JAMES LANDING, SCITUATE, MA 1984
“Great, greater, and greatest.” That is how a veteran South Shore realtor described the views from the first, second, and third floors of a unit she had for sale when I inquired what made the units unique. She followed this up with seeing river activity from the marina and a nighttime view of the twinkling lights of Humarock Beach. Three selling pitches in and not one word about the architecture. Was I surprised? No. Was I hoping for something else? Yes. However, I think this is instructive for us as architects to understand the hierarchy of selling versus design. It is important as an architect to be able to add value to the process of selling through the design. The design of James Landing not only provided access to the view, it did it in a way that enhanced the experience of the view by framing it, offering differing perspectives to view it from, and creating curb appeal through a picturesque architectural composition on the site.
When the Simms boatyard in Scituate came up for sale in the early 1980’s, Merrill Diamond and Gordon Hurwitz of Parencorp had the opportunity to purchase it. The site overlooked thousands of acres of marshland with the Herring River running through the middle. The marina provided access to the ocean at high tide. The downside of the site was a nearby landfill frequented by so many seagulls that Merrill characterized it as a wildlife sanctuary in a creative “the glass is half full” bit of marketing. Buoyed by the recent success of their conversion of Dreamwold Estates to condominiums in another section of Scituate, they proceeded to purchase the property and develop it.
Merrill was trained as an architect and a classmate of Frank DiMella at Syracuse. He was also something of a Frank Lloyd Wright buff and conscious of Wright’s influence on the firm’s work. He noted for me that the “buildings fitting seamlessly into their environment, an emphasis on horizontality, the use of large roofs and natural materials” were all characteristics that made Huygens and DiMella the most appropriate choice for the project. Merrill outlined the program as “an upscale product for well-to-do ’empty nesters’ from Scituate and the surrounding communities, and we wanted the buildings to exude a level of sophistication that would allow us to achieve prices that were higher than any condominiums in Scituate or the surrounding communities. We also wanted to avoid the typical architectural typology in Scituate at the time of using an ersatz Colonial design motif”. There was agreement between the developer and architect that the project should “nestle comfortably at the edge of the marsh instead of dominating it”.
David Carter, who worked with Rem Huygens on the planning and concept, recalled that they explored themes that had been used successfully before in other projects: the large sheltering roof facing the water in the Gerstein House, naturally weathering materials such as cedar shingles used at the Alter House and clapboards that allow the buildings to blend into the coastal landscape. The roofs flow smoothly into one another, a technique learned at Loon Mountain, gathering 10 units into a cascading building form. Large white chimneys, like Shadow Farm‘s, are used to punctuate the horizontal composition and anchor the buildings to the ground. However, the combined architectural vocabulary is unique for the project type and differs from other work in the portfolio.
Though the setting is large in scale, James Landing fits into the landscape with its undulating forms in both plan and elevation. The three floors of flats have a forty-five degree end piece that allows them to be combined with the townhouse plans to curve along the shore line and preserve unobstructed views from each unit. Seen from the distance it relates to the organic character of the shoreline, the buildings projecting forward and then receding. From the land side the five buildings are arranged to create two residential courts serviced by a new road to the marina. Detached garages for the flats define the courts and provide privacy to the units.
Bracketing the three-story sections of flats with the townhouses gave both penthouses spectacular views and provided a device to bring the roof down close to the ground, modulating the scale of the buildings in elevation. The building massing mimics the tree line behind as it rises and falls across the site. Broad, expansive windows frame the distant views, while deeply recessed porches with wide roof overhangs emphasize the horizontal line and give protection against the wind. These porches are sheltered from the winter storms and open to the southeastern exposure and prevailing summer breezes. Rem Huygens was quoted in the Boston Globe on the opening of James Landing saying, “We wanted to make this group of buildings fit into the existing topography as though they were always a part of the landscape”. To this end the landscape design by Matarazzo Design extends the wooded background into the residential courts with native plants and the marsh grass and wild roses are allowed to come up to the buildings on the water side.
Rem went on to note that, while the materials were consistent with the New England vernacular, the expression recalled Irish cottages more than American traditional styles. I have often thought that the proportion of roof to wall in this project is very reminiscent of thatched roofs. The roofs have a volume, small dormers, and steep end pitches like the Irish example below. These roofs are common in coastal areas of England, Ireland, Denmark, and Holland because the raw material is marsh grass, a subtle element that spiritually binds the buildings to the site. This aesthetic also presents the largest area of the most durable material (Asphalt Shingles) to the harshest weather, a lesson gleaned from vernacular buildings.
As I have written these posts over the last few months, I have been asked to provide more detail drawings of the projects. For this project, I contacted a good friend, Jim Futral, who was responsible for the wall sections. He proceeded to tell me about the design progression of the roof edges on this and across several other projects from this era. As roof edge details were a specialty of the firm, they probably deserve a post all their own, but in an effort to respond, I am including one of Jim’s beautifully drawn wall section sheets and a construction photo of a roof edge collage that suggests the care with which these buildings were designed and constructed.
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Several of the chimney masses have been changed to cedar shingles in recent years.
We have continued to work with Merrill Diamond for more than 35 years on multiple development projects including the St. George on Revere Beach, the Waterworks in Chestnut Hill, and even turning the Dedham Jail into condos. I asked him to reflect on the significance of James Landing among his many development projects.
“It’s definitely up there as one of the projects of which I’m most proud. At the time, most of my development work focused on historic preservation and adaptive re-use and I knew in advance how the final product would appear and how it would work with its site. James Landing was entirely new construction and I was more than pleased with both the architecture of the buildings and the way that the buildings settled comfortably on the site. I’ve never heard a negative word about either aspect of the project and, although I pride our firm’s commitment to providing architecturally and environmentally sound planning and design, I’m not certain that I could make that statement about any other project that we developed.”
Over the years Merrill has expanded his activities to include the marketing of condominiums in addition to developing them. He started a new company Ignition Residential to focus on the marketing. On his blog, he has written the The 10 Immutable Laws of Condominium Marketing and I was interested to find out which laws he learned at James Landing.
“Many of them, but none more that Rule Number 7 ‘It’s not Location, Location, Location…And Never was’. The first phase of James Landing (30 units of 50) sold out very fast and then the condominium market did what the condominium market does from time to time: it tanked. We waited for several years for the condominium market to return before we constructed and sold out Phase II, the final 20 units. The lesson learned? It’s timing, timing, timing. Also, it’s important to choose your lender wisely…”
Believing that the unique architectural vocabulary created “product differentiation” that enhanced the “unique selling proposition” (The view) I wanted to get Merrill’s take as developer, seller, and marketer on whether the architecture was truly a value add to the development.
“Clearly, the view across thousands of acres of verdant marsh with ‘a river running through it’ was a major component of the marketability of James Landing. That said, Huygens and DiMella created something that was totally unique for this pristine location and, as noted above, it was spot on in terms of the site and our target market. I stress the latter since I learned a long time ago that I’m in the business of selling condominiums, not building them. Had I not learned that, I wouldn’t be doing real estate development now.”
Merrill shared with me these newspaper images of the ads that ran during the marketing of James Landing. They point to the advantages the site provides with a marina, migration to the suburbs, and living a vacation. Interestingly, two of these things have been enhanced by recent events. The Greenbush line restarted service in 2007 and Greenbush Station is within walking distance of the project, making the 25 miles to Boston an easy commute. The landfill that Merrill mentioned above as a downside at the time of purchase has been closed and capped and is now a 3 megawatt solar farm, making Scituate the first town in Massachusetts to use 100% renewable energy to power all its municipal facilities. The Boston Sand and Gravel Pit next door has been turned into the environmentally sustainable public golf course Widow’s Walk, providing more of the comforts of vacation.
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James Landing is not a large project, but it demonstrates how architecture can support the ‘unique selling proposition’ by being thoughtful about the design at all scales: the approach, the unit, the garage, the roof edge, the landscaping and the view. When the developer and architect are in sync about the essence of a project as happened here or in our current project for Hines, which takes maximum advantage of its site on the Alewife Reservation in Cambridge, you can accomplish great things. As the realtor reminded me, it may be all about the “view from,” but by also carefully considering the “view to,” you can create enduring architecture that 35 years later brings joy and value to its owners.