Fronts and Backs

Framing in progress, cottage 1, east side, looking towards the bay. Photo taken today by Art Hultin.

Something that has always perplexed me about the original cottages has been which is the front and which is the back. When Crisse asks me to get the sunscreen from the front bedroom in cottage 2, I have to check both rooms. I’m never quite sure, even after 17 years or so, which is which. Is the bay- or the street-side the front?


This is, in fact, not a new problem—permit, if you will, a little historical aside, drawn from my day job studying early American architecture in Virginia. A number of the grand colonial-era plantation houses, especially those sited along rivers, are ambiguously fronted. We have arguments here in the office, for example, about whether the land side or the river side is the front of Mount Vernon. The land side faces an elegant forecourt, framed by flanking structures—this sure makes a good case for the front to some of us. Others, however, observe that entering through this door forces a visitor to slink in underneath the staircase in a not-at-all-grand manner. The elegant stair faces, instead, the entry on the Potomac side, along with the house’s famous two-story colonnade.

Mount Vernon, Fairfax County, Virginia
Mount Vernon, Fairfax County, Virginia, river side. Photo by Jeffrey E. Klee.

Other houses are equally ambiguous. Tuckahoe, for example, sits on a grand site above the James River in Richmond County, Virginia. The house is composed of two ranges of polite public rooms connected by a large hyphen, making an H-shaped plan. The two legs of the H each have their own principal door, a covered porch, and their own staircase. Both stairs, however, face the river, suggesting that the river may have been understood as the principal front even though the primary approach was from the land side.

Sometimes, mercifully, the signals are more clear. Carter’s Grove, also on the James River, just outside Williamsburg, has 7 bays (6 windows and a door) on the river side and just 5 bays on the land side. One enters through the river-side door into a grand paneled entry hall, facing an extraordinary staircase that is framed by an elliptical arch. No doubt there, in other words, that the river side was understood to be the principal front.

And so which is it at Kingsbury Shores? For starters, I’ll observe that there will be no confusion about front vs. back bedrooms in the new cottage 1, because both face the bay, one right above the other. But it’s certainly clear that we’ve thought of the new cottage as oriented toward the water. That’s where the windows are largest and most abundant, to catch both views and breezes. On the street side (facing east), there are only five small windows, providing a sense of privacy while allowing for some cross ventilation and a little morning light. On the bay side, there are 14 windows, most of them quite large, admitting abundant afternoon light, cooling bay breezes, and offering grand views, especially from the second floor bedroom.

One challenge created by all this glass on the west side is that the afternoon sun in the middle of summer could really heat up the interior, so we decided to make all of them operable, at some expense (this is quite different from very many modern houses with dramatic, expansive walls of glass, most of which is fixed in place). We had hoped, initially, that we wouldn’t have to provide air conditioning in the new cottage and that we would simply be able to open up all the windows to cool the interior. We knew that all the insulation in the walls and ceiling would go a long way to preventing the house from getting overheated and hoped that cross-breezes would be enough to keep it relatively comfortable except at the stillest parts of the very hottest days.

Alas, as I reported in an earlier post, for complex reasons, the current energy code makes this difficult, in our case (it has to do with heat pumps being a very efficient way to heat a house). We still plan to keep the windows open and the a/c off, even in August, since one of the pleasures of being on the beach is being open to it, feeling the air and hearing the surf. I also really, really don’t like to hear the whir of mechanical air conditioners when I’m trying to relax outside. I enjoy the Modern Conveniences as much as the next person but a little sweat down by the seashore never killed anyone. Still, if it’s 95 degrees out and the tide is low, now we won’t have to go up to the Stop and Shop to cool off. It’s hard to complain about that.

The rest of the time, there will be cross-ventilation in BOTH bay-side bedrooms, so everyone can sleep in sea-breezy comfort, without worrying about whether they’re in the front or the back.

Today’s weather in Eastham:      clear and cool, 41 degrees

What’s happening on site:            framing the first floor walls

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