With perseverance, and a little help from some friends, Ralph Cataldo has built a new life at land’s end
Perhaps one of the busiest and most stressful industries on Cape Cod is that of the building industry. When the construction scene is booming and summer deadlines approach, the day-to-day operations can be dizzying, and when times threaten to be lean, the stress can deplete the energy reservoir of the most seasoned business owners around. After decades of building custom homes and businesses for clients on the Cape and Islands, Ralph Cataldo, owner of Cataldo Custom Builders in Falmouth, has successfully grown and managed his business through plenty of challenges, and somehow still manages to greet each day with a smile and a boatload of positive energy. When asked what makes the concept of “home” important to him, Cataldo eagerly explains that time spent away on his beloved island of Cuttyhunk is all it takes to recharge his batteries.
Cataldo jumps aboard his 34-and-a-half-foot Pursuit powerboat many weekends throughout the year, in all kinds of weather, and heads to the southernmost point of the Elizabeth Islands. After several years of being a regular weekend warrior at the marina and renting a small apartment, Cataldo was presented with a rare and precious opportunity to purchase a parcel of land from an islander and next-door neighbor that had become a family friend over the years. Cataldo says he was both stunned and touched when he first walked the property. He spent a couple of weeks figuring out if he could build a year-round home here on the island and ultimately pulled the trigger, throwing himself into a project filled with the unknown. That was almost 15 years ago.
Like anything that Cataldo builds, it inevitably involves countless acts of cooperation and collaboration. Each week, on Wednesday mornings, Cataldo and his master carpenter, Peter Sarkinen, would plan the specific work for the upcoming Saturday and organize the necessary men and materials needed for the day. Leveraging his many contacts in the building industry on the Cape, Cataldo—the unheralded king of logistics—organized a variety of transportation methods for tradesmen and materials every Saturday for nine months, beginning in September of 2004. It took coordinating seven 125-foot-long barges, pulled by tugboats from New Bedford, and the weekly rental of Jim Tieji’s Quickwater ferry from Falmouth to get everything to the island. The dependability of the captains, as well as local resident Dr. Seymour Dimare, who met him in Cataldo’s warm pickup truck at the icy dock when the crews arrived, was invaluable. The cost for Dimare’s early morning commitment: a newspaper and a plain donut!
Through snow, ice, wind and storms of all kinds that famous winter, Cataldo and his crew of 12 to 15, whom Cataldo dubbed “warriors,” ventured to Cuttyhunk every Saturday morning at 6 a.m. to build his home. “We never left the site on Saturday until my list was completed. Some days we left at 3:30, and some days we left at 7:30, but Jim and the Quickwater were always ready and waiting for us,” Cataldo recalls. Constructing a home on an island that is 17 miles out to sea is a different experience from building on the mainland. There are no resources to speak of, and the drastic change in climate undermines the whole operation.
“I had to import everything, and depend on lots of help from the locals, like the talented island plumber and electrician, the local carpenters, the neighbors and the Cuttyhunk Corporation. If they all hadn’t committed to work alongside my team, I could never have met my schedule of completing the home by May of 2005,” Cataldo says as he stands in the center of his kitchen, which takes in 200 degrees of an Atlantic Ocean view.
The home was designed with Falmouth architect John Dvorsack, and located on the site by Falmouth civil engineer Mike Borselli. It is a 2,300-square-foot structure, consisting of an open main floor, with a master suite on one end and a two-bedroom guest suite on the other end. The sloping site allowed Cataldo to take advantage of a full walkout lower level in the home and a walkout under his two-car garage. The open plan was efficient, as well as affordable to construct, allowing Dvorsack and Cataldo to adjust the program and double the living space, all while maximizing the jaw-dropping ocean views.
While excavating the site, they noticed they had the opportunity to center the corner of the home directly on Gay Head Lighthouse, so they moved the stakes in the excavated home and adjusted accordingly. Visible on the nearby shore of Martha’s Vineyard, the lighthouse is immediately present as you enter the front door and has become the grounding feature of the home’s stunning vistas.
Dr. Dimare, who has become an invaluably close friend, also had an impact on Cataldo’s personal life. Dr. Dimare was responsible for creating a health clinic on the island, and when Dimare recruited a Falmouth doctor as a rotational physician, Cataldo never dreamed he was meeting his future wife when the doctor introduced them the day Ralph’s young niece became ill. Michelle Costa started working at the Cuttyhunk clinic in 2009, and she and Ralph recently tied the knot.
Ralph and Michelle have a comfortable and effortless rhythm that serves them well as they manage their very busy lives, with a focus on returning to the island to recharge and revive each weekend. Cuttyhunk’s unique social atmosphere includes as much or as little interaction with others as anyone could desire. “Some weekends are spent having dinner with friends on the various parts of the island, and taking in the different views everyone experiences,” Michelle explains. “And some weekends are spent just relaxing and enjoying family here at the house. Our Thanksgiving weekend feast with the entire family together is one of our fondest memories.
“Cuttyhunk is not for everyone,” she continues, “but our best times are shared with our family—fishing, swimming, watching beautiful sunsets, eating the local catch and hanging out on the deck. This is what this home was designed to do.”
Cuttyhunk is such a unique outpost, as it sits 17 miles out to sea. The year-round community dwindles every year, and important tradesmen and professionals are a scarce resource. The island is lucky to have inherited residents such as the Cataldos, with their generous spirits and invaluable talents. Ralph is not interested in expanding his Cape business to the island; instead he looks for opportunities to provide work for the local tradesmen. In addition to building his own home, he built his neighbor’s custom home, and was asked to rebuild the island’s power plant when it burned down in December of 2006. He was involved in the design of the new Harbormaster’s building with Dartmouth architect Greg Jones, and is currently overseeing the expansion of the marina for the Harbor Committee. Each of these projects would not have been possible without the critical involvement of the talented local residents. Michelle’s commitment to the health and wellness of the island residents is evident with every extra office appointment she schedules, every awareness seminar she organizes, and every caring hug she shares with her neighbors.
Together as a team, this couple is ready to take on the next challenge. The Native Americans called the island “Land’s End.” For the newlyweds, life has a new focus on the horizon, and their compass is set for a course of new beginnings.