Transformation > An Old Cape Becomes Family-Friendly

Homeowners Linda McGivern and Ben Thayer are not short on vision or energy. They bought their late-1700s Cape and its thirty-two acres at auction in the 1990s, and have gone through several additions, renovations and upheavals since. The couple has also moved the house 1,200 feet from its original roadside spot down a dirt driveway (which has since been paved) to an absolutely stunning location in a meadow that slopes down to a picturesque pond. “Every time we took down a wall or added on, we’d say, ‘Now this is going to be the change that will solve all our space issues,’” McGivern says. “But none of those changes were the panacea we were looking for until we put on this addition. It has really completed our home.”

Like so many of us, McGivern and Thayer are in love with the quintessential New England farmhouse and moving the house achieved another mission: winding along the quarter-mile driveway and approaching the house in its lovely setting almost transports one to an agrarian past, when there were acres of land to live on and life was more simple. However, the reality is that the couple has three children—ages fourteen, twelve and six—and the quintessential New England style with its low ceilings, small bedrooms and narrow hallways does not particularly accommodate a twenty-first-century family. “When you’re raising a family, the space issue becomes an issue of balance,” McGivern says. “You want everyone to have some privacy, but you want the house to enable family time as well.”

Planning the second renovation

Thayer, who runs a telecommunications firm, is an exceedingly handy person and had done some of the work on previous additions himself. He served as general contractor on this project, too, but he and McGivern enlisted the help of architect Walter Rous, whose plans placed the addition off the kitchen—which McGivern and Thayer had renovated in an earlier project—and maximized views of the pond. The added space includes a family room with a breakfast nook and a library/TV room on the first floor; an opened-up staircase—the existing one was in a closet and didn’t meet code; and, on the second floor, a large hallway that functions as a reading area and two bedrooms. On the exterior, the addition has a front porch and a back deck set on a diagonal, which makes it mesh with an existing courtyard and pool area.

“Linda and Ben really wanted something compatible with their traditional, four-square Cape,” Rous says, “and so my biggest challenge was to find a way to make the addition look as if it belonged to the house while meeting their space needs and that required a full second story.” To keep the addition from overwhelming the original house, Rous kept the roofline low and designed two gables, turning the addition’s end gable so that it looks like a separate structure. “I kept in mind the old New England formula of ‘big house, little house, back house, barn,’” he says, referring to the architectural pattern New England farmers created, which inspired a nineteenth- century children’s verse that was chanted in games. The “big house” contained the front formal rooms downstairs and bedrooms upstairs, the “little house” was the kitchen complex, the “back house” was the work and storage area, and the “barn” was for the farm animals and their food. By connecting their structures, farmers were sheltered from winter weather. For McGivern and Thayer’s house, Rous wanted the same sense of connection on the outside while creating a balance of private and communal space inside.

Renovating for twenty-first-century needs

The purpose of the project was family preservation rather than historic preservation, so Rous took many liberties with the design. For example, there is a lot of glass in the breakfast nook to take advantage of the views of the pond, where a traditional colonial-era house would have only one set of windows.

In addition, McGivern chose bamboo wood for the flooring upstairs. “It doesn’t particularly belong in an old house, but it’s nontoxic and very functional, and I love the light color,” she says. The staircase is made of cherry because she and Thayer love the wood’s look as it ages.

On the front porch, the couple initially imagined a farmer’s porch with a railing. “I persuaded them to keep it open to the land by adding double doors,” Rous says. “The view to the pond is downward, so a railing would have created a barrier. That was another colonial-era feature that went by the wayside! But although colonialera houses were symmetrical in the front, there was more freedom in the construction of the back entrances. As long as the roof was sloped so that the rain would run off, builders were very creative in terms of where they placed additions. So I felt free to go along with that impulse.”

The addition provides the house with some interesting angles, and looks like a warm and friendly relation next to its more reserved, older brother. Detailing and paint color connect the two structures. The house is a wonderful custom, orangey gold shade—similar to the inside of an acorn squash and that makes you feel like you’re going over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house.

The real test, of course, is that the family life inside is harmonious. “The kids now have their own rooms, but they have easy access to Ben and me, and both floors have a great family area where we can all coexist,” McGivern says. “I realized recently that I’m going to have to think of ways to use the rooms in the old part of the house, because we’re always in the addition— it’s become the heart of our home.”