amounts of bills that arrive on a monotonous basis? Does it have a red flag to pull upright to signal the letter carrier (this is the gender-neutral term now, but I admit I miss “mailman”) that you have an outgoing letter? Does it have a separate compartment for a small package, magazines or bulky catalogs? Is your mail so important (state secret important) that it requires a lock with a key?

These are the decisions that must be made when you get a notice from the post office that your mailbox “needs attention.” In all fairness, the post office was correct: the old mailbox at Howlets was listing to starboard and reeled drunkenly on its post when the sticky flap door was jerked open. The previous owner’s name was on the side of the box in large reflective peel-and-stick letters that had been battered by storms and bleached by the sun. It’s time had past.

The old mailbox had to go, but replaced with what? Mailboxes are usually placed at the end of the driveway or walkway and are the first thing you see when entering a property. First time guests look for the street number. A mailbox is the first impression formed by visitors to your house. What does your mailbox say about you? When discussing all of these considerations with Heather, one of the owners of Howlets, she just asked that the mailbox be utilitarian and distinctive and put the final decision in my hands. A search and destroy mission ensued for the perfect Zen balance, form and function. Searching on the internet for mailboxes was a lesson in the copious amounts of choices we have as Americans. A few of the choices that were scrupulously considered but eventually rejected are shown below.

Special delivery

What message does this send?

In thinking about mailboxes and the current electronic age, I wondered about the future of the existence of mailboxes at all. Will mailboxes have the same demise as the hand written thank you note written on your personalized, engraved, cream-colored Crane’s stationery? Most thank you notes now come in the form of an email — efficient, immediate and admittedly sometimes clever. The time it takes to hand write a thank you note is sadly not an efficient use of time in our harried lives. Writing in your best Palmer method script, injecting just the correct amount of thanks without sounding effusive, finding the recipients’ street address, buying the stamp, licking the envelope (yuk) and taking it to the post office (or raising the red flag on your mailbox, if you have one), all take way too much time and effort. But they sure are nice to receive. Wish I could say the same for bills, either paper or electronic.

At Grey Gardens, our mailbox choice was made easier by the fact that we had a stone wall in which to embed it. We wanted to make the mailbox disappear in the wall and make a non-statement. Only our mailman knows where it is.

Disappearing act

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