Silver Screen Dream
Like a brilliant filmaker, PSD pulls out all the stops to create this Nauset Heights masterpiece
In the movie “North By Northwest,” an innocent man, framed for murder, must outmaneuver an espionage ring first to prove his innocence and then to save the woman he grows to love. One of Alfred Hitchcock’s most beloved and critically acclaimed masterpieces, the film served as a template for lighthearted romantic thrillers in general and for James Bond specifically, as a character and as a franchise. Shot and released in 1959, at the pinnacle of the director’s career, the film advances both a story and a self-referential thesis about Hitchcock’s approach to art. It includes memorable moments such as the famous “crop-duster sequence,” in which an airplane attacks the hero at a remote crossroads, and a chase across the sculpted faces of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial. The title derives from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, who tells his traitorous friends, “I am mad but north-northwest: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.” The connections to the Bard’s tragedy end here—Hitchcock claimed that the true point of the movie was to make an extended joke about the chiselled contours of lead actor Cary Grant’s face.
The film is a love story, a tale of mistaken identity, a cold-war intrigue, and a commentary about celebrity status. It has also provided the inspiration for one family’s Nauset Beach summer home, which the owner named “North By Northeast.” Not only is this home’s location in East Orleans’ exclusive neighborhood of Nauset Heights rather unique, the firm of Polhemus Savery DaSilva Architects Builders (PSD) created a dwelling with as many storylines, themes and interpretations as Hitchcock’s iconic film.
Hitchcock loved monuments. In addition to his use of Mount Rushmore, in other films he staged pivotal scenes at the Golden Gate Bridge, the Statue of Liberty and the Jefferson Memorial. Likewise, North By Northeast may as well be set upon the Cape’s most stunning and valuable landmark, the Cape Cod National Seashore. In fact, this portion of the beach is Orleans town land, but it’s virtually indistinguishable from the stretch owned by the U.S. government. Nauset Beach both greets the Atlantic’s tides and provides a protective barrier for Nauset Harbor. PSD constructed North By Northeast upon the elbow of a promontory that perches above and overlooks both bodies of water. From its patio and from most of the rooms, the views span at least 180 degrees. The home is currently on the market, and realtor Dolores Alberti of Gibson | Sotheby’s International Realty notes that: “It’s amazing to have such access to both the harbor and ocean. Someone could put a pie-in-the-sky price on it because its location is so rare.”
Like its movie namesake, North By Northeast weaves multiple narratives and interpretations. It’s a lens that opens to an exquisite corner of the Cape, but it also functions as a grand theater—a true cinematic experience in IMAX and Dolby Surround Sound. From nearly every room, one can view boats on the harbor, ships on the Atlantic, storms approaching, the phases of the moon and constellations, the shimmering heat of the sun, shorebirds, and the sifting of sand in the incessant surf. Alberti says, “Sometimes residents in this area will even see whales spouting as they migrate past.” One prominent feature of the house is an octagonal tower at its southeastern corner. Given enough power and lumens, this could probably serve as an actual lighthouse, but with normal lighting, it is more of a representation of one—an homage to the structure just a few miles to the north, Nauset Light. Additionally, though the home and estate lack the overall acreage of a classic shingle-style mansion, they evoke the same ideas or notes; one could understand North By Northeast as a story about this particular design. The home also conveys a tale of outdoor living, as its patio and fire pit create an open-air living space, ceilinged only by the sky. The outdoor kitchen and outdoor shower contribute to a storyline that allows residents a near-complete experience of the location without ever stepping foot inside the actual house.
Hitchcock was a proponent of “pure cinema,” or storytelling through the juxtaposition of images, montage and intentional lighting, and he wielded various camera angles and shot distances to elicit different effects upon the audience. PSD brings similar non-verbal approaches to its narratives, but rather than using cameras and an editing room, the firm relies upon scale, a type of symbolism called “associationism,” and transitional devices to create its works of art. In the exterior skin of North By Northeast, PSD employed flat, robust detailing with bulging brackets that exaggerate the shingle style. The firm’s design principal, John DaSilva, explains: “They are both brackets and representations of historic brackets. People can see what they like, what they choose, because the architecture includes symbolic meaning yet is loose enough to allow for interpretation.” One might see the curved brackets as reflections of waves, the lines of a chalice, or the contours of a half hull model ship. However, they also provide transitions from the sky to the land and from the outdoor world into the house. The tower structure, in its evocation of a lighthouse, draws in the nautical. Its lower level contains a screened porch, the quintessential expression of a “fade in”—to borrow from film technique—from the outdoors to the home’s interior; it literally contains both, as well as a fireplace, which creates yet another connection between terra firma and the celestial.
One of the challenges facing PSD when they began designing North By Northeast is the triangular shape of its lot, with its apex at the street. “We had to shape the house so the main mass is at the back to capture the view,” DaSilva says. “So the entry is actually tucked in at the end of a symbolically important porch that slides along the side of the garage. This has very robust detailing, standing up to the scale of the location and to the storms that bear down.” The same type of effect reappears throughout the home, such as in the windows of the living room, where PSD provided beefy muntins to rise in defiance against the crashing waves so nearby. While it’s one thing to copy an architectural concept of a bygone era, DaSilva argues, “The more complex idea is referencing the past.” Thus, the columns that border the main entryway porch are flat and grooved rather than round like the ones in classical Grecian style. “They’re more fun, more interesting,” he says. “They produce an image that has the right scale for the house.” The fanlight motif, which conjoins the porch columns and reappears in the living room and in the screened porch, is also an exaggeration of a traditional device, commonly found in historical homes in places like Beacon Hill. DaSilva says, “What we’ve done here is abstracted and enlarged the fanlight into a kind of pop art, contemporary version of what would have been a delicate original feature.” However, the most prominent initial highlight that one encounters upon entering the home is its staircase. “This is grand but informal,” explains DaSilva. After all, North By Northeast is meant to serve as a relaxed summer escape rather than a formal city home. “The stairway is partially a sculptural object,” he continues, “similar to a piece of furniture. The banisters finish in a gambrel roof shape that is also turned into a newel post cap with an egg sitting on it; the egg is in scale with your hand and smooth to hold onto as you climb the stairs.”
One can recognize a PSD project, and Dolores Alberti asserts, “I think that PSD sets the standard for quality in their homes.” While John DaSilva is the design principal, the firm’s success arises from its teamwork; the team both designs and builds all of their projects, and they work collaboratively throughout the process. Similar to film “auteurs”—directors such as Alfred Hitchcock who imprint their movies with signature style and motifs—PSD crafts homes that are emblematic of their firm in a number of ways, including the details discussed above. Another of their standbys is the arcade. While the concept is ancient, contemporary application is somewhat uncommon. In North By Northeast, PSD created an interior arcade with the same flat columns of the entry porch, once again connecting the home’s exterior with its interior. “As an organizing device, the arcade allows for circulation but doesn’t separate people from social interaction, from the light, or from the view,” DaSilva says. “It provides the traditional feeling of being directed by a corridor but without the full enclosure.”
Another important concept that PSD uses in their homes centers on variations in scale. DaSilva explains: “There are few original ideas in any art form. This is one that isn’t really pursued much in architecture today: Buildings are most successful when they display multiple scales—small, medium and large. To have some very large windows and some very small ones makes a home more interesting, more anthropomorphic. Because it is similar to the human body, we relate better to the mixed scale.” In North By Northeast, PSD used this idea to create a variety of experiences. The massive windows that line the ocean side of the home provide a connection with the elements. In contrast, tiny dormer windows in the walk-in closet of the master bedroom and in other nooks of the second floor confer a different sensation. To DaSilva, “A small window in a small dormer gives a sense of protection.” PSD also brought the home’s irregular exterior inside, at least thematically, with extrusions in the stair hall ceiling that mimic the brackets. Even the weathervane, a massive whale wrought of steel substrate clad in sheets of copper, capitalizes on mixed scale, and it points in the direction of hyperbole. Because this piece is not a sculpture, and because it is nearly two dimensional, it becomes more a symbol of a whale than a recreation of one. “PSD custom-designed and made this weathervane based on an early colonial idea; these were originally smaller, cut from a single sheet of iron,” DaSilva notes. The magnification of the whale not only allows it to stand more prominently, it also creates yet more symbolic references to aesthetic choices, to practical function, and to the history of the Cape itself.
In contrast to its location in Nauset Heights, North By Northeast is practically a new home. Dolores Alberti notes that the final pieces of furniture arrived in 2017, and the owners really only used the house briefly during the summer of 2018. While they had hoped it would serve as a family gathering place, their plans have changed, so it is now for sale. The 4,422-square-foot home features an open floor plan that includes dining, kitchen and living areas. The first floor also contains a master suite, a den, a mudroom leading into the garage, and the two porches. Upstairs, a nautical-themed bunk room can sleep five, and there are two full guest rooms. Alberti notes, “The grand master bedroom is really its own private wing.” This incredible space includes walk-in closets, dressing rooms, a master bath with a view of the Atlantic, and the bedroom itself, which expands into the second story of the “lighthouse” tower. Here, the reflex angle of the view bends well beyond 180 degrees. The octagonal cupola is window-lined to draw in the sun, the moon and the stars, functioning in a kind of inverse to a true lighthouse. “It’s such a beautiful property,” says Alberti, “and very few houses are situated like this one with its view of both the harbor and the ocean.”
North By Northeast is listed
by agents Dolores Alberti and Susan Winslow at
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