New Look For an Old House
by: Leslie Linsley
photography by: Terry Pommett
Nantucket mariner Christopher Folger built a house on the north shore in 1753, at the tender age of 21. He died at sea in 1774 and the house stayed in the immediate family until his son sold it to his cousin in 1800.
The house is described as a lean-to, one-and-three-quarter stories, with a ridge chimney, originally a three-bay facade with a shed-roof extension. Over the years there have been many owners, each attempting to restore and change it to make the house livable for the times, but none quite bringing it up to its full potential.
When Anna-Karin Dillard first saw the house in 1995, she recognized its good bones and felt up to the challenge of exposing its original character and turning it into a comfortable, charming, well-designed home for her family.
It was a project she felt she could tackle. Her husband David wasn’t so sure, and her friend Toby Greenberg, a longtime Nantucket homeowner, tried very hard to discourage her from buying it.
“I wasn’t particularly looking for an historic home, especially not one that needed so much work. I just wanted an in-town house we could afford, and this was the only one available at the time. We decided this would be my project for the next four months. David took this as an opportunity to pursue his passion, a sailing trip to Chile to immerse himself in learning Spanish,” Dillard said.
“I had no idea what I was getting myself into, and even though I’d never done anything like this before, I was determined.”
Even though she had done a bit of do-it-yourself fixing up of a previous island home, Dillard now admits she had no idea how much work would be involved: until she got started. Aside from reconfiguring both the exterior and interior, there was also landscaping to be designed.
There was no real kitchen, “the layout was a mess and the pine walls in the dining room, for example, had been painted yellow. Removing the paint and restoring the wood to reveal the true character of this room was a massive job, but I’m very proud of myself,” she said.
Dillard relied on an innate confidence in her ability to plan out space and her passion for finding and repurposing materials, along with her basic artistic nature to jump into what she said might be her last project.
Her friends doubt it.
“I love salvaged material, such as the columns I used to frame the doorway between David’s office and the living room. It makes a nice transition with the bookcases on each side,” she added.
Dillard kept as much of the good material that she could throughout the house. The three doors in the front hallway, for example, are original, dating back to the 1700s, as are the wide floorboards and some of the beams upstairs. Without the help of an architect, she set about reconfiguring the rooms, taking away and expanding to improve the space where she thought necessary.
“Nothing here is the way it was when we bought the house. It was a total wreck. The layout of the rooms didn’t make sense. I removed walls, repositioned and enlarged the kitchen and removed the ceiling above, eliminating an upstairs bedroom so the kitchen could be open and bright,” she said.
“The master bedroom was enlarged a few feet and opens to a lovely covered porch overlooking the garden. I also put in a wonderfully luxurious bathroom. No shower curtain or shower door, very European, and a double sink.”
No newcomers to the island, the Dillards first came to Nantucket in the 1970s.
“David was a sailor, so we chartered a boat from Connecticut where we were living and sailed here. This community was the most welcoming and fun,” Anna-Karin said. “We had been to Block Island and Martha’s Vineyard, but they weren’t as beckoning as Nantucket.”
The first house they purchased here was on Quaker Road. Dillard said she got her first taste for renovation in that house, by default.
“I was forced into do-it-yourself projects because I had limited funds. I’m a frugal person by nature and get a great deal of satisfaction from creative challenges within a budget,” she said.
“When David and I sold that first house and made a profit, I was so proud of myself.”
It was that experience that gave Dillard the confidence to tackle what would become a much bigger renovation in her current home.
The first winter, right after the Dillards closed on the house, Anna-Karin jumped right into the work.
“I immediately set up a desk and started doing the drawings. I was confident in being my own architect as I was educated in the language of building and mathematics and have a feeling for space. All it takes is a big measuring tape, graph paper and pencils,” she said.
If only it were that simple. After she had the initial plans on paper, she contacted island architect Lisa Botticelli to look at her drawings and help her with the technicalities of getting through the permitting process.
There were, for example, height restrictions and concerns about extending the existing roof lines that proved challenging in the design phase.
As soon as the plans were approved, Dillard looked for someone to help her. The foundation had to be redone right away. She hired Paul Axt as her builder.
“He worked with an older man who was highly skilled,” she said. “There was nothing they couldn’t do.”
Acting as general contractor, Dillard said the existing layout of the rooms was really open to interpretation.
“Nothing made sense. There was no proper kitchen, which was my biggest challenge. I was totally stumped,” she said.
Finally a friend suggested removing a bedroom, and suddenly everything fell into place.
“I feel very clever to have created such a usable, friendly room. It isn’t perfect, but everything is a work in progress,” Dillard said. She also added a laundry room as well as much-needed storage space. Once she started to remove and reposition doors, her plan fell into place. By removing a wall she made the dining room open and easily accessible from the kitchen and added a sunroom at the back of the house, also open to the kitchen.
“This is where we spend most of our time,” she said.
A wall of windows looks out on to the newlycreated, terraced gardens, exquisitely bursting with a variety of seasonal plantings.
There are three bedrooms and bathrooms upstairs that didn’t need much reconfiguring.
“I just removed the attic to create a high ceiling with exposed beams in one bedroom,” Dillard said.
She got rid of a bedroom to create a cathedral ceiling below in the kitchen. That upstairs space is now an open loft, a sitting area that is filled with Dillard’s paintings and looks down into the kitchen. The doors, ceiling beams, floors and wonderful niches upstairs reveal the way the original owners might have lived here so long ago. Even the claw-foot tubs were kept in the bathrooms.
The house is on a sloped piece of land, lending itself to an interesting landscape. Today the gardens are filled with a variety of local plantings as well as sculptures by island artist John Evans and others. The multi-level garden, designed by Dillard, separates the house and the newly-created artist’s studio that is a visual and aesthetic treat.
Dillard’s paintings in all phases of completion fill the room and there’s an area where she regularly teaches a small group of aspiring artists.
“I made one mistake. The deck should have been larger. I struggled to the end with that and David said my frugality held me back. I was concerned that it would infringe on the garden and outside basement that had been inaccessible. Issues such as this arose all along the way,” she said.
When it came to decorating, the Dillards mostly bought new furnishings for the house. Their prized possession was a very heavy desk that David inherited from his father.
“I really built the den to house the desk and all of David’s books. We had just sold a big house
in Connecticut and were able to use a lot of the furniture here,” Dillard said.
She pointed out the antique dining table she loves because it’s narrow so you can talk across it.
“I bought our antique king poster bed, but most of the furnishings and accessories came from tag sales and island auctions. I mostly love repurposing interesting salvaged material,” Dillard said.
And of course, there’s the art. Every room is filled with both Dillard’s work and that of island artists.
“We like art. David is intrinsically attracted to buying art all the time,” she said.
As a child growing up in Sweden, Dillard learned all sorts of needlework: sewing, knitting, crochet.
“I always made my own clothes on my grandmother’s Singer sewing machine,” she said.
Her first artistic expressions were in the form of collages from bits of fabric.
“I covered phone books, picture frames, all sorts of things using ginghams in every combination. When I was living in Washington, a friend sent me boxes of samples from a wellknown fabric house and I set up a little workshop in my home,” Dillard said.
“When I sold my first painting, a takeoff of a Matisse made with fabric, I was overjoyed. It was a flower pot with flowers. I couldn’t believe someone bought it and hung it in her living room.”
When asked how she started painting she said, “David and I were traveling with friends and the woman took out a sketchbook and watercolor kit and I liked that idea and immediately bought my own kit. We traveled a lot and eventually settled in New York long enough to get instructions from a watercolorist. For the first time I had a ‘teacher.’ She told me to just paint what I saw and that was all. So I did. I have that first painting of a table with stuff on it.”
Over the years there have been many sales, al-
though Dillard seems surprised by each one. Right now she is more interested in gardening but she spends a fair amount of time in the studio, losing herself in a painting while classical music fills the air.
She and David are devoted to their yoga classes when they are on-island and Dillard takes advantage of the workout spa at the Nantucket Hotel because “it’s close enough to walk there every morning.”
It seems that whatever she puts her mind to, she accomplishes with deftness and style. Dillard finds inspiration all around her and appreciates what other creative people have done in their homes.
“Houses are my passion,” she said.
It will be interesting to see what comes next. ///
Leslie Linsley is a nationally-known author of design and decorating books. She writes regularly for Nantucket Today and The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.