An Architect Builds His Dream Home
by: Leslie Linsley
photography by: Terry Pommett
When an architect designs his own home, there is freedom as well as cautionary restraint, especially when the architect builds a house of his own vision, in a place where creativity is totally eclipsed by emphatically-spelledout building codes.
Herbert Seigle, a Pittsburgh architect, had been coming to Nantucket since the 1950s. In the late 1970s he was dating the woman who would become his wife, but only after bringing her to Nantucket first.
“He made it clear that my liking the island would make or break our relationship,” said his wife Robin, an attorney.
“He had rented for years from Mrs. Emmons at 21 Federal St. At the end of the week I wasn’t sure about us, but I fell in love with the island and told him I was coming back the following year,” she said.
Seigle studied architecture at Yale University, and upon graduating went to work in Manhattan for well-known architect Philip Johnson. After three years, he missed Pittsburgh so much that he returned there to open a solo practice. It was the mid1970s, and he spent a lot of time designing Turnberry Isle, a re-
sort in Aventura, Fla. He had never designed a house for himself. After they married, Herb and Robin moved from the 21 Federal rental to a house built by Tom David on Olde Quidnet Milk Route out of town. Stephen Swift, the furniture maker, found the rental for them.
After rejecting many houses, their real estate agent said, “You’re an architect, buy land and build your own house,” Robin recalled.
So they did.
Robin spent her summers growing up on a farm in Buck County, Pa.
“I prefer the country aesthetic to the beach, so I had definite views of what I wanted,” she said.
First was to build where it was quiet and far from town. The
land had to say “Nantucket,” with scrub oak and blueberry bushes on the property. That’s what they ultimately found, closing in 1983 on a long, rectangular plot of land that many had been afraid or unable to envision how to use.
For Herb it was easy.
“Visualizing how to site a house was what Herb was all
about,” Robin said. “I couldn’t read a blueprint and Herb liked it that way. Occasionally he would ask my opinion and then ignore what I said. The design was all Herb’s. I had very little to do with that. My only request was that we have a separate library to house all our books and we added a dining room.”
When an architect designs his own home, there is freedom as well as cautionary restraint, especially when the architect builds a house of his own vision, in a place where creativity is totally eclipsed by emphatically-spelled-out building codes. It is an admirable feat. But that’s what this architect did.
The house does not announce itself, but in true Frank Lloyd Wright style, it fits into the landscape as if it was born there. It is, in fact, a personal expression of the homeowners. It is at once provocative, filled with light, sophisticated and elegant in its simplicity. Now, many years later, this unique and completely refreshing home of Seigle’s own design is as fresh and exciting as when it was first built.
The approach to the house is by way of a winding, pine-needle-covered path that creates a bridge from the driveway to the front porch, a perfect transition from “away” to “home.” It is a tranquil setting in the country, a salve for the town-weary.
A wooden wagon at the front door answers the question, “But how do you bring in your groceries?” Flowerpots are casually arranged along the edges of the steps leading to the front door, where two cushioned chairs invite you to sit awhile and enjoy the natural beauty of the place.
When constructing the house, the couple used all local tradespeople. Chris Fraker was the contractor who also built the bookshelves that Herb designed. Jeff Ballinger built the dining room addition and Norris Whelden was the plumbing contractor.
Liz Winship’s brothers were the original electricians and Lucinda Young was the original landscape designer, with the current landscaping refined by Joan Libby.
The house is modern, even by today’s standards, with soaring ceilings and odd-shaped windows that certainly don’t conform to Nantucket building norms. There are well-proportioned rooms on different levels.
The library, off a small hallway, is a couple of steps down, and the kitchen and dining room a few steps down from the living room. The master bedroom and bath are on the second floor with Robin’s book-lined study overlooking the living room. The home is simply and artistically furnished.
The furnishings and collections reflect the couple’s shared love of the life they led together, traveling worldwide and collecting unusual arts and crafts before Seigle died in 2013 at 89.
“Herb had an incredible eye and would choose objects he liked and then rely on me, a moving man’s daughter, to get them home in one piece. The wooden bowl on the floor, for example, was shipped home from Africa and then it took three men to get it through the door,” Robin said.
“My favorite object is the basket from Ethiopia. Brides there weave these baskets to bring to their marriage. I call them the Ethiopian equivalent to the Nantucket lightship basket. Herb charmed a young woman into selling hers.”
It’s almost impossible to balance innovation with tradition, but the exterior of this house suggests that it is right at home on Nantucket, until you open the front door. A house tells not only the story of who we are, but about the world we live in.
The furniture was mostly designed by Herb, hand-crafted on the island.
The room the couple most loved is the library. Prominent on the shelves are books about art and design as well as the history of the things they collected and arranged with absolute deliberateness. All the furniture in this room was designed by Herb: the cocktail table, two end tables, the desk and cabinet.
In place of color there are textures. The furnishings are proportioned for easy island living.
“I’m better at hanging art. Display was Herb’s specialty,” Robin said. “I’ve tried to follow his lead. For example, he chose small objects over large pieces.”
Every detail was carefully executed, creating the interior design with as much care as was put into the design and building of the house. Robin pointed out the handles of the wooden baskets in the dining room that are reflected in the curves of the roller coaster in the Vestry Davis drawing on the wall.
“Herb had designed a bar in a kitchen for a client. The table had unmatched legs and I always liked that. So Herb designed a dining-room table with different legs, had them made in Pittsburgh and sent them to Stephen Swift who made the tabletop to go on the legs,” Robin said.
This was how they approached the design of all the wooden furniture in the house. Anna Lynn Bender wove the cotton runners for the floors in every room.
While it’s a contemporary design, Robin said she always found the house warm, casual and comfortable.
“We always had cocktails in the library, dinner in the dining room and coffee and conversation in the living room,” she said.
After Herb died, she redesigned her sitting room with lots of color.
“Herb would have hated it,” she said. “Too much color.” ///
Leslie Linsley is the author of “Nantucket Island Living.” She is a frequent contributor to Nantucket Today and The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.