A Cape-to-Craftsman Makeover

A chance encounter led one family to their dream home in Portsmouth.When Winston Churchill wrote, “We shape our dwellings, and afterwards our dwellings shape us,” he captured how profoundly our environment forms us. Not just the physical ambience of the space, but the way the space is designed to nurture a growing family’s daily lives.That’s exactly what Jeff and Blair Demers sought when they undertook the extensive renovation of a traditional Cape in the south end of Portsmouth known as the Little Harbour district-and the result is a transformation into a modern Craftsman-style home.But Portsmouth wasn’t their first choice for where to live. Jeff, an architectural designer who graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design, had recently completed a large home project in the Adirondacks. With that job accomplished, the couple intended to move to South Boston to further Jeff’s career. Meanwhile, Jeff and Blair planned a visit to Portsmouth to see friends and family.That fall afternoon in downtown Portsmouthbegged for a stroll and someone recommended a walk through the Little Harbour neighborhood. As they wandered down Haven Road, the classic American 1940s neighborhood seemed warm and inviting, and evoked a strong sense of community. Blair turned to her husband and said, “I really love this street.”Just ahead of them, nailed to a tree was an orange-and-black “For Sale by Owners” sign. “Well, that house is for sale,” Jeff responded. It was the first day of an open house by the current owners, and Jeff and Blair toured the house.”I’ll never forget,” Blair says. “Jeff said, ‘Now this is a house we could do something with.'”Later that afternoon Jeff doodled on the back of a placemat, getting more excited as he sketched his vision of his family’s home. “We could take down this wall. And our master bedroom could go here,” and on and on he speculated. Three days later, they were the home’s new owners.Developing potentialWorking closely with Brendan McNamara, an Eliot, Maine-based residential designer, Jeff began to design the house that he, Blair and their three girls-now nine, seven and four-would eventually call home.Influenced by some of the magnificent Craftsman-style details he’d employed on a recent turn-of-the-century Adirondack Great Camp project, Jeff decided that the bungalow style would be the right fit for the house and the neighborhood. McNamara felt the same way.”The Craftsman look is traditional without feeling bound by tradition,” McNamara says. “Functional, while possessed of an understated elegance. There is decoration, without feeling decorated.” The collaboration between Jeff and McNamaraturned into a well-oiled machine.McNamara drafted the construction documents, while both he and Jeff worked on all the floor plan, the site planning and the interior features.”I loved the location so much,” Jeff says. “I loved the proximity to downtown-a ten-minute walk. The southern orientation of the house was terrific, allowing light to stream through the windows on the private side of the house. And a neighborhood park was just beyond the back yard for the girls.”McNamara says he also immediately saw the potential in the house: “It had a nice lot, great location and good bones.”The biggest challenge Jeff and McNamarafaced was fitting an expanded building on a small lot while meeting the city’s strict zoning standards. The men tenaciously overcame the challenges, and today, the dwelling stands as a perfect example of a dated, closed-off Cape transformed to an appealing space that also meets federal Energy Starguidelines for energy efficiency.Open space for familyEliot, Maine, contractor Jay Prewitt says the home’s emphasis on personal touches helped provide a lot of character. “There are always surprises when you get into renovations,” he says, “but that’s the nature of renovations. We call those ‘design opportunities.'”The first floor offers a spacious atmosphere with an open-concept design. The family room boasts a double-height, tongue-and-groove cathedral ceiling with a unique cabinet above the fireplace to house a TV screen behind closed doors.Truncated columns and stylish built-ins provide delineation between the family room, dining room and kitchen, without detracting from the flow of natural light and sense of space.An expansive kitchen, defined by an oversized, Arts-and-Crafts-influenced island, provides ample room for cooking and socializing. The island cabinetry is made of traditional oak. But fearing the natural wood would be too dark for the rest of the space, Jeff chose to paint the surrounding cabinets a soft white.The kitchen has several layers of light-covering the many specific needs of the space. In addition to the usual task lighting, Jeffselected numerous high hats, as well as pendant light fixtures with Edison bulbs that overhang the eating surface, thereby adding interest, color and a touch of the time period that dominates the home.Above the newly constructed tandem garage and mudroom sits a sizable master bedroom suite, complete with walk-through closets, an oversized whirlpool and an elegant tiled bathroom with glass shower. Double French doors in the master bedroom open to a cozy balcony overlooking the back yard. The girls’ three bedrooms complete the layout on the second floor.An unexpected, charming feature is located in the finished basement. Normally unused space beneath the stairs became a prized, much-sought out hideaway by the four-year-old and her friends. Affectionately called the Kid Pit, it’s an adorable playhouse with built-ins, lighting, carpeting and room for lots of fun.The open-concept floor plan provides flexibility, independence and generous common spaces for the family to come together but still be in different spaces­-promoting time together as a family and fulfilling a major goal in the house design.Most of the time the kids are on the first floor, Blair says. So everyone is able to see and hear each other. “If I need to be in the kitchen or at my desk working (Blair is chair of Seacoast Women’s Giving Circle), I need to be able to see and hear the kids and know where they are. And they know where we are.” She didn’t want walls in the way. Or closed doors. Or gates. “I love that Jeff blew out all the walls and the doors, and it became this open floor plan. Someone might be playing the piano. Someone else might be doing a puzzle. And someone else might be helping me bake. But we’re all spending time together. It’s been really nice.”Designed to be outdoorsThe living space doesn’t stop within the walls, however. It spills out to a deck and a private back yard that garners lots of use. Working with Applegarth Garden Design and Eyescapes (a hardscape contractor), the Demerses created a much-used extension of the living space. The deck often hosts dance parties, cookouts and impromptu neighborhood socializing. The kids invite friends over to climb on the swing set; play Frisbee, whiffle ball or soccer; or pick tomatoes from the small vegetable garden they planted.”I don’t think I really appreciated the impact a well-designed outdoor space can have on a family,” Blair says. “I credit Jeff with the vision for that. We love that it’s beautiful and much used by our family.”Although touted as an extremely positive experience by the team of professionals who worked on the project, the process wasn’t without setbacks. The family was saddened when an eighty-foot sugar maple needed to be removed from the back yard. The tree had been an integral part of the back yard design-its large canopy helped to define the space and created a tree-house effect off the master bedroom’s balcony. But according to Applegarth Garden Design landscaper Julie Applegarth Ross, despite extreme care, the tree suffered irreparable trauma from all the construction equipment. So after a couple of years, the sugar maple had to be taken down and was replaced with a flowering tree.A pleasant surpriseFive years after moving in, the family is still enthralled with their home. What fascinates Jeff about the space, beyond being such a perfect fit for his family’s lifestyle, is the way the home shocks people when they initially enter. “They walk through the door and reach the kitchen,” Jeff says, “then it’s often, ‘Whoa! I wasn’t expecting that!'” He’s referring to their reaction to the voluminous expanse of the open spaces and the abundant natural light.”We wanted an understated house. We’re on a modest, quiet residential street,” he continues. “The front side of the house has a smaller scale, but the back side is a different story.” It meant a lot to Jeff to demonstrate how a New England Cape could be converted to an updated Craftsman-style home on a conventional lot. It’s an elegant testimony for what is possible. And the perfect haven for the Demers family.