THE WATER’S EDGE, WESTBROOK, CONNECTICUT 1984-1990

An unobstructed ocean view, private beach access, and a convenient location were all critical amenities in a plan to convert an aging waterfront resort into a first-rate destination property. The careful renovation of the mansion and sympathetic insertion of new housing accommodations proved wildly successful, even for a developer with no hospitality experience.

Back in 1984, Frank DiMella’s next door neighbor at his Clinton, Connecticut beach house called him one day and said he was thinking of buying the old Bill Hahn place in Westbrook. The neighbor, Mike Dattillo, was at that point a successful owner of multiple gas stations and a gasoline distribution company. He was attracted to the idea of developing a waterfront resort on the property that Hahn had assembled over many years and had run as a beachfront resort with live celebrity entertainment, mainly from New York that included well-known musicians, singers and actors. Hahn, who was single, had passed away several years prior. The resort stood vacant since his death and had been inherited by a nephew who now wanted to sell. Mike knew absolutely nothing about the resort industry, nor had he attempted to develop anything other than gas stations, but nonetheless decided to buy it.

Left:  Original House      Right:  Expanded resort when we started work.

The property consisted of a large house and a collection of waterfront cottages and adjacent houses stretching essentially from the waterfront back to Route 1. Hahn had expanded the largest house at the top of the hill to include a ballroom where the entertainers performed, a commercial kitchen and guest rooms on the upper floors. Guests would take the train up from New York, be picked up at the local station, and would stay at the main house or in one of the various cottages that had been converted to guest rooms, along with a newer building, also with guest rooms.

Mike took Frank to look at the property and on the first visit imagined the overall concept of redevelopment which included preserving the main house as a hotel with restaurant and guestrooms overlooking the view to the ocean, removing most of the smaller cottages and building a series of new buildings to contain guest suites to be sold as time shares.

Existing and Proposed Site Plan

Left:  Existing Site Plan     Right:  Proposed Site Plan (first phase)

We did the master plan very quickly and then developed design drawings to take the entire project through the town’s approval process. The project was built in phases with the main house renovation and expansion first, followed by a sequence of the individual time share buildings. We added pools, tennis courts, terraces and parking to the plan and finally added an additional ballroom, banquet kitchen, and guest room wing in our last phase of the work that finished in 1990.

Aerial Image from East

Aerial image from east (bing.com)

Eric Gould, who described his experience working on the Ipswich Country Club a few weeks back, offers here his recollection of working on The Water’s Edge after first coming to Boston.

The first project handed to me at Huygens and DiMella in 1984 was the rundown Bill Hahn Resort in Westbrook, Connecticut. A sprawling family-style summer hotel, the old building was half shingle-style, half aluminum-clad claptrap with musty shag carpeting and fake wood paneling everywhere.

I had just arrived in Boston from Florida where I had worked on stucco and glass buildings and this was to be my first project in New England.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry.

The old Hahn building (which Rem referred to as “the wedding cake”) was basically a pile of mismatched and mongrelized additions the new owners were going to add on to and make even larger than it had been. They also wanted to add new out-buildings, making a whole new development of vacation timeshares to be called The Water’s Edge.

I was thrown into trying to work new guest rooms, dining areas, lobbies and staircases into the old building with the late Jim Lombardi, the Huygens and DiMella project manager.

We were trying to save venerable old parts of the buildings, while trying to add on new additions, dormers, decks, bays and pergolas, trying to concoct a recognizable, cohesive-looking destination for vacationers.

Early rendering from the north, showing pergola that unifies the entrance approach.

Early rendering from the north, showing pergola that unifies the entrance approach.

It took everything I had. Each day brought discoveries of old floors not lining up with the new, old framing that had to be redone, new columns that had no foundations (yet).

On top of it all, we were scrambling to pull together lobbies, check-out desks and wainscots that had to be modern enough to suit Rem and traditional enough to suit the owners and their interior decorators. I remember one extremely awkward meeting where Frank rejected everything the client’s interior consultants had brought in and sent them back to the owner.

We persevered. We used fragments of octagonal bays and ceiling coffers, recalling traditional elements but never reproducing them and never going fully symmetrical, but always trying to stay firmly rooted in modern forms.

Once we moved to the out-buildings—smaller stacks of one and two-bedroom timeshare units—we were liberated. I was paired with Jim Futral to figure out new clapboard and shingle-styled buildings which would be sympathetic to, but not repeat “the wedding cake.” Jim showed me how a piece of trim had to start on one side of the building on the wall sections and it how it had to travel around the building and resolve itself on the other side. In other words, he showed the “stucco and glass guy” how all the New England wood detailing had to go together.

We began to have fun putting together white grids and belt-coursing over one-and-a-half stories of clapboard walls. We proposed stark, white flush-framed pergolas over the entries which were approved by Rem and Frank, and then by the owners. We shifted bays to one side of hip dormers, instead of plunking them in the middle as one might expect to find.

And I think we developed a first for Huygens and DiMella at the time: the flat, rubber-roofed dormer—a squat looking thing with walls stepping back that let the roof appearing to fly unsupported at the corners.

One afternoon, a full year into the project, as the team revised the rest of the master plan, where newer time share buildings were to be repeated, Frank and Rem laid out the cascading stone walls and steps that spilled down from the rear of the main building out to rear lawn that revealed spectacular views of the Atlantic. They all lead down to the water’s edge, of course.

– Eric Gould, 2015

View from the water before transformation and post-development, with remnants of the old resort still visible.

The resort has been very successful and is a very popular wedding venue to this day. It is still owned by Mike, but run by his daughter now. He has bought additional adjacent property, adding more guest rooms and retail shops along Route 1. The project won numerous awards from the Boston Society of Architects and the American Institute of Architects and also won the Renaissance Remolding Grand Award, whose jury “particularly applauded the second story addition to the old stone building. ‘It fits in so well that you’d think it was original.’”

www.watersedgeresortandspa.com