The just right house

In the home of Anna Edey, tendrils and blossoms fill the air with fragrance.
Photo by Michael Cummo

In the home of Anna Edey, tendrils and blossoms fill the air with fragrance.

Not too big, not too small…

No two people are alike in their sense of the perfect-sized home. And over a lifetime, our needs change as families expand, then shrink. Sometimes the waist-band of a home is let out once again as an elderly parent is taken in or a post-graduate needs time to explore new options.

These days, for so many of us concerned about our poor besieged planet, our priorities have shifted from showing off to maintaining a decent, honorable, non-glacier-melting carbon footprint. This too dictates our sense of what defines a Just Right House.

The Too Big House — the trophy homes that dot our Island — are on their way, let us hope, to being sneered out of existence, much the way the seaside mansions of Newport, Rhode Island’s, gilded age were derided as white elephants.

On the other end of the house-sizing spectrum these days, an idealistic movement is afoot to patch together — usually it’s a DIY job — a house so conveniently tiny, one can place it on the back of a flatbed truck and move cross-country with it. This only works for individuals with zero degrees of claustrophobia, and this narrows (no pun intended!) the field considerably, although hats off to anybody giving it a try.

Three sets of householders on Martha’s Vineyard, out of a wide population of people who’ve found similar satisfaction here, shared their Just Right homes with the MV Times this month.

Anna Edey wanted to live in a greenhouse

The iconic Anna Edey, pioneer in the Island’s long march towards organic gardening with her greenhouse, Solviva, built her house on an expanse of dewy emerald acres in West Tisbury in 1980. She raised two daughters here, both of whom come back for visits with their children and, all the while, the home has breathed in and out around the original chatelaine without an inch of its indoor space being wasted.

The absolute miracle of this enchanting warren of skylit rooms is its total sustainability from solar panels to composting toilets.

Photo by Michael Cummo

The absolute miracle of this enchanting warren of skylit rooms is its total sustainability from solar panels to composting toilets.

“I especially wanted to live in a greenhouse,” she says under the pale morning light of a ceiling-length skylight. Indeed, everywhere one looks, tendrils and blossoms fill the air with spring fragrance. Originally she’d needed to prove she could grow fruits and vegetables indoors. “For four years I had the most persistent tomato plants, big around as tree trunks. There were avocado branches pressed up against the skylight as if they had fists trying to break higher. It was crazy!”

Eventually the cultivation of food transferred to the Solviva greenhouse on the acreage below. Nowadays Ms. Edey grows only flowers and herbs in her home. Her favorite spot is a claw-foot tub set into the far corner of her narrow solarium in an Eden’s bower of geraniums and begonias. The Swedish weaver has a positive libido for color and aesthetics and every cranny holds something exquisite — a rose-hued Tiffany lamp, a copper bowl of salmon-pink roses, paintings, stacks of coffee table books, and vibrant Persian tribal rugs strewn over hardwood floors.

Ms. Edey has added a studio and an office, but the domestic sphere by itself factors down to a cosy 1,500 square feet. The absolute miracle of this enchanting warren of skylit rooms is its total sustainability, from solar panels to composting toilets with a filtration system, to her beloved Nissan LEAF which she tops off herself at home.

And let us not end this discussion here: For more fascinating information on this way of life, pick up a copy of Ms. Edey’s book “Green Light At The End Of The Tunnel: Learning The Art of Living Well Without Causing Harm To Our Planet And Ourselves.” Included are designs for similar sanctuaries (as Ms. Edey calls them) of 600 to 800 square foot patterns.

Tom and Jaye Shelby wanted a just-right life

Jaye and Tom Shelby (aka The Dogfather) bought a snug house in the Campground with just enough room for them (and their dogs).

Photo by Michael Cummo

Jaye and Tom Shelby (aka The Dogfather) bought a snug house in the Campground with just enough room for them (and their dogs).

Educator Jaye Shelby and Tom Shelby (aka The Dogfather), with an empty nest in Manhattan and Rockland County after their three grown kids followed their bliss to other corners of the country, purchased a small Victorian cottage at the western edge of the Campground in Oak Bluffs.

“We bought it for the view,” says Mr. Shelby. Who wouldn’t? The two-bedroom cottage faces Sunset Lake across the street, with the commanding vista of Squash Meadow rising high and green beyond it. Adjust your head a mere 20 degrees and you’re staring at the glittering sweep of the Oak Bluffs harbor, arguably one of the world’s most alluring seaports.

Typically, the cottage had declined for decades in the hands of an elderly lady, a situation more congenial to cars than houses. Mr. Shelby explains, “It was falling apart. We had to open it out, insulate it, put in heating, rip out the orange shag carpeting — like that.”

Similar to Anna Edey’s house, the Shelby manse expands and contracts as needed for company. A small downstairs guest room is snugged up against the front parlor. Should all the Shelby crew come for a family reunion — grown kids, significant others, and significant pets as well — then the two upstairs offices — what the Shelbys call their “man cave” and “girl cave” have sofas that fold out to beds. At the rear of this upstairs second floor, Jaye & Tom have their master bedroom under a fairy tale steepled roofline.

An upstairs balcony and a downstairs porch, crammed with wicker rocking chairs, keep the ever-loving view in focus.

And there’s another element of this Just Right House: No mortgage. Tom and Jaye love to travel and, in fact, when you’re friends when them, it’s hard to catch them between trips to the Galapagos, the Turks and Caicos and, this month, the midnight sun of Iceland.

Hmm, must be a connection between the Just Right House and the Just Right Life?

Paul Mohair downsized year-round

Paul Mohair in his downsized kitchen.

Photo by Michael Cummo

Paul Mohair in his downsized kitchen.

New Jersey lawyer Paul Mohair, now director of Edgartown Council On Aging, has lived in houses big and small. His first house here, while not a trophy home, was nonetheless a glam spread, off Tea Lane Road in Chilmark. In the classic year-round Vineyard ritual, he made his nut by renting it out in the summer, and luxuriating in its spacious rooms during the off season.

In the last few years Mr. Mohair decided to settle more organically into Vineyard life. He sold the Chilmark home and took the hugely satisfying COA job. The transition was made smooth by the adorable two-story cottage he found off a rural road in West Tisbury; close to the business district, yet “private and quiet” — his top priorities.

Sometimes a dwelling is designed with perfect feng shui, calculated or otherwise. The cottage is set back from a minimally-landscaped front yard, and a commodious stone patio behind for all of one’s entertaining needs. Indoors the small living space is divided by a long deep gourmet-friendly kitchen, a dining area to seat up to eight people, and a nook with over-stuffed cushions around a low coffee table. The single bathroom is sited downstairs, along with a bedroom.

The piece de resistance lies up a spiral staircase: a second-floor turret room with windows open to every point of the compass. Full disclosure: I lived here myself in the spring of 2010, and I did more writing, reading, meditating, wind-watching and star-gazing from this room than I’d done in the whole of my 23 years of living on the Vineyard (a slight exaggeration, but you get the idea; this room is a creativity-incubator).

Does Mr. Mohair use this tower room for dream-weaving?

Not so much; he’s an outdoor guy, in the sun and rain pedaling his bike the 12 miles into his office in Edgartown (“It’s 8 miles to my girlfriend’s house,” he cheerfully adds.) And what does he do on his days of leisure, you might ask? He makes a concerted effort to cycle 40 miles a day.

Still, the house perfectly suits his own requirements for privacy, charm, comfort and, ah, that quintessential, sublime sense of being home.