Letter from Cuttyhunk : The Winter House

A “happy and welcoming” landmark.


As autumn arrives on the island, the peace and stillness of the off-season settles into place. The beaches become places of reflective solitude, the children return to their studies, and the remaining residents now have time for a leisurely conversation after their quick passing greetings throughout the summer frenzy. It’s a beautiful time of year for those lucky enough to be on Cuttyhunk, a seemingly unending chain of clear blue skies and warm sunny days finally devoid of summer’s humidity. One island edifice, known as the Winter House, with its fieldstone façade and multiple chimneys standing proudly on the hill, has witnessed almost a century of these glorious days.

William Madison Wood, president of the American Woolen Co., had commissioned the tugboat Alert in Wareham in 1916 to ship over construction materials for his new, grand Cuttyhunk summer cottage. This house was going to be his generous wedding present for his son Cornelius and his new bride Muriel Prindle. It would be situated high on a hill with a spectacular 360-degree view encompassing the island, Vineyard Sound, and Buzzards Bay. Mr. Wood knew it was an ambitious undertaking, as he had been through this process in 1909 when building his summer home, the Avalon, which is currently an island inn. He had also built a tennis court and bowling alley on his property, so he was familiar with the challenges of island construction. All of the building materials and workers had to be brought over from the mainland, and the foundation had to be dug by hand. Mules would haul the building materials in wagons from the waterfront up to Wigwam Hill. His general contractors, Pierce and Kilburn, were eager to get started, and waited impatiently. And now, news came that the Alert was in trouble and couldn’t go any further: It wouldn’t fit underneath the railway bridge. Mr. Wood was a man who prided himself on streamlining manufacturing processes and increasing efficiency in his many mainland textile factories. Something had to be done, and fast. The crew had to nearly sink the boat by flooding it to get the mast low enough in the water to safely pass under the bridge and on its way. After carrying the construction materials and household furnishings, the Alert went on to become the island’s ferry for many years. Unlike other buildings on the island, the house Mr. Wood was building would be fully equipped for year-round living, and was given the name “Winter House.”

The Winter House was mainly used as a summer cottage, although in the late 1930s, the Wood family lived there one fall with their children, as they feared contracting polio if they returned to the mainland. The sprawling interior of the house includes an oversize living room surrounded on two sides by covered porches with expansive views, a dining room that easily sat 12 guests, a music room with one of two Steinway grand pianos that were always kept in tune, and a modernized kitchen, which had originally been in the basement with the laundry room. One interesting item in the spacious front hall is the unusual cantilevered stairway that leads to the second and third floors. There was always an enormous standing globe and a roulette wheel there. Two floors upstairs contain eight bedrooms, most with their own fireplace and bath. The opulent furnishings include a large Chinese urn, ornate tables and chairs, old family portraits, a blue Delft tile version of Rembrandt’s “Merchants Guild” over the fireplace, and a beautiful Tiffany stained glass frieze in the dining room.

The large home and grounds needed a staff to maintain it, and the Woods kept close ties to the local community by hiring many islanders as maids, cooks, housekeepers, sailing instructors, powerhouse supervisors, and gardeners. Mr. Wood’s granddaughter, Oriel Wood Ponzecchi, who still oversees the care of the house, remembers having a French governess as a child. The maids lived in nearby Rose Cottage, which can now be rented by summer visitors (the Winter House holds occasional events, but remains private). In addition to the main house, there is the Annex, a small building which was used as an office by Mr. Wood and Mrs. Ponzecchi in later years. The Annex originally housed Mr. Wood’s own personal barber, brought over from the mainland, who was responsible for daily shaves, as well as hair and moustache cutting. The barber chair is now housed at the Cuttyhunk Fishing Club. Next to the Annex is a small shingled building called the Creamery, where butter, cream, and milk were kept, with cows being housed in a nearby barn.

The Winter House has been a focal center of the island for many years, with the Wood and Ponzecchi families as generous and hospitable hosts. They were the original hosts of the island’s Fourth of July party, the annual end-of-summer Yacht Club party, the yearly Musicale talent showcase, and many beautiful island wedding receptions. Although no longer spending summers on Cuttyhunk, Oriel Ponzecchi fondly remembers her Winter House as “a happy and welcoming house.” Cuttyhunk residents would surely agree.

(Source: CHS Monograph, Ethel Twitchell, Spring 2004).

For Cuttyhunkers Only:

Post office news

Janet Burke will not be returning as Postmaster. The Cuttyhunk Post Office will be open Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, from 10:30 am to 2:30 pm, but the weekly schedule may vary.

Upcoming meetings

The Long Range Planning Committee invites islanders to the Fall 2015 Community Dinner, to be held at Avalon on Sunday, Oct. 11 at 5:30 pm; dinner follows at 7 pm. Contributions of appetizers, desserts, or salads would be greatly appreciated. Main course and beverages provided. RSVP to Paula DiMare at pauladimare@comcast.net.

Ferry schedule

Fall schedule takes effect on Sept. 28 through Oct. 18, with the ferry operating now on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, with a Friday-night boat. There are additional trips for Columbus Day weekend. Please see the website for more information: cuttyhunkferryco.com.