Changing Yellow Blue

Cape Cod Home  /  Autumn 2020 /

Writer: Chris White / Photographer: Jared Kuzia 

Changing Yellow Blue


Cape Cod Home  /  Autumn 2020 /

Writer: Chris White / Photographer: Jared Kuzia 

A Hyannis Port landmark takes on a fresh future.

In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s classic short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the unnamed protagonist is a young woman whose husband takes her to a lovely summer home for vacation, where she imagines entities from the past, and soon becomes obsessed with freeing what she perceives to be another woman who has been imprisoned beneath the yellow wallpaper. Spoiler alert for those out there who have forgotten the content of their eighth or tenth grade English classes: in the story’s conclusion the protagonist peels off the yellow paper to reveal a deeper truth about her own situation in life. 

A neighborhood icon in the bucolic seaside community of Hyannis Port has been universally known among generations of residents as the Yellow House. Hyannis Port, despite its international and historic name recognition is, at its core, a typical small neighborhood, not so unlike many found across the region. Tree-lined streets map out summer-inspired architecture with patches of green grass and hedges of privet and hydrangeas. Light car traffic enables children to ride bikes down the middle of the road with carefree abandon. On the corner of two principal streets, across from the stretch of beach enjoyed by the residents, the Yellow House has borne witness to the quaint neighborhood for generations. While this is not at all the same story Gilman presented in her short piece, the Yellow House did conceal its own separate kind of reality beneath its surface, and the efforts of one young woman, in this case interior designer Nina Mayfield, helped to transform it from something of a neighborhood novelty to a home that is both elegantly sophisticated and breezily summery. It is a story of renewal and rebirth, of rediscovering identity, and of both the liberation from and the honoring of the past.

The Yellow House inherited its color decades ago, at a time when vinyl siding was exciting and trendy and when the color combination of yellow with green trim was somewhat en vogue. Perhaps every hamlet on the Cape was home to such a yellow house back in the seventies and eighties, each with the color scheme of a legal pad. And so, for many years, the Yellow House sat upon its corner in Hyannis Port. The people looked upon it as they walked their dogs in the evenings, as they biked their children down to the yacht club for sailing lessons, and as they drove out of the village to Four Seas Ice Cream after a family supper. They looked upon the Yellow House with affection, perhaps, or at least with fondness, but also sometimes with a wistfulness for the potential of both the home’s location and its original character.

Inside, the Yellow House was one of a certain type that families used to enjoy on the Cape, full of nooks and crannies, the type of home with a closet-like space dedicated to the telephone. It was cozy and private, but with some spaces well suited to small gatherings. It was perfectly nice, and its family loved it, but the layout lent itself to a generation when children played board games on the floor of the small second floor bedrooms (that might have previously been relegated to the household staff), or sneaking down the back staircase to spy on their parents perfecting the art of cocktailing. A porch wrapped from the north side around the western face to the south side of the home. This was enclosed with colonial grid style windows divided into twenty little square panes that would open to screens. The living room was, pardon the pun, couched inside the porch; more walls and divided windows obscured a view that by rights should have flooded the space the way the high tide occupies the crescent harbor of the adjacent beach in a new moon’s surge. Like the characters in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the possibilities of the Yellow House had been crying out for release, for the space to breathe properly, for years. 

Then, in 2018, new owners arrived upon the scene with their team of designers, architects, and builders. They believed that, done right, a renovation could both preserve the charming elements of the Yellow House and allow it to fully take advantage of its harborside location. At the same time, they believed in the transmutation of time itself, that they could simultaneously modernize the home and restore its historical integrity. The team scoured old photographs and looked to the house itself for guidance. Structures such as the original fireplaces could stand as emblems of the home’s age, and assorted materials throughout could be repurposed, reorganized, and reimagined to appear sharp, orderly, and buttoned-up. Beneath the vinyl siding, shingles provided clues to some of the intricate patterns of the home’s original exterior. Much in the way a crew of archaeologists brings the fragments of dinosaurs back to something like life, the Yellow House team dug up artifacts from the very walls and used them to make magic, to revitalize the house on this prominent corner of the village.

The story of the Yellow House is truly one of an ensemble cast of heroes, each with his or her unique specialty and power, and any one could write this story from the point of view of any one of the heroes. For example the design team consisted of a duo that included Nina of Nina Mayfield Design

In college, Mayfield majored in Art History, and then she attended the New York School of Interior Design. Following a stint of designing in New York City for Markham Roberts, where she learned the fundamentals of running a bustling design business, she launched her own business, based in Hyannis Port, eight years ago. Nina grew up in a neighborhood within Philadelphia’s historic Main Line, and she spent her summers in Hyannis Port, so her connections with both traditional American architecture and with the summer culture of the village have roots that began in her childhood. When she was a little girl, Mayfield recalls the Yellow House by saying, “I remember sitting and playing with my friend, the owner’s granddaughter, in the living room—it was like a box within the box of the porch, with wall-to-wall carpeting. So, it has been especially fun to see the transformation of that part of the house. The new house is just so much more conducive to the indoor/outdoor experience.”  

The Yellow House project was already in full-swing when Mayfield joined the team in November of 2018. Richard Curl and Courtney Driver of Curl Simitis Architecture + Design, of Melrose MA, had been working with the owners and the building team of Steve Mellor Building and Remodeling out of Hyannis for most of the year already. Driver had been part of the initial design team, working through design choices that were made in the earliest stages. As the owners confronted decor choices, Mayfield was instrumental in putting the frosting on the fully baked cake. The owner recalls, “When Nina came on, we were visiting our children and working with her from the West Coast, we were completely dependent upon her organizational skills, judgment about resources and folks to work with. Without Nina, we would not have met our deadline (for tenants to move in on June 1, 2019) with such beautiful results.” In keeping with the project’s theme of marrying the past with the future, Mayfield combined her own experience with the home, the understanding of the site’s potential, and the needs of a summer rental property with a forward-thinking enthusiasm and efficiency necessary to wrap things up on time. 

Structurally, Curl, Driver and Mellor had already been working on a number of facets of the rebuild before Mayfield’s arrival. First, the team wanted to maximize the views and capitalize upon the home’s location. In this respect, the most dramatic renovation took place with the living room and porch spaces. Curl explains, “We discovered some of the original porch posts and extended the family room out to the water side; it felt as if it could have been there. This helped us build for the contemporary lifestyle but with a feel of the old, early intentions of the home.” Likewise, the team worked hard to reuse original building materials. “Various types of beadboard pre-existed throughout the home,” says Mayfield, “so they were creative about salvaging and repurposing as much as they could.” Additionally, they stripped the paint from the upstairs floor to reveal heart pine and its natural variation of honey coloring punctuated by knots of a rich, dark maple syrup hue. Based on this discovery, the team installed new growth heart pine throughout the first floor, as well. Later, Mayfield chose a number of pieces throughout the home that mesh with the color scheme of the wood. Natural elements such as sisal rugs, carved wood, rope, and rattan feature prominently throughout the home and act to ground spaces with these earthy tones. The sensation of walking barefoot throughout the house almost mimics a walk on the beach with the contrast of the cool of the pine and the warmer “sands” of the rugs. “One of the owners’ goals was to create a house that would be fun and summery without being too typically nautical or coastal,” says Mayfield. “We wanted to avoid the anchors and seashells; you can evoke the feelings of a Cape House without those familiar elements.”

While the building team opened the home to the view, Mayfield brought the colors of Hyannis Port’s seascape into the home, and drew heavily upon the work of local artists. Sam Barber’s vintage landscapes hang in the living room and in the master bedroom, Wellesley ceramicist Elena Boiardi’s signature Shagreen patterned pieces are featured throughout the home. Mayfield says, “Much of the color template is derived from Liz Roache’s print of the West Beach Club,” which features prominently in the downstairs sitting room, primarily used by the children for watching television or connecting with friends. Roache’s piece epitomizes the joy of summer in the village in at least a dozen shades of blue. These reappear in Driver’s choice of the kitchen’s glass subway tile backsplash, which resemble miniature bricks of water, in the paint of the kitchen’s island, on the beadboard paneling in the bedrooms and in the dining room, in Mayfield’s choice of intriguing fabrics on the upstairs daybed nook, and on the pillows of nearly every sofa. The variation of patterns and prints echoes the kaleidoscopic facets of the sky and the sea itself. “I really wanted the colors to pop,” says Mayfield, “and to provide playful, unexpected elements throughout the house.”

Although blues dominate the palette through most of the home, the Yellow House team wanted to preserve its eponymous color, as well. “We still call it the Yellow House,” notes the owner. “We wanted yellow as an accent, and in the adult TV room, we have yellow pillows and drapes that Nina suggested and that I think really make the room.” Mayfield also expresses the thoughtful choices in acknowledging the role that the color yellow played in the home’s history when she talks about the new exterior color choices. “The new exterior color is a warm white,” she explains. “But the choice of a soft yellow accent on the exterior doors was our nod to what has come before.” The color extends to the rocking chairs on the porch, producing the effect of rays of yellow that act like beams of sunlight. Paired with the ever-changing blues of the hydrangeas, they behave almost like a blueberry-topped lemon tart in summer; the dessert to this stunning renovation.

Despite a number of challenges along the way, Mayfield reports that the project was incredibly seamless in the end. “The owners were remote during the process, so we had to do everything virtually,” she says, “And yet I’ve never been on a job site where things flowed so well.” Architect Richard Curl also marvels that the process went so smoothly. “It was a set-up for disaster,” he says. “We were working with an old house from 1876, and we had to move at a fast pace. But some projects have magic, and this was one. This house really wanted the renovation.” Curl  notes that once the demolition team started removing the yellow vinyl siding, they really began to see what was there—specifically the intricate patterning of the shinglework. He says, “The final results very closely resemble the original designs.” And about working with the Barnstable Historical Commission, with which he had positive interactions in the past. “They were very encouraging,” he says of the commission members, “The house was in an important location that they wanted to see come back; they were very happy with our work.” 

The owners of the Yellow House have already recommended Nina Mayfield to other members of the close-knit village, and are most appreciative of the work that she did as part of the renovation team. “She was able to get along well with me and my very specific ideas,” says the owner. “We wanted to deliver the buttoned-up house that our clients were expecting, and we put our faith in Nina. She was not only resourceful but super helpful in keeping us within our budget. Throughout our collaboration, she kept me disciplined, and she delivered the project on time.” 

And while the Yellow House may contain only dollops of that color, Nina Mayfield, along with the teams from Curl Simitis and Steve Mellor, were able to successfully peel off this homes’ proverbial wallpaper to uncover and revitalize a deeper truth of its essence and history, one brimming with color, with comfort, and with the irrepressible joys of summer in Hyannis Port.

Learn more about Nina Mayfield Design here!

Looking for another historic renovation on the Cape? Check out the “This Old House” project in Eastham!

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.