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Pochick Street, Siasconset, in the early 20th Century

The Magic of Small

Underhill Cottage in the 19th Century Siasconset MA
Main Top in 2013 Siasconset, MA
19th Century view of Pochick Street, Siasconset, MA
Pochick Street in the snow, 2013, Siasconset, MA

At the end of the 19th century, the ‘Sconset developer Edward Underhill believed in the power of small.  The 800 (give or take) square foot rental cottages he built on Pochick, Evelyn and Lily Streets were not only thrifty little pieces of construction, they were also testimonials to the magic of scale. Smallness encouraged a change in lifestyle for Victorian vacationers: greater intimacy and informality than they could ever have experienced in winter. “The enjoyments of life are heightened by change,” Underhill wrote in one of his advertisements. Smallness reduced upkeep, discouraged long-term houseguests and made formal entertaining virtually impossible. Isn’t that what vacations were for?

But even more essential in Underhill’s worldview, smallness tickled the fancy. His cottages made it easy to imagine you were living at sea. There were ladders for stairs; peepholes for windows, and floors that would settle into undulations and convex shapes much like ships’ cabins. The bedrooms were merely berths, the closets simply lockers. All of these descriptions were included in his rental advertising. You had the advantage of a seaman’s life but without fear of “drifting on land in darkness or in fog, or being driven on a lee shore in gales” he wrote.  Another brochure’s copy reads: “Inside, little space, big accommodation. Six to nine rooms. Sailors knew how to stow cargo, human livestock or freight.” His cottages offered a vacation for the imagination as well.

From our vantage point, it’s remarkable that Underhill could afford to make such fun of his cramped cottages. Recently I visited a real estate website where “atrium” was one of the options for narrowing your search. Just try to conceive a world in which Underhill’s cottages had on-line rental search categories: instead of # bedrooms—berths; instead of family room--porch; stairway—ladder; French doors—portholes;  Roche Bobois furnishings—grandma’s junk. We have become gluttons for space, for hotel-like houses with bedroom suites and lobbies for entries. The bigger the house, the bigger the trophy.

Or maybe, just maybe, Underhill’s vision is making a comeback.

Angus MacLeod, the architect of several Underhill cottage restorations, insists that it is. He and his wife and partner Deb MacLeod both received one of this year’s Nantucket Preservation Trust awards. They are live-in caretakers in one of the Underhill cottages they restored. The house's owner and her mother, who died recently, have been "fairy godmothers" to the MacLeods, as Deb put it.  Their "let's do it!" spirit made careful restoration possible.

I had the pleasure of visiting them in their cozy nook of a living room, a built-in berth for a sofa at my elbow, complete with a headboard doubling as a bookshelf. “The power of the scale is universal,” Angus observed. “Whatever the region, style, era, country, we are drawn to well designed small spaces.”

Recently a ‘Sconset home owner in search of an architect entered their house on Pochick Street and said, “This is what I want!” For a Monomoy client, MacLeod designed a house much smaller in scale than its neighbors, but so beautiful….so really breathtakingly beautiful in every detail, that it out-priced much larger houses when it was ultimately sold.

The best way to convince clients of the power of smallness is to get them to experience it, Angus told me. His 350 square foot studio apartment in Boston, which he rents out, is the perfect vehicle for a test drive.

So is a walk through his house on Pochick Street.

To the shell covered street it appears as it would have in the 1880s, with the addition of what Underhill would have called a “wart”, a second story comprised of a single room. By MacLeod’s design, the house now snakes around in the back, creating almost an interior courtyard out of the garden. The additional bedrooms and bathrooms never change scale. Each makes fun out of efficiency with showerheads tucked under eaves and windows at knee level. And yet there’s considerable privacy when required—inhabitants of the back leg of the house would hardly hear a peep from the front inhabitants. The communal spaces: living room, kitchen, dining area and porch, flow easily into each other and together are large enough for a party, but not a formal one. There’s no room for a table that seats twelve or a six-foot buffet. That sort of entertaining, in the opinion of both Underhill and the MacLeod’s, is not what summers are for anyway. What MacLeod has created is a family scaled house, a sunny breezy place where making pancakes together can take all morning and constructing a jigsaw puzzle all day.

Indeed there’s a surprising sense of airiness in MacLeod’s design because of the ever shifting and angling ceiling heights and because of the startling quantity of light that enters when every room has at least two, usually three, exterior walls.  Angus led me up the winding stair to the one room second story the MacLeod’s use as a master bedroom. The head of a double bed tucks under the slant of the roof but two 3 over 3 windows give each slumberer a pillow level view.  When you are twelve inches away from a window, looking out, it doesn’t matter how small the window is; you see the whole sky.

I have a window like that in my Nantucket town house.  You can lie in bed at night and look out at the stars, and in the morning, you can hear the birds calling you to breakfast.  Of course a designer can put a small window at bed level in any size house, but they tend not to. It throws off the scale.  Big houses in Nantucket often have big banks of windows, displaying the view as though on a large screen. We experience the outlook collectively, as an audience. When a room is small, all the windows inevitably chum up to the inhabitants as they brush their teeth, wash dishes, sit on a couch, lie in bed. The outdoors, never more than a few feet away, is experienced intimately. That’s the magic of small.

[Photo credit:  Nantucket Historical Association]

Sherry Lefevre is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Writing for Film and Television at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Pa. In 2009 she bought and refurbished a house on Pine Street in Nantucket town that she made the subject of a book called The Nantucket House That Ebay Built. It will be available in Apple’s ibookstore mid-July.