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The Lighthouse of Hyannis Port

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.

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