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Leap of Faith
A Painstaking Restoration Morphs a Lambert's Cove Landmark into an Eclectic Family Getaway

by John Budris

Restoration builder Neal Kaplan and interior architect Lisa Foster agree: The best way to recover after a long day at the beach is a long night in church. And that’s just what they do after their transformation of the 1836 Lambert’s Cove Methodist Church and Parsonage into deliciously eclectic living spaces.

Kaplan’s company, Neal Estate, and Foster’s firm, Reconstructure, are both in Providence, and both serve residential and commercial clients. The two have often worked on projects together, including a renovation of Foster’s own Rhode Island home. So why not embark on a vacation project for themselves?

“Itseemed like a reasonable thing to do, as our families often vacationed together,” says Foster. Adds Kaplan, “We’ve worked together on projects for other families, so why not for ourselves and our own?” While visiting the Vineyard about a dozen years ago, they came upon a real estate listing for the Lambert’s Cove church. “Like anyone who’s spent a lot of time on the Vineyard, you recognize that landmark right away,” says Foster. The church was built in 1836, ceased services in 1997 and was sold several years later by the New England Conference of the United Methodist Church. “Neal and I had even spoken before, while driving by, what a great project restoring the place would be, so we put in an offer right away,” says Foster.

However, their bid was not accepted, and the property was taken off the market. Two years later - in 2007 - the owner, who had begun restoring the church, replacing the roof and making other small improvements, contacted Foster and Kaplan with an acceptable price, reassured that they had both the skills and wherewithal to properly renovate the church and parsonage. “The owner was not going to sell the place to anyone without confidence that the buildings would be saved and restored, not leveled and replaced,” says Foster.

That owner was Gina Stanley, chef extraordinaire and proprietor of the Artcliff Diner. “The time did come when I had to part with place, as the overwhelming amount of work needed came clear to me,” says Gina. “But I knew even from our first meeting that when that day came, Neal and Lisa would be the ones.” When Gina drives by, especially at night, she is reassured her decision was the right one. “During the renovation Neal came to the Artcliff all the time, and when he got married at the old church I came with the food truck and catered his wedding, so it kind of came full circle.”

What Foster calls “our religious experience” began in the fall of 2008. The renovation challenge included three buildings: the church, a small well house, and the parsonage, which was originally built in two sections. The traditions and integrity of timber framing notwithstanding, building standards circa 1836 are best described as “anything and everything goes,” says Kaplan. Parts of the church and parsonage conformed to such 19th-century improvisation and were built on quarried granite slabs set right on the dirt. This low-to-the-ground approach — combined with decades of frost and weather — had compromised so much of the parsonage that tearing down a large section was inevitable.

They built the replacement section two feet higher and two feet larger at the footprint that dovetails into the original parsonage structure, which was stabilized atop steel I-beams. Next, the church was raised on jacks while the entire footprint was painstakingly excavated and refitted with a new concrete foundation and walkout basement. The basement, which now serves as a laundry and mechanical room for the radiant heat system, was faced with the same kind of granite originally used in order to preserve the 1800s look. Kaplan attended to the most minute details in mouldings, window styles, and trims - inside and out - to satisfy even the strictest architectural purist. The exterior was redone with new pine clapboards painted white to match the church’s motif, and both structures were insulated with combinations of blown-in cellulose and Icynene spray foam for comfortable living year-round.

Foster and Kaplan concede their tastes tend toward contemporary styles, so inside the parsonage, white concrete countertops and a sleek open wood-and-steel staircase - with stainless steel cable replacing traditional balustrades - satisfy their modern preference. Foster describes the interior as “cottage meets nautical, mostly in white.” As in a yacht, every available space is utilized: a nook here, a cupboard or bookshelf there. Some of the most ingenious work is the sleight-of-hand tricks that “chase” pipes, ducts, and wires behind and around existing walls and cabinets. “Modern building codes make many demands on a 19th century structure,” says Kaplan. “The ‘unsightlies’ must go somewhere when, in the end, you’re making a two-bath, two-bedroom cottage for today’s standards.

Transforming the church into one large living-kitchen-dining-sleeping space posed no less of a challenge. The cedar shingle roof was replaced by the previous owner, but everything else imaginable needed attention - beginning with the tin ceiling, much of which had to be reproduced. New tin material in a matching pattern was unavailable, so Kaplan had fiberglass copies custom made. The brass lighting fixtures, installed in the church when electricity was brought to the Vineyard, were refurbished, and most of the interior woodwork was removed, planed, and returned to its original Methodist white. “Somewhere along the line the wood trims and wainscoting were faux-painted with a dark wood-grain look,” says Foster. “But white was right.”

With any restoration project of multiple buildings, flooring can unite or divide. “When we started tearing things apart, we began de-nailing and planing all the flooring and other wide boards,” says Kaplan. The goal was to make enough flooring for a consistent look for both parsonage and church. Once the original pews were removed, they discovered that much of the wide pine-board flooring was deteriorated and that the pulpit end of the church seemed to have sunk some six inches.

However, removing the floor and subfloor revealed that the half-foot discrepancy was the result of a deliberate raking of the floor, like that of a theater. “My guess,” says Kaplan, “is so the back of the church would be higher so you could see the preacher better.” It might be a fine plan for a church or playhouse, but not for a home.

Flooring removed and framing exposed, Kaplan decided to clear it all away and meticulously dig a crawl space, the old-fashioned way with pick, shovel, and wheelbarrow. He then poured a three-foot-square concrete buttress on the inside perimeter to lock in the existing granite slabs. Next came a concrete floor and spray-foam insulation. Kaplan then reframed the wood floor - this time on the level. But the matter of flooring still loomed. Cobbling together parts of the original floor and subfloor didn’t tally up enough for all needed. Kaplan solved this challenge by dismantling a few leftover pews and fabricating flooring to perfectly match.

Although either church or parsonage can stand alone, they work best in tandem, says Foster. “One busy space - the parsonage, one quiet space - the church.”

Foster and Kaplan agree that the stress of their two-year project was eased by warm relations with the Vineyard community. “People were always dropping by with old photographs of the church,” says Kaplan. “And this really helped with some design and finish decisions.” Before the heavy work began, Kaplan and Foster held an open house and raffled off the church pews, Bibles, songbooks, and other memorabilia to Vineyarders who wanted keepsakes.

Jack Daggett, 88, who spent every summer of his life on the Vineyard, and whose great-grandfather Theophilus Daggett, was one of the church’s first ministers, was a wealth of history for Kaplan’s research. The Daggetts and Lambert’s Cove Methodist Church are deeply woven together. “My maternal grandfather, Obed, who was a fisherman, met my grandmother when she was 16 and the organist for the church,” says Daggett. “And Theophilus, he built the church’s marvelous lectern.” These artifacts, including the two Daggett family pews, are now on loan to several Vineyard churches.

Since 1881, the bell of the Lambert’s Cove Methodist Church, which announced the end of World Wars I and II, called together the faithful for innumerable Sunday services, weddings, baptisms, and funerals. Today, the crisp C-sharp still chimes right on pitch — as Lisa Foster’s and Neal Kaplan’s doorbell.