When he bought a 1920s oceanfront cottage in Dewey Beach six years ago, Washington attorney-turned-Dewey Beach restaurateur and nightclub owner Alex Pires began a renovation journey that took him back to his childhood.
His hometown of North Easton, Massachusetts, is known for a collection of buildings designed by the renowned 19th-century architect Henry Hobson Richardson. Inspired by Richardson’s solid New England architecture, Pires remodeled his beach cottage twice, aiming to achieve the architect’s signature shingle style for his home.
Not entirely satisfied with the renovations, Pires decided to tear down the existing home in order to build a new residence on the oceanfront site. “At that point my wife Diane and I made the decision to start over. We were willing to take the time to build the house we envisioned,” says Pires. “One of the most appealing things to me about the shingle style is its organic form. I really wanted a house that looked like it had been around awhile.”
Longtime friend, architect David Jones of the Washington, D.C., firm David Jones Architects, was enlisted to design the house—his first oceanfront project.
The goal of both owner and architect was to create a design statement among nondescript cottages built by developers over the years. Trained as a modernist, Jones has grown over his career to embrace historic architecture, so the idea of creating a shingle-style dwelling held great appeal.
“This project was challenging for a number of reasons,” he says. “Alex brought us a lot of ideas, which we needed to edit to create the final design, and we also had to consider height restrictions, as the style demands a certain level of verticality.”
Jones and Pires pored through books on shingle style, convinced that the design was ideally suited for the site. Determined to get the details right, Pires and his wife, Diane Cooley, traveled to Newport, Rhode Island, to tour the seaside “cottages” that were designed by pioneers of the shingle style as summer homes for wealthy families.
The style has its genesis in the Boston area during the 1880s. It is named for the unpainted wooden shingles applied to the building exteriors. Popularized during the Victorian period, shingle style eschews the era’s fussiness in favor of unembellished surfaces, honesty of form and purity of line. Practitioners of the style opened up the interiors of their houses, creating fewer, but larger rooms that permitted sunlight to penetrate the interior.
Pires compiled photos of historic homes from the couple’s trips to New England and selected the most noteworthy architectural details as the foundation for their new house. Richardson’s William Watts Sherman house in Newport, for example, led to small, multi-paned windows. The Isaac Bell House, a Newport landmark designed by the Gilded Age New York firm McKim, Mead and White, inspired a turret on the north face of the home.
“Alex and Diane are the kind of clients architects appreciate,” says Jones. “It is a pleasure to collaborate with people who are as excited about the project as the architect.”
Situated on a corner lot, the house presides over the beach and the street, so Jones created two facades. A broad gable with a deep porch addresses the ocean to the east, while a more vertical tower and gable face the street and beach path on the north side of the house. Trim bands in forest green contrast with the sand-colored facades of cedar shingles. Characteristic multi-paned windows of the shingle-style frame views in a nod to the beachfront setting. Nautical motifs inspired such exterior details as a lighthouse-shaped newel post at the base of the steps leading to the home’s front entrance.
To allow for ocean surges, the main floor of the house is raised, with the lowest level serving as a garage and storage. The architect designed breakaway walls on this level. “Pressure from a surge will collapse the walls, allowing water to flow beneath the house, while pilings that sit behind them support the first and second floors,” Jones says. “Without incorporating this element in waterfront homes, a storm is much more likely to take down the entire house. The design is both functional and aesthetic. So many beach houses that just sit on pilings look stranded.”
Once Jones completed his architectural drawings, Pires set out to find a builder —not an easy task, as it turned out.
“There was so much detail in the design that three companies turned down the project,” Pires says laughing. Continuing his search, he spotted an impressive home in Lewes and tracked down the builder, Bob Purcell.
“I admired the craftsmanship and level of detail on the house and knew that the builder would have the patience to see our project through,” Pires says. Purcell accepted the job based on the high level of architectural detail and Jones’ insistence that the house be built entirely in wood, a rarity nowadays; most builders use synthetic materials.
The detailed design earned Jones a 2008 national Palladio Award—his third in five years—for best new house under 5,000 square feet. Sponsored by Traditional Building and Period Homes magazines, the Palladio Awards have become the preeminent program honoring traditional and classical design in the United States.
To design the rooms, Pires and Cooley sought Pinehurst, North Carolina-based designer Brenda Lyne after seeing her interiors of the Bellmoor Inn, a luxury hotel opened in Rehoboth Beach in 2002.
Cooley had initially envisioned something a little less elegant in style than the inn, but she’s grateful she trusted Lyne’s design sense.
“Brenda came up with great choices that addressed my need for furniture and accessories that would take a beating. This is a beach house after all,” Cooley says. “I didn’t want a fancy coffee table, or feel like I needed coasters on the dining room table.”
Says Lyne, “Diane and Alex expressed they wanted a kick-off-your-shoes casual lifestyle here, but I sensed that they also had an appreciation of sophisticated, fine furnishings.”
Throughout the home, the backdrop for the casually elegant furnishings is a neutral palette complemented by blond Australian cypress flooring and simple painted wood paneling in white applied to the walls.
On the main level, a large living-dining room runs the breadth of the house, facing the beachfront. A favorite hangout, it is furnished with two large sofas and chairs slipcovered in white linen. Asian-themed accent furniture and accessories in blue tones provide a soothing touch without detracting from ocean views.
A baby grand piano sits in the south side of the room, and the couple selected contemporary work by local artists to complete the space. The wrap-around, screened-in porch features couches, chaises and a hot tub that offer views of the Atlantic Ocean.
Behind the living room, an open kitchen features a bead board-covered island and cream-colored painted wood cabinets that conceal all of the appliances.
“I really wanted a streamlined, efficient kitchen. It isn’t large, but it is very functional,” says Diane. “We purchased the blue Bahia granite countertops two years before the kitchen was installed. I loved the color and variegation of the material, but the supplier informed us that the granite is quarried in limited supply, so we went ahead and bought it.”
Finishing details include pendant lighting over the island, dark metal pulls on the cabinetry, and blue and cream-toned accessories that pull in the color scheme from the living room.
A hallway by the home’s entrance on the street side connects the living room to Pires’ office in the rear. The former town commissioner runs the operations of his popular restaurants, the Bottle & Cork and the Rusty Rudder, from the space. In contrast to the breezy, coastal air of the rest of the house, this gentleman’s office features dark walnut paneling, plantation shutters and built-in library shelving. Pires decorated the office with a prized collection of boxing memorabilia and artwork.
On the second floor, an office-sitting area is outfitted with a computer and chairs for guests. The sitting area suite and adjacent porch connect to a guest room, a bedroom for Pires’ teenage daughter, and a large master bedroom that offers seating with ocean views from the turret.
“Anyone can build a big house, but to build a well-designed and crafted home is a different story,” Pires says. “We borrowed from the past and, in doing so, we’ve not only honored a piece of American architectural history, but created something we love that is built to last.”