A Timeless Retreat
Architect Bruce Miller restores an authentic Cape cabin in the woods of Wellfleet.
It’s not every day you come across a property that evokes a sense of charm and nostalgia for old Cape Cod. When a large parcel of land with a small 1920s cabin—tucked into woodlands on Wellfleet Bay—came up for sale, a longtime summer resident saw an opportunity to preserve the integrity of not only the land, but also the tranquil cabin itself.
The new owner recognized the cabin as a diamond in the rough and called Boston architect Bruce Miller to enhance the structure without taking away its charming old-time qualities. “The cabin, although it was in pretty bad shape, is a classic summer cottage: There was no insulation or plaster walls, just exposed pine framing with interior spaces opened to the roof rafters. The owners wanted to use it as a seasonal guesthouse,” says Miller. “They also wanted to be respectful of the original cabin and keep things as simple as possible.”
With views of a tidal marsh and woodland, Miller also wanted to keep the rustic ambiance of the 750-square-foot cabin intact. “The approach was to be as economical as possible,” Miller notes. “We did not winterize the structure.”
Miller chose to enlarge the cabin slightly, but for the most part worked hard to maintain the structure’s attractive smallness. By using building materials consistent with the original structure and selecting simple fixtures and finishes with clean lines, the new and the old blended together, in keeping with the unfussy modesty of the Cape’s traditional summer cabins.
Wellfleet, truly a special Cape Cod town with over 60 percent of its land designated as part of the National Seashore, offers the wild windswept beauty of nature with tidal marshes, kettle ponds, Atlantic Ocean beaches, and a tranquil bay. The new design of the cabin continues to honor this unspoiled place, sitting quietly on the landscape.
The one-story structure needed new siding and a roof. It also called for more light and expanded views of the marsh. The scope of the work included adding a new kitchen and screened porch, enlarging a bathroom and bedroom, and adding a new deck.
Miller spent many summers as a child and young adult on Squam Lake in New Hampshire and called on his memories of much-loved summer buildings to enhance the relaxed aesthetic of the Wellfleet cabin. Along with recladding the cabin walls and roof in new cedar shingles, Miller incorporated a dormer with operable transom windows to allow in more natural light and summer breezes.
“The cabin can get warm in the summer, but with the dormer windows open, heat escapes from the roof pulling in fresh air from the lower windows, keeping the cabin cool,” notes Miller. He also kept the original 12 over 12 windows in the living space and added a fourth window taken from the back of the house to expand the tidal marsh view.
The interiors were revamped with new fir flooring. Miller added a 175-square-foot screened porch for additional living space—it’s the perfect spot to have dinner and enjoy the natural surroundings.
A set of French “barn” doors on axis with the central living room slide open to access the porch, bringing the two spaces together. “I also moved the front door, which was on the side, and placed it on the front of the cabin, setting up a visual axis from the entry out to the marsh,” says Miller. To offer greater outdoor living space, Miller added a cedar deck facing the marsh.
In the main living space, an old wood-burning stove was replaced with a brick fireplace, a wonderful gathering spot for the Cape’s sometimes brisk spring and early summer mornings and often chilly autumn nights. The interior walls and ceilings, which were left exposed, were painted a crisp white. Miller added vertical pickled pine boards to the wall surrounding the fireplace and incorporated small bookshelves and hidden closets on either side of the chimney for additional storage.
To keep the rustic feel of the cottage, Miller specified unlacquered brass hardware, which patinas naturally over time in the salt breezes. For more modern creature comforts, a new kitchen was added and the bathroom was enlarged slightly.
“We added a three-foot-by-six-foot mini-addition to the bathroom, making an almost dysfunctional space more comfortable, yet preserving its smallness,” says Miller. The bathroom floor is painted a bright French blue, offering a striking visual impact. A freestanding outdoor shower affords the ultimate summer experience.
The kitchen is also very simple with plywood cabinets, heart pine countertops, and a small island countertop for food preparation. The kitchen backsplash was also finished in a pickled pine, continuing the flavor of the living area.
This authentic cabin has become a sweet oasis with enhanced charm, offering a perfect retreat from modern life in the tranquil woodlands surrounding Wellfleet Bay.
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