The Lighthouse of Hyannis Port

Cape Cod Life  /  May 2021 /

Writer: Chris White

One of the Cape’s most iconic lighthouses stands not upon the dunes of the National Seashore but at a bend in the road in Hyannis Port, standing watch over the harbor, the Eugenia Fortes Beach, the yacht club, and the village pier. Since its construction back in 1907, it has borne witness to gorgeous sailing vessels and motor yachts, to movie stars and the extended family of a beloved US President, and to various nautical shenanigans too numerous to count. Generations of young sailors have returned to port by “sailing toward the lighthouse,” and it’s one of those landmarks without which the village would seem incomplete. Only, here’s the twist: it’s not a lighthouse. Certainly locals are aware of this fact, and if any visitor looked closely enough, the truth would be obvious. There’s no big Fresnel lens, no beam of light casting about in the darkness, not even a horn to guide anyone through the fog. Granted, nobody in a large boat would want to sail anywhere close to the structure because the shoals are shallow and dappled with boulders. But anytime someone builds a tower right next to the shoreline, people are going to make associations. Thus, a somewhat elaborate water tower came to be known as a lighthouse.

This particular water tower belongs to a venerable home that is itself well-known in the village: the Holbrook Cottage, a grand house with 9 bedrooms, stucco siding, and a roof of Vermont 

slate. For over a century, the “cottage,” along with its water tower and carriage house, has occupied a position of prominence here on the shores of Nantucket Sound, a position of individuality, of uniqueness. Stucco homes reference Spanish architecture and are thus common in the American Southwest, but it’s rather uncommon for them to stand amid Shingle Style mansions and white clapboard ship captains’ homes. Also unique to the Holbrook Cottage is its scale in relation to its lot; normally one finds such a large home tucked down a long driveway, surrounded by acres of an estate. Rather than a sprawling lawn or a putting green, the cottage has a seawall, the beach, and the harbor. It sits upon grounds of just three-quarters of an acre and pushes the term waterfront living to a literal end.  

George B. Holbrook was known as Captain Holbrook, a title fitting for the location of his Hyannis Port home but one that was also misleading. Born in New Hampshire in 1846, he joined the Union Army at age fifteen to fight in the Civil War. While he never attained the rank of captain either in the war or upon the sea, he did pick up the nickname. After the war, he moved to Springfield, Massachusetts and worked for the American Writing Paper Company, based in Holyoke. For some time, Holyoke’s mills made the city the paper capital of the country, and the American Writing Paper Company would eventually earn the distinction of producing over 75% of the nation’s “fine paper” for use as stationary and other writing pursuits. In his time with the company, Holbrook would rise to the position of treasurer and later to president. While in Springfield, he connected with architect George Wood Taylor who designed the summer cottage for him; it was built in 1905 and finished in Shingle Style. Taylor also designed a number of other homes in Hyannis Port and was prominent in the Springfield area. Although the home was winterized, the Holbrook family used their cottage as a summer home for the first few years. When the “Captain” retired in 1913, he and his wife Ellen moved to Hyannis Port year round. Holbrook would live there until his death in 1922 at age 76. Prior to their move, however, the main house burned to the ground in 1910. Holbrook was up in Springfield, working, but Ellen and their two daughters were in the cottage and escaped in time. In a feat of efficiency hard to imagine today, the home was rebuilt in just one year, and the family was able to enjoy their perch above the beach again in 1911 — this time with the stucco exterior that would come to define the home. 

According to some reports, a different water tower on this property predated the cottage and served some of the other homes in Hyannis Port before it became part of the Holbrook estate, but little is known of details. One thing that is clear, however, is that the existing tower hasn’t actually pumped water for a long time. Internationally acclaimed artist Sam Barber lived here for over 20 years, and during that time, he set up his “summer” painting studio in the tower. Craig Ashworth of E.B. Norris & Son Builders is currently renovating the carriage house, the main home, and the tower. He states, “Most every house at the turn of the century in Hyannis Port utilized a wind driven or steam driven pump to a collecting cask elevated above the highest floor. Holbrook’s water tower contained a 14,000 gallon wooden cistern. It was not practical in those days to regulate direct pressure on a house-by-house basis, so gravity was the means by which pressure was maintained.” The tower’s first floor served as a coal bin that fired a steam pump, and Ashworth speculates that the second story was “probably a ‘spacer’ to increase the vertical tank height, thus providing additional pressure to the main home’s second floor bathrooms.” It’s also possible, he suggests, that an engineer may have slept here while the pumping was taking place; it would take a while to fill the tank. The water tower was built in 1907 and was shingled like the rest of the property; after the house fire and rebuild, it was stuccoed to match the main building. Ashworth notes that old postcards depicted a pipe of 10-12 feet coming out of the roof. “It is my belief that it was the stack for the coal burning exhaust,” he says. “The additional height helped dispel the coal gas fumes and enhanced draft, especially on calm, hot days when the main house windows were open and the prevailing wind was from the southwest.”

While fire necessitated the rebuild of the Holbrook Cottage in 1910, water has led to the need for a second major renovation, for the sea has taken its toll upon the home over the years. Although it survived more or less intact, storms such as Hurricane Bob had battered its seawall, and the salt air and breezes require vigilance in the battle against the growth of mildew. Through the decades, a few different families would own the property, including the Gulliver family, the Horowitz family, and the Hunt family of Texas, best known for their attempt at cornering the silver market in 1980. In 1988, Sam and Janie Barber purchased the cottage, where they lived and worked as artists for 22 years. The property went on the market in 2010 and sold in 2012; the renovation began in earnest in 2020. The new owners, Craig Ashworth, and the rest of the building team have been meticulous in their efforts to restore the property accurately. The homeowner says, “From the outside, it will be identical to the way it looked in 1911.” In discussions with the Barnstable Historical Commission, the topic of shingles versus stucco arose. “We felt that part of the uniqueness of the house is the stucco,” says the owner. Because the stucco of the water tower had changed to a peachy-salmon hue at one point, and the color of the main house had become more yellow, the new owners and the building team were keen to restore both structures to their proper color. The team cut out pieces of the original stucco to try to recreate its appearance, and all three buildings will be finished in an off-white color with Essex Green trim. Part of its Historic Collection, the Benjamin Moore & Co. catalogue asserts: “This concentrated green inspires thoughts of storied academic settings overgrown with ivy.” Likewise, the team took samples of the old slate roofing to its source in Vermont. “They hadn’t seen this particular slate in a long time,” says the homeowner, “but they told us they knew the exact quarry it had come from, one that hadn’t been used in 40 years. And they were able to get more of that slate for our roof.” 

E.B. Norris & Son Builders have told the new owners that the house should be ready in the autumn of 2021. Just a few months ago, they capped the water tower with a new, octagonal roof made of copper, true to the original. For the next few years, until the copper turns green, expect the tower to live up to its misnomer as the Hyannis Port lighthouse with the sun’s beams reflecting out across the bay, a shining beacon to guide sailors and fisherman back home.

Chris White is a contributing writer for Cape Cod Life Publications.

Chris White

Chris White is a frequent writer for Cape Cod Life Publications and has written on topics ranging from the history of Smith’s Tavern on Wellfleet Island to the sinking of the SS Andrea Doria off Nantucket. Chris also teaches English at Tabor Academy in Marion.