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Background photo by Tom Lyons

Sara Jane Porter

Architect for the Ages

Jim McGuinness, the man who’s now my husband, and I were high school sweethearts. He moved in next door to me in Worcester, during a time in our lives that was difficult for both of us. We gazed at each other through our windows. We started to date, went off to college, and went our separate ways. We tried a long-distance relationship, but that didn’t last long.

When I was about 32, after I had started architecture school in New York City, he contacted my mother and we got back in touch. He was living on the Cape and he said, “Too bad you can’t come up and visit.” And I said, “Well, just ask me.” That was it.

I’ve been in Yarmouth for 30 years. I’ve never lived anywhere else for 30 years.

Sara Jane Porter

•••

I always wanted to be an architect, even as a little kid. I have this recollection that I would lay my crayons out in floor plans, and walk my dolls through them.

After I moved here from New York City, I worked for Grattan Gill in Sandwich, a wonderful architect—he studied with Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1950s and he was my mentor. Next, I worked for a building company on the Cape. Then, 26 years ago, I became a licensed architect, opened my own office, and I’ve been doing it ever since. In those 26 years, I’ve probably had about 400 different projects completed.

I’ve done quite a few projects along Route 6A—an addition on a three-quarter Cape, an addition on a Gothic Revival house behind Parnassus Book Service, an addition to a Greek Revival home on 6A . . . I’ve done work in just about every town in the Old Kings Highway Historic District.

People have told me that what they like about my work—the additions in particular—is that the structures look like they’ve always been there, that they seem to grow from the house. And really the historic precedent is that people would change their houses and add details to their houses that were popular at the time. We have all these historic areas and precedents from which to draw.

We lived in South Yarmouth for a year when I first came to the Cape, then we found out about an opportunity with the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, which is now Historic New England. For 20 years, we were site managers at the Winslow Crocker House, and we lived in the Thacher house next door. We took care of the property and it was a great situation—the house was open 20 hours a week from June through October, and one of us was always there to give tours of the homes.

As a result, I became very involved with the historic community. I was on the board of directors of the Historical Society of Old Yarmouth—I was vice president for about a year . . . I got to know quite a few people and feel really enmeshed in the community, and people started to think that I knew a lot about historic buildings. I learned about the history of architecture on Cape Cod, and I gave walking tours of Yarmouthport, which I’ll still occasionally do today for the historical society.

In the Route 6A area, there’s a strong bond between the people who are interested in restoring and conserving the way that the town has always looked. And I think my involvement in the Yarmouth New Church has really allowed me to re-insinuate myself into that community.

The church had been constructed on the town common in 1870. Samuel Thayer, an architect from Boston, had designed it and locals like John Hinckley, whose building company still exists here on the Cape, built it . . . There’s nothing quite like the church anywhere else on Cape Cod—a Gothic Revival building built with wood. I haven’t been into many other churches on the Cape, but the stained glass has to rank as some of the most exquisite. The interior frescoes, painted wood trusses, and the detailing we see on them are truly unique. And the building hasn’t really changed in 142 years.

The congregation dwindled toward the latter part of the 20th century, and the building fell into extreme disrepair—it was neglected over time. By then, it was almost 130 years old and nothing much had been done to it.

In 1998, some of us got together with the idea that we needed to do something to save this building because it was in really bad shape. We formed a nonprofit group called the Yarmouth New Church Preservation Foundation, which has no religious affiliation. So far we’ve raised $750,000, and a year ago, I became president of its board of directors.

We’ve probably had 12 concerts there. We’ve had art shows downstairs. We’ve hosted weddings. Our first concern is protecting the building, but we don’t want to just have a beautiful building. The idea is to preserve this building so the community can use it.

•••

We lived in the Thacher House on Route 6A. Ten and a half years ago, we moved to a ranch that was built in 1971. The one and only other owner of the house we live in now was also a Thacher. So we’ve lived in a Thacher house, one or another, for three decades.

There’s not a lot of mileage on Route 6A in Yarmouthport. But there is a lot of really rich architecture—one house after another. When I give walking tours, we spend a lot of time in the area where the retail stores are. Those buildings were always used for retail—it’s the same use of those buildings. The way it is now is the way it’s always been.

About

Jeff is the Managing Editor for Cape Cod Life Publications.

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Main Street, South Yarmouth, Mass

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