A family home built around favorite natural resources
Photos by John Gruen
Mountains or beach. Lake or ocean. The decision for us was years in the making. You see, my husband, Rich, grew up in Lakewood, New Jersey, minutes from the Jersey shore, and spent his summer days at the beach with his mother and older siblings. I, in contrast, went to sleepaway camp in upstate New York and New Hampshire, logging nine summers on the shores of pristine mountain lakes. After nearly two decades of countless weekends and vacations spent in Berkshire County inns, B&Bs, house rentals, motels, and campgrounds, Rich finally determined that he was ready to choose the mountains for hiking and skiing, and the lakes for kayaking and swimming.
The end result of that agreement is the house we recently built in Stockbridge, a place for us and our three children—Nicole, 22, Emily, 20, and Simon, 15—to come together and spend time both now and into the future. But the journey to this current place was a circuitous one, inspiring many lessons in Berkshires real estate, construction, and a bit of marital compromise.
When our search began in 2009, Rich and I agreed that we were hoping to have a water element on our land—only we had different ideas about how that water would be depicted. As a writer, nature lover, and positivity-psychology life coach, at the top of my wish list was a property with a natural body of water as a source of inspiration and serenity—a creek, a brook, a stream, a pond, a lake—any would do. And Rich, a lifelong swimmer, was insistent that our house have an in-ground pool so he could swim laps from spring until fall.
With no specific location in mind, we looked at houses from Hillsdale to Lee, Monterey to Richmond, quickly realizing that finding a house delivering both of our priorities—the natural body and the pool—would be more challenging than we’d thought. One summer afternoon, we met our real-estate broker, Dawn Farley, at a property on Interlaken Cross Road, its driveway a private road called Penny Royal Lane after the pennyroyal mint plant. Driving through a towering grove of pine trees, we passed a small, rundown cottage on the left, a fenced-in berry patch on the right, and continued up the drive to a three-bedroom house with slate-blue shingles. We walked through the house, only 20 years old and in very good shape. Stepping across the wooden back deck, we trudged through the snow, down the long, sloping yard, and there it was—the outlet of the Stockbridge Bowl peeking beneath large patches of ice.
While the house was large enough for our family of five, our dream house had more space to accommodate extended family and friends—and we were hoping for a place that didn’t require work (naïve as that seems now).
The following winter, we rented a house near Butternut Basin during our children’s winter vacation. After skiing one afternoon, we went house-hunting again with Dawn, who led us onto a vaguely familiar private road and through that grove of pines—Penny Royal Lane. When we got out of the car, I asked Dawn why we were here. She apologized, having forgotten we’d already seen it, but Rich suggested we take another look. Many things had changed since we’d begun our search the previous summer; mainly we realized that we’d need to do make concessions—and renovate—in order to get what we ultimately desired. We suddenly saw the enormous potential before us and realized we could eventually create what we both envisioned for our family.
We spent two years in the blue house, getting familiar with our land and how the light and vistas change with each season. We watched eagerly each summer as the blueberries in the patch ripened for picking, the trees blossomed in all their grandeur, and the glistening lake water at the bottom of the long yard provided a home for swarms of new ducklings. We bought a couple of kayaks, and Rich, an engineer and president of Jonard Tools, made a routine of paddling to the Beachwood beach, part of a private neighborhood association, swimming laps, and then paddling home. We talked about rebuilding the house.
With the guidance and expertise of architects Alan Clark and Phil Hamm, builder Gregg Wellenkamp and interior designer Elena Letteron, we worked on plans slowly, tweaking them as we went along. We wanted to build a contemporary house with lots of windows so we could see nature unfold during every season and the filtering light from multiple angles. There was a desire to create common spaces where our family could be together—playing games, watching movies, sitting by the fire—as well as cozy areas where someone could curl up and read.
Not wanting to sacrifice any time spent in Stockbridge during the building process, we decided first to rebuild the uninsulated red cottage—long ago rented to a Boston Symphony Orchestra musician for 13 summers—so we could stay there during the construction of the main house. One afternoon, while showing the architectural drawings for the new cottage to my mother-in-law, she came up with an ingenious idea. “If you are planning to rebuild where the main house sits now, why don’t you just move it to where the red cottage is?” And so we did.
Gregg Wellenkamp confirmed that the blue house was similar in size to the cottage, so he built a new foundation, and had the blue house moved to its new location. To comply with the cottage’s footprint, however, we removed one room from the house, which we have since recycled as a boat house for storage.
Once settled in our new guest cottage, we were able to watch the building of the new house every step of the way. It was important that our family and guests enjoy views of the lake and surrounding trees, so each of the four bedrooms (one has two sets of bunkbeds) on the second floor has windows facing the back.
Although the house can accommodate a crowd, Rich and I needed to feel comfortable in the space when we are there on our own, so we put the master bedroom on the main floor, where we each have a small office—mine off the master and his off the living room. Dedicated to making the house as environmentally responsible and energy efficient as possible, we installed a geothermal-heating system as well as solar panels on the roof.
Needless to say, Rich got his pool, which is built for swimming laps, and we chose a grey-blue pool surface to match the color of the lake. Because the house is contemporary and its exterior uses a variety of elements—fiber-cement clapboard, stucco, and corrugated metal—we wanted the landscaping, designed by Chris Tomich of Tomich Landscape Design & Construction in Sheffield, to be simple and monotone.
Having a house on the outlet to the Stockbridge Bowl has deepened our connection to the area in ways we didn’t anticipate. When we bought the land, we were unaware of the lake’s history (it was once home to the Mahican Indians); its rich, varied wildlife (herons and giant snapping turtles are regularly seen); and that we share its shores with two of my favorite local institutions—Tanglewood and Kripalu. More recently, Rich joined the board of the Stockbridge Bowl Association (SBA) as its assistant treasurer.
While we built our Stockbridge home with a nod toward the future and a growing extended family, we did what we could to lure our kids along the way. During our first summer here in 2010, we surprised Nicole, Emily, and Simon with a trampoline. Then came the paddle boards. We’ve since managed to provide additional enticements with the hope that the kids actually want to spend time here. For now, they do.
Saving Stockbridge Bowl - click for more on the campaign to Save Stockbridge Bowl and restore it back to health.