Autumn 2011

A New Old House

Cape Cod Home  /  Autumn 2011 / , ,

Writer: Leslie Linsley / Photographer: Terry Pommett 

With the help of talented New England craftsmen, a resourceful homeowner brings history to life in a planned Nantucket community.

With the help of talented New England craftsmen, a resourceful homeowner brings history to life in a planned Nantucket community

The exterior of Spychalski’s historical Nantucket home is accented by a unique archway made from shrubbery. Photo by Terry Pommett

When Dr. Joseph Spychalski stepped off the ferry in 1993 he knew instantly that he wanted to own a home on Nantucket. “I was always fascinated with history,” says Spychalski. “Antiques and old furniture held an interest for me. My ultimate dream was to own an early historic home and to furnish it with authentically historic pieces.” Coming from upstate New York, Dr. Joe (as his patients refer to him), a skin care specialist, quickly realized that he could not afford an early sea captain’s home on Orange Street overlooking the harbor, so he bought what he could afford and turned it into his antique dream house.

The fact that his new home was a boxy, newly built house in the island’s planned community known as Naushop makes the handsome finished project all the more dramatic. There is something wonderful and romantic about an older home, one with timeless character that exudes the feeling of being lived in for generations. This house clearly lacked this appeal, so Spychalski set out to literally make his own history. The interior of the house was transformed over a 16-year period into what could easily be mistaken for a house built in the early 1800s. Spychalski attributes this accomplishment to the talented craftsmen that he found to make his vision come alive.

This house, like many new houses, lacked the architectural details that make older homes so appealing. However, since the house was one of the first to be built in this neighborhood, it had advantages. The developers copied some of the early features of Federal style island homes, such as 12-over-12 paned windows, giving the house a bit of unexpected charm. The interior of this house, like many new homes, was a blank canvas just waiting for a patina of “older home appeal.”

When Spychalski bought the house he was not thinking about changing its basic structure. His primary interest was in furnishing his home with authentic early American furniture. “The first piece I bought was an early 1800s highboy,” he says. A fortuitous meeting with New Hampshire’s George and Debbie Spiecker, the antique dealers who sold Spychalski that highboy, became his primary source for putting together an impressive personal collection of antique furnishings.

“I didn’t want to live with reproductions. I like looking at a piece of furniture, or a collection of lightship baskets in a corner cupboard, or sitting in a chair, or eating at a table and imagining the people who enjoyed these things before me,” the doctor explains. “But once I had a sizeable collection of furniture, I quickly realized how out of place it looked in the rooms and decided the ceiling should be grained to look old.

With the help of talented New England craftsmen, a resourceful homeowner brings history to life in a planned Nantucket community

Turquoise cabinets give the home’s kitchen a touch of spunk. Photo by Terry Pommett

“Ilooked in the yellow pages under ‘decorative painting’ and found David and Christina Wiggins,” Spychalski goes on to explain. This was a lucky find as this New Hampshire father/daughter team are premier craftspeople who reproduce the authentic itinerate painting techniques often found in early 18th century homes. “When we first got together, David told me that the ceilings in older houses were never faux grained,” the homeowner says. “Little by little, he educated me as he transformed each room. Now the painted wall and floor treatments look authentic as if they were originally done in the 1800s, when painters traded room and board for their skilled labor.

With the help of talented New England craftsmen, a resourceful homeowner brings history to life in a planned Nantucket community

One of the major goals of this renovation was to salvage the original woodwork, such as the doors and ceiling beams. Photo by Terry Pommett

“The second person I had the good fortune to meet,” Spychalski says, “was Wayne Gauthier. He is a master craftsman on the island who specializes in disassembling and resurrecting old structures and salvaged wood for recycling. It is an absolute treat to see this man work wonders with carpentry.” The homeowner went on to explain how antique wood (such as that found in old barns or old homes) was usually not cut precisely as it might be done today with modern tools, which means it takes a extremely skilled worker to retrofit antique wooden pieces together in new spaces. This is Gauthier’s particular talent—that and the knowledge of a warehouse of old wood inventory from early New England buildings.

At the outset the new house had an open floor plan, unlike the interiors in older homes with small rooms designed to conserve heat. Before the home’s interior walls were refinished and wood paneling was installed and architectural details were added, the space had to be refigured into small, cozy, well-defined rooms.

Once the basic work was done on the interior surfaces and the furniture was carefully arranged as it might have been long ago, collectibles with a historic connection added interest and character to every room. Just as each piece of furniture tells a story, so do the accessories, from the brass andirons in the fireplace to the paintings on the walls. There are lightship baskets, both old and new (Joe’s parents, Delores and Ben, weave lightship baskets as a hobby and these are interspersed with the early baskets), scrimshaw, inlaid boxes, and many things related to Nantucket’s early whaling days.

Now that the house is complete, Dr. Spychalski feels as though he has become the custodian of each piece that he carefully researched and purchased. Moving through the house he explains the provenance of each treasure and his enthusiasm reveals how much he has enjoyed the evolution and the experience of creating a very personal historic home. Indeed, when you walk around with him you can hardly believe this is not a coveted sea captain’s house overlooking Nantucket Harbor.

Leslie Linsley is the author of Nantucket Island Living (Stewart, Tabori, & Chang) and Aged To Perfection (Sterling Publishing Co.). She has lived on Nantucket for 30 years and her newspaper column,“ Home Style,”
appears weekly in the Nantucket Inquirer & Mirror.

Leslie Linsley