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Round Island

A Historic Property Gets a New Lease on Life

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Round Island, just off the coast of Portsmouth’s South End, is now a year-round residence for the Lassens.

Photographed by Rob Karosis
Produced by Marsha Jusczak

 

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Before the renovations, the roof of the old New Englander was starting to collapse.

 

Walking through Portsmouth’s South End, it is hard to imagine this New Hampshire area was once declared a slum and that many of the antique homes were to be demolished. In the 1950s, the South End was a rough-and-tumble neighborhood with dilapidated tenement houses, prostitution, and violent crime. But when the city seized 10 acres by eminent domain to embark on a federally funded slum clearance program, the community was galvanized to preserve the city’s historic architecture.

Fifty years later, the South End offers a vibrant mix of a working waterfront, restaurants, and historic homes. At the very heart of this revitalized neighborhood is Strawbery Banke, founded in 1958 to save the most historically significant buildings slated for demolition. It was into this neighborhood that Charles and Sooky Lassen chose to move in 2004.

 Although many of the houses were restored, a ramshackle little New Englander on an island in the back channel sat neglected and was slowly crumbling into the river. Vacant for more than 10 years, the little house captured Charles’s imagination. On January 11, 2007, the Lassens purchased Round Island with plans to make it their year-round home. “We were perfectly happy where we were living,” says Charles, “but I thought this would be a great project and a lovely thing to do.”

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A bank of windows runs the length of the house, offering a view of the ocean from every room.

 

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Charles and Sooky Lassen have lived on the island with their English springer spaniel Phoebe since 2009.

 

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The master bedroom looks out into the living room and its striking barrel ceiling.

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A display of bottles, notes, revolvers, and magazines found during the renovation tell the story of the island’s past inhabitants.

 

But rebuilding the house on Round Island was no easy task. Because the island is less than one-quarter of an acre, every inch falls within the state-protected shoreland zone. It is also within the city’s historic district. In addition to satisfying the usual planning and zoning requirements, any construction on the island would have to satisfy both the Historic District Commission and the Department of Environmental Services. To help navigate these uncharted waters, the Lassens hired architect Anne Whitney.

Anne was charged with designing a home that was both historically and environmentally sensitive. To avoid further encroaching on protected shoreland, the home needed to be built on the existing footprint. But poorly planned additions resulted in a disjointed and sprawling building. “We basically matched the square footage of the original footprint,” Anne says. “We consolidated the design of the house and kept the footprint within the original coverage number.”

To make the home more energy efficient, elements of sustainable design were integrated throughout. “It is pretty traditional construction, but we really super-insulated the structure, and the orientation of the building was absolutely perfect for solar,” she says. “In the winter, the sun penetrates the depth of the house, and you get a lot of good solar gain.”

That solar gain, together with good insulation and radiant floor heating powered primarily by solar panels, keeps the house warm all winter. In the summer, fixed south-facing windows combined with venting windows at either end allow the ocean breeze to flow through the house and keep it cool.

“It doesn’t look like it was planned as an ecologically sound house,”  Charles says, “but in fact a lot of thought went into it.”

One of the greatest challenges was obtaining approval for solar panels to be attached to the house. “The Historic District Commission is charged with keeping the integrity of the historic downtown, and if you just had solar panels everywhere without thought of where to put them, it would be an eyesore,”  Anne says. “This was the first project in Portsmouth’s Historic District that was allowed to have solar panels.”

The solar panels are mounted on the home’s foundation and heat the water that flows through the radiant floor heating system. The panels are mounted flush against the building. From a distance, they look like they are a part of the skirting under the porch. “The fact that the solar panels don’t stand out and that we were able to mount them below the porch made it easier to get them approved,” she says.

“Anne was totally indispensable in terms of understanding the art of the possible with the Historic District Commission,” Charles says. “We were breaking a lot of new ground.”

In July 2009, about a year and a half after they first bought the island, the Lassens moved into their new home. Inspired by the old New Englander that stood on the island for over 100 years, it is yet another success story for the revitalization of the South End.

For Sooky, adjusting to life on the island can be a challenge. “The big thing that I miss is that people can’t drop in,” she says. “And I do think twice about whether to take the boat out. This is a very fast current, and the weather is unpredictable.”

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An old English refectory table provides plenty of seating for dinner parties. Flowers provided by flowersbythesea.

 

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The small porch at the edge of the island offers a beautiful view of the surrounding marsh, which is almost completely hidden at high tide. A picnic table and built-in benches provide a welcoming place to enjoy a summer meal.

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Charles’s study is lined with books and looks out at Portsmouth through the branches of an old pine tree.

But Round Island is a wonderful place to gather with friends and family. Dinner parties and regattas have taken place there. “It’s a place that people like to come and visit,” Charles says, “and we like entertaining and sharing where we live.”

Come winter, life on the island is quiet, and the South End, with its lobster shacks and historic homes, is covered in a blanket of snow. “I think winter is an absolutely glorious time here,” Charles says.

A small woodstove keeps the house cozy and warm. Your gaze is drawn to the expansive living room. The barrel ceiling, sunken floor, and bank of crowned windows make the room feel open and welcoming. “I wanted a cross between the Titanic and a grand hotel,” Charles says. “But on a very small scale.”

Indeed, the feeling is similar to that of being out on a luxury yacht. Every window has a view of the water, and the barrel ceiling, crowned windows, storage holds, and nautical instruments add to the ambience. Looking from the expansive living room towards the small galley kitchen that overlooks the South End’s working waterfront, the space gradually becomes more enclosed and intimate.

The living room is furnished with antiques and collected pieces. “We are all products of our past,” Charles says. Two large oars mounted above the windows on the gable end were handed down to Sooky by her father, a gold medalist at the 1948 Summer Olympics in London. On an adjacent wall is a half-model of a boat made in Denmark. “Immediately after the war, when Denmark was trying to get back on its feet, the only thing they could do was make these absolutely beautiful mahogany vessels. This was a 46-foot boat that my father sailed up and down the East Coast. The idea was to sell 100 of them. I think he sold one.”

Two banks of windows to the south and east look out over the marsh and into the back channel. Bench seats under the windows offer the perfect place to enjoy a cup of coffee and watch the world wake up. “The early mornings and the birds and the sky—it’s really beautiful,” Sooky says.

The only place in the house without any windows is the living room’s north wall. It offers a solid foundation, a starting point from which to enjoy the view. It also serves as a canvas upon which the sun’s reflection can play. “You get a delightful light off the water at various states of the tide,” Charles says. “A light breeze will dapple the sun’s reflection off the water and onto the walls and ceiling.”

Set into a small alcove adjacent to the living room is Charles’s study. Floor to ceiling shelves hold hundreds of books, each suitable for reading on a cold winter’s day. The small space is entirely open to the rest of the house but feels enclosed. The view outside the window is interrupted by pine branches, giving the illusion that you are in a tree house looking up the river.

On the other side of the house, looking out toward the dock, a ship’s weather station displays several nautical instruments. “It serves a very practical purpose,” Charles says. “Particularly in the winter you really need to know the wind speed and direction because it affects your docking with a shallow draft boat.” The tide clock lets you know if the tide is rising or falling, which makes navigation on the river easier, and the barometer helps to forecast sudden changes in the weather.

In the dining room, a long English refectory table provides space for the Lassens’ dinner guests. It is also situated perfectly to allow Charles to tell the story of Michelle, a prostitute who once lived and worked on the island. Inserted into the wall is a display of glass bottles, pages out of an accounting book, a pair of small revolvers, and a June 1911 issue of Collier’s Weekly. “I was thumbing through the pages and found various writings, mainly in French,” he says. “A lot of tittle-tattle notes and then a lovely centerfold with the sister ship of the Titanic—and a drawing of this very attractive, slightly coquettish girl.”

The name scrawled in the magazine is “Michelle,” and Charles believes the drawing is her self-portrait. As further evidence to prove the legend that the island was once home to a brothel, Charles points out another drawing. This one depicts a man swimming away from the island, possibly without paying his dues. “It was a pretty cutthroat business, so you can’t find much about prostitution at the Athenaeum,” he says. “But there was a very rich subculture going on here—and it rather pleases me to have a direct link to that.”

After rebuilding his home on the island, Charles was approached by Strawbery Banke and asked if he would help restore the last of the South End buildings saved from demolition in the 1950s. Never one to rest on his laurels, he accepted the challenge and signed on as the director of the Heritage Houses Program at Strawbery Banke.

“I tried to retire and smell the roses,” Charles says, “but I didn’t care much for the smell of roses.”

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