New Hampshire Post and Beam House
Yankee Plus Dec 2015
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Build on the heights; raise it to the sky. As any good cathedral builder from the Middle Ages will tell you, it’s all about the soaring space, rising and transcendent. The appeal is timeless, of course — that, and the accompanying light.
“It was always my number-one priority,” says Bonnie Harris, sitting with her husband, Baxter, in their home high on Windy Row in Peterborough, New Hampshire, with surrounding views of the mountains, ringed like medieval castles. “The space and light.”
But it has been a 35-year road uphill to this shingled country beauty, which looks as though it rose up ages ago through silent, snowy fields: a road that started in a New York brownstone in need of a total overhaul, and then wound through a collection of renovations and building projects; acting jobs that always managed to come through just in time to cover the next stage of work; and the arrival of two children, Casey and Molly. Ultimately, each experience would contribute to a vision of what the Harrises wanted in this house, a house that would become home, office, workshop, and a great place to raise kids.
A longtime association with Peterborough’s local professional summer theater found the Harrises visiting one year and sitting with their kids at the town playground. “I was impressed with the pile of unlocked bicycles,” Baxter recalls. “I remember saying to Bonnie, ‘This would be a great place to grow up.’ And she said, ‘This would be a great place to live.’ We talked about it all the way back to the city.”
A year later, they bought a sprawling old Colonial with the barn they’d dreamed of. They moved in and tackled another enormous renovation. “It’s a good thing it didn’t matter what the house looked like,” says Bonnie, “because it was a wreck.”
“We were good at living with a hot plate and a microwave,” recalls Baxter, no stranger to improvisation. For the next few years, carpenters swarmed the house; for Molly and Casey, it was like having an extended family. Baxter commuted to the city for auditions and continued to make movies.
Somewhere, though, a hilltop was calling. By then, the Harrises were good friends with an experienced post-and-beam craftsman, Dave Stephenson. A friend alerted them to land that hadn’t yet gone on the real-estate market. Views in every direction. Quiet as far as the ear could hear.
They bought, and started building in 1997. Construction was delayed while they hashed out design details for the basic structure: the long timber frame that would house the great room, with the living room and vast cathedral ceiling at one end and an open kitchen at the other, and the ell, with its family room and entryway.
“The hard part was orienting the house to get the full benefit of three sides: mountains to the east and west, and good southern exposure for the passive-solar advantage,” says Bonnie. The frame went up in November; that month there was a massive snow-and-ice storm just as they’d finished painting the ceiling boards, spread out over the deck, waiting to go up.
But work on the house progressed, space and height embraced by beams. Sky-high windows angled on either side of a soaring fireplace, with western views to the blue rise of Mount Monadnock; an inviting kitchen workspace stretched into a dining nook with full southern light. Still, construction challenges remained.
The biggest was how to get a walkway across the cathedral ceiling to the kids’ bedrooms and also how to thread it between the rooms and bathrooms. (For a photo and description, click on the “Detail” below.) Directly across from the walkway, on the heights, the date carved high into the crossbeam up over the fireplace reads 1997, but because of a big knot in the wood, it looks like 1999. It’s just one more idiosyncratic touch in a house that was waiting all along to emerge from a lifetime of building and renovation–a house that so perfectly reflects this family of strong tastes, strong emotions, strong vision.
If Bonnie’s vision for their new home was one of space and light, Baxter’s was integrity. “I wanted to build something that looked as though it had been here for a long, long time,” he remembers.
Now, from a distance, rising up, this graceful shingled house has settled onto its hill, as surely as any monument to time. The cathedral builders of old would certainly respect that. And understand.