Watch Hill Aerie

By Thomas A. Kligerman


Ever since I was ten years old, I have spent nearly every summer in a small oceanside town in New England. Set on a point of land that juts out into the Atlantic, it is dotted with simple shingle cottages, many built in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Despite the passage of time, those cottages have never lost their place in my imagination, and my love of the shingle style has never wavered.

My attachment influenced the design of this waterfront house in Rhode Island, which coincidentally commands its own point of land, extending into the surrounding waters like the prow of a ship. Originally my clients requested a modern, flat-roofed house. But I felt that, on a site that prominent, in a community that prized historic architecture, an overtly contemporary residence might not be welcome. Together my clients and I agreed to a design that would embody both modernity and tradition.

I developed the house by drawing on the crisp geometry of origami, almost as though I’d taken a sheet of pale grey paper and folded it into sharply articulated planes. This proved especially effective up above, where the elongated dormers and extended overhangs are recognizably traditional, yet enabled me to translate my clients’ desire for a flat roof into moments of horizontality. The origami concept also freed me to eliminate all mouldings, trim, and ornament, resulting in pure volumes, bordering in places on the abstract.

This I supported by the nearly exclusive use of Alaskan yellow-cedar shingles above, horizontal louvered boards at the ground level. I have always been fascinated by the idea of an architectural form as something sculpted from a mass, for example, the ruins in Chaco Canyon in New Mexico. These monolithic masonry forms seem to have been scooped out of a single material, and the horizontally stacked stones remind me of shingle courses. With this precedent in mind, I “carved” into the flat gables on both ends of the building, shaping edges that extend out from the triangular forms like prisms.

The interiors mix ideas about contemporary living with the experience of being on the water. The great room combines living, dining, and kitchen areas into a single open-plan space. Encircled by the multiple porches and decks, the room itself feels like a big screened porch. Triple-hung windows and plate glass come all the way to the floor, adding to the bright, open-air atmosphere.

I sail traditional wooden boats, and my visceral attachment to the shingle style is braided with that summer activity. The link between the two is wood and paint; the aromas of each combine with the salt air, and I wanted to capture that in the house. Its elongated shape, multiple decks, and horizontality convey the sense of being on a boat, as does the primarily white and gray palette. Conversely, the study and den at the rear of the house are painted a glossy green-black, calling to mind elegant staterooms and the dark hulls of sloops and ketches.

When you pull into the motor court, the house feels almost as if it’s about to pull away, with its grand entry stair like a gangway, the big smokestack chimney, and a nose that’s gesturing toward the ocean.

It’s a sense of potential, rather than a sense of arrival, a great adventure about to begin.