Feature > A New English Cottage

When James Somes bought a stately nineteenth-century Colonial home and its accompanying carriage house, he intended to renovate both buildings to create office space on Portsmouth’s waterfront. And while the Colonial was indeed refurbished for business, Somes found himself drawn to the carriage house time and again. “It’s an exceptional place,” he says, “and I decided it would be a great in-town residence.”

That decision required a multitude of legwork and hands-on effort to save the structure. Somes was so determined to turn the 1813 carriage house into his own home that he endured two years of obtaining the proper permits, including one that required he elevate the structure nearly three feet to satisfy local codes. The Army Corps of Engineers was involved as the house sits near a tidal estuary, and members of the local historic commission also expressed concern because the carriage house is in Portsmouth’s historic district. In the end, compromises allowed Somes to create a structure that fairly represents the finest in English cottage architecture—on the exterior, at least.

It was a formidable challenge even for a distinguished architect—Somes is a founding principal of Portsmouth’s JSA Architects—to make this little lump of lumber into an English showpiece in New England.

Today, the small red-roofed cottage could snuggle easily, naturally and comfortably into England’s countryside across the North Atlantic. Even the setting could be the Cotswolds with boxwoods and a stone pathway tumbling toward the sea.

But, when Somes arrived on the scene in 1995, the carriage house was in a serious state of deterioration; the first-floor horse stalls flooded with a foot of water at every high tide and some areas of the house had collapsed. However, most of the original structure was still standing. In fact, the carriage house had undergone an earlier renovation to create recreation space for one of the families who previously occupied the front Colonial house.

“[The structure] is evolutionary,” Somes says. “Who knows what it will be like in fifty years.”

Focusing on Light and Color

No matter what its future holds, the carriage house today is a home filled with light and color—the two major goals for Somes. No low ceilings, no warren of dank and dark rooms, which are so common in
English country cottages.

Light is provided by scores of windows of diverse sizes and shapes (the round window above the front entrance is particularly enchanting). Square and rectangular windows as well as generous French doors allow daylight to pour in on even the dullest afternoons. “This is basically a transparent home, but we do want our privacy,” Somes says. “That’s why we designed the frosted glass surround for the front door. It allows light in but keeps gawkers out.”

Adding to this light-and-airy look are dazzling paintings, well thought-out interior lighting and the centerpiece—a twostory living room that adds volume and drama to the interior. The room also provides a sense of whimsy with not one, but two copper indoor window boxes hung high on the walls at the openings to the second-floor bedrooms. “They look a heck of a lot better since we replaced the real plants with artificial—easier to clean, too,” laughs Somes.

Most rooms on the first floor are open to the second floor, where a bridge allows access to the master bedroom, guestroom, bathrooms and a small study.

A custom color scheme uses mostly jewel-tone colors—purple, tangerine and chartreuse—to keep the interior bright. But the amazing yellow paint in the entryway and living room is breathtaking. Imagine entering the home on starless night, dark as coal. The front door is open, and you walk into a space as bright and enchanting as a field of yellow saffron.

The Talents of Craftspeople

A key to a successful building or remodeling project is finding craftspeople who have the needed skills and a compatible vision. Through the years, Somes has worked with several of the best. “Relationships are key,” Somes says of his favorite craftspeople.

One such favorite is renowned Maine artisan and cabinet maker Fred Wildnauer, whose work is showcased in the carriage house’s first floor. Wildnauer handconstructed the ash cabinets in the kitchen, the fireplace surround, the front door and the one-of-a-kind dining-room table (the project that began after Somes and his wife, Debbie, moved in).

Somes, Wildnauer, painter Phoebe Blake and general contractor Dennis Smith of Mill Pond Construction have worked on many projects together, mainly because of mutual trust, says Wildnauer. “Jim knows that craftspeople are key to any project. We trust in one another. Basically Jim comes up with the ideas and we make them work.” Somes obviously liked the results—he hosted the entire crew to dinner when the project was completed.

Finding experienced and talented architects, construction companies and craftspeople to renovate one of New Hampshire’s plentiful old homes can be challenging, but it is crucial to the end result. “Any architecture project requires teamwork,” Wildnauer says. While each project requires one lead person who has the final say, he continues, “There has to be a mutual understanding and appreciation of everyone’s role.”

As an example, Wildnauer cites the dining room table. When Somes came to the team with an idea about what he wanted, Wildnauer could see the limitations of the materials requested. Working together and pulling in additional expertise and resources, the team developed a plan that would address the concerns and still give Somes the table he wanted. “It was not democratic, but it was collaborative,” Wildnauer says. “I think that kind of process is the formula for success in these sorts of projects.”

Best of Both Worlds

The home’s setting allows its owner to sleep easy, knowing that come morning, he can pursue some of his favorite pastimes. Even with an in-town cottage, “I can fish for striped bass from my porch,” Somes says. The house also is a short stroll from downtown. “It’s great to be able to walk downtown for dinner, and in the morning, for coffee and the newspaper.” One can only assume it is the New York, and not the London, Times.