The View from the Top
A renowned architect builds her dream house overlooking Gloucester’s Cripple Cove.
Adèle Naudé Santos employed an architectural conjuring trick when she designed her Gloucester vacation home.
A simple door set into a sleek, contemporary wood façade leads into a small, slate-floored entry hall. We turn to the right to walk into the living room and suddenly, the ceiling soars to 15 feet while, outside the window walls, Cripple Cove glitters and bustles below our feet. We see the Inner Harbor and the entrance to Smith Cove. Beyond them are Rocky Neck, the Outer Harbor, and the Eastern Point breakwater.
If this is not the best view in Gloucester, a city blessed with more than its share of beautiful views, it is in the top five.
What gives the stunning view such a satisfactory punch is the transition from a small, enclosed space into a vast, open one. The entry acts as an anteroom for the show to come, a simple, functional space that prepares you to be blown away by a large one dominated by the out of doors.
“It’s a surprise when you come in,” Santos smiles. “This house is inspired by its location, and the living space is as big as possible.”
Her path to East Gloucester was circuitous and began in her native South Africa. After receiving her architectural degree from the Architectural Association in London, she came to the United States for a Master’s Degree in Architecture in Urban Design from Harvard, then a Master’s Degree in City Planning from the University of Pennsylvania. Her teaching career includes professorships at the graduate programs of Harvard, Rice University and the University of Pennsylvania, where she also served as Chairman of the Department of Architecture. She moved to San Diego to become the founding dean of the School of Architecture at the University of California San Diego. She then taught at Berkley and, in 2004, became the dean of architecture at MIT.
“Throughout my academic career, I had an office on the side and practiced architecture,” Santos explains. “I became known for designing affordable housing in San Francisco. I also designed fabrics, clothes, and did filmmaking.”
Santos and her partner, Bruce Prescott, maintain offices of Santos Prescott and Associates in San Francisco and Somerville, Massachusetts.
She began to plan her Cape Ann retreat three years ago, when she stepped down as dean of the architecture program at MIT.
“I still teach there, but am no longer the dean. Finally, I thought, I will have time for a weekend and vacation place,” Santos says. “Colleagues had invited me to their Cape Cod summer homes, and I had good times, but I wasn’t drawn to the area. Cape Cod is not a real place,” she adds.
When she made that comment to a colleague, he responded by asking her if she had ever been to Gloucester.
“Go and have a look. It’s a real town,” he told her. She was intrigued, made the drive, and was duly impressed by the city’s authenticity, cultural diversity, and drop-dead gorgeous scenery.
“I decided to build a house and started looking for the cheapest piece of land I could find that had a view.”
After some time, her search led her to a decrepit house on a steep bluff overlooking the harbor in East Gloucester.
“Once I got up here and saw the view, I wanted this,” she recalls. “The house was in very bad shape, and the lot looked unbuildable, which is what had kept it from selling. But I had built on a rock in San Francisco, so I knew that I could do it.”
The original property was divided into two lots, one of which included the decaying house while the other was comprised mostly of a steep cliff. Santos negotiated with the owners and the neighbors, which took a year. Eventually, she combined the two lots to become one, dismantled the existing house, and built an improved roadway up the steep incline, making the access easier for the handful of other houses on the street. At the crown of the hill, she built a two-condominium building, literally bolting it into he rock. The upper level, 1850 square foot unit is hers.
“I could have put four units here, the zoning allows it,” Santos says. “But I knew that the neighbors would be happier with two.”
Like all of her buildings, the design is contemporary. The siding incorporates a rainscreen, an exterior wall that stands off from the moisture-resistant surface of an air barrier; this creates a capillary break and allows for drainage and evaporation. European triple-glazed windows and doors are extremely energy efficient; other environmentally friendly elements include rooftop solar panels and airtight construction. Generous decks connect directly to the interior living spaces through sliding glass doors. Throughout, there is elegant quartersawn ash flooring. The two units are carefully stacked and terraced into the slope, accessed by separate driveways.
In Santos’ unit, the large living room flows into a functional kitchen composed of tile floors, lacquered white cabinets, and polished black granite countertops. Her bedroom and bathroom are, like the living room, dominated by the view.
“The first thing I see when I wake up is the harbor,” the homeowner says happily.
Walls are modernism white, with several colored accent walls, including a leaf-green one in the kitchen. The furnishings feature mementos of her international career, including woven wall hangings, tribal rugs, and Asian and African folk art. One favorite piece, hung against a golden yellow living room wall, is a large textile depicting the goddess Shiva riding on a boat.
“This house is the right place for it,” Santos says as she gazes at the fishing boats in the harbor below. “I’ve used a lot of boats in the décor.”
Now a United States citizen, Santos is exploring this very American fishing community, learning about its history, geography, culture, food, and tribes. Her perch above Gloucester Harbor is already a landmark, a worthy addition to the skyline ringing the working harbor.