Set back from the south cliffs of Chilmark, surrounded by tall ornamental grasses and uncommon cultivated flowers that blend with the wildflowers and equally wild grasses beyond, Sam Feldman’s four acres sat wild and wind-rippled and without any sort of abode, not even a shack, when he and his late wife Gretchen bought the land in 1984.
They searched for an architect who shared their love for bringing light and nature into the home. They chose Stewart Solomon of Boston. The single-story house of 3,400 square feet feels larger because of the multiple gardens that zig and zag through the many interior modules. Add to that the plethora of pointy peaks, each one triangulated by a skyward-facing window, and you have a home where you can view what Mother Nature is doing from every conceivable angle.
On a recent sunny September day, Sam gazed out at billowing shrubs and one of the many twisting and turning silver sculptures all around the house. He mused to me and photographer Lynn Christoffers, “Kinetic qualities move me.”
No surprise there. The 88-year-old, trim, blue-eyed, handsome man has clearly earned himself a good life by rarely sitting still. He grew up in Baltimore (as did his present boon companion, Marilyn Meyerhoff, but they have no schoolyard recollection of each other), then went on to study at the University of Pennsylvania, followed by business studies at the Wharton School. Business boomed for the young entrepreneur, who created and consolidated a chain of menswear stores.
He met and married watercolorist artist Gretchen Lvov Vogel in 1955. Together they raised their two daughters, who in turn yielded a total of three grandkids. When all was said and done, they retired to their silver-peaked home in Chilmark in 2000. Their taste in furniture and textiles tended to neutral tones; the vivid colors of Gretchen’s paintings fairly leap from the walls. Gretchen also loved collecting textiles in their travels to Cambodia and Laos: These are everywhere framed and on display.
Gretchen cleverly designed the countless window shades, all stitched from sailboat canvas. A particular challenge was the triangle shape of the peaked windows, so Gretchen commissioned sails set for jibs. With the pull of a cord, a perfectly fitted curtain glides down from the top side of the isosceles.
But it’s the views outside the many windows that continually attract Sam’s attention. He pointed down the west-facing hill to a plain, almost Amish-looking birdhouse, crafted by Island wildlife expert Gus BenDavid to attract owls. Sam told Lynn and me, “I was so excited to see an owl poke out the other day! It’s the first owl glimpsed on the Island, after it looked as if they’d all died from a snowfall last winter.”
This is one example of the many socially and environmentally aware enterprises in which Sam takes an interest. As we walked from point A to point B, for instance, he handed each of us an iconic red “Mopeds are dangerous” sticker, forcing one on me even after I protested that I have no car, and therefore no bumper on which to flash it. “You’ll figure something out,” he assured me.
The Feldmans’ Vineyard idyll turned to tragedy when Gretchen died on November 9, 2008. Sam’s grief was so profound and protracted that he found relief only in talking to other widowers. Still kinetic even in mourning, he founded the Men’s Bereavement Group, which in time branched out into the national organization nationalwidowers.org.
A view out another window reminded Sam of a similarly tragic event: On July 16, 1999, Sam and Gretchen looked out to spy searchlights from air and sea after the Piper Saratoga John F. Kennedy Jr. piloted went down due west by northwest of his late mother’s land.
Conversation returned to a normal level of cheerfulness as Sam and Marilyn showed us around the house, from the classic open kitchen/dining room/living room quarters to the 15 x 15 foot modules of two guest bedrooms, each outfitted with twin beds. “But Dad!” one of his daughters had wailed about the size of mattresses any number of years ago, “Don’t you want any grandchildren?!”
In the other direction, a long corridor gives way to two office spaces, a sitting room with a lordly view over meadows, fields, and Tilton Cove. Something about the comfy vibes of the room pulled us in: Lynn asked the couple to sit for pictures, and a part of me wanted to just curl up on the reclining chair with a book I’m just now loving to bits, Thomas Berry’s “The Dream of the Earth,” which seems to mirror very much the kind of nature-loving life the people in this beautiful and unpretentious home are leading.
Speaking of which, the Sam and Marilyn story unfolded: Eight years ago they found themselves on a blind date set up by friends in Palm Beach. Although Sam knew Marilyn was heralded as “the most beautiful woman in Baltimore,” it required another fix-up for them to begin the arduous process of falling in love. Back in Palm Beach, they walked along the sand, returning to Marilyn’s house to find two dozen roses on her doorstep. “Oh, those are from Chuck,” she said with a shrug. Later a friend of Sam’s, a woman, said, “You idiot! She sent them to herself! It’s an old ploy.” But Marilyn said on our recent visit, “They really were from Chuck.”
Next Sam herded us outside for a tour of the property, although first he proudly pointed to the solar panels on both the main house and the guest cottage in back. “Guess what our electric bill is? Zero!”
We tromped down a path to a quaint wharf, where a number of kayaks and rowboats await whoever cares to paddle them across the pond to the barrier beach and the Great Atlantic. Next we hied ourselves up a trail leading to a wide paddock where three adorable white goats frolicked atop a huge wooden installation that looks part Conestoga wagon, part jungle gym. When Sam called their names, “Francesca! Flapjack! Fritter!” they came running, and Lynn and I, crazed animal lovers, couldn’t get enough of them as we patted and rubbed through the fence.
At the tail end of our visit, Sam’s daughter from L.A. turned up, and Lynn got some pictures of them gleefully hugging. I asked, “Is your sister also beautiful?” Sam grinned and shouted, “Yes!”
Lynn and I made a quick decision not to hustle one of the goats into the backseat of her car, much as we wanted to. And, truly, whichever one we picked was bound to be happiest at the Feldman homestead.