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A space-saving Stone Harbor home ‘built like a boat’

To maximize space while designing the 1,675-square-foot house, owner Pam McBride drew inspiration from houseboats based in Amsterdam and Sausalito, Calif.

John Dent and Pam McBride built a 1,650-square-foot Shore getaway in a town with many homes that are exponentially larger. "The tiny details make this space feel broader than it really is,” the construction manager said.
John Dent and Pam McBride built a 1,650-square-foot Shore getaway in a town with many homes that are exponentially larger. "The tiny details make this space feel broader than it really is,” the construction manager said.Read moreANTHONY PEZZOTTI / Staff Photographer

It’s an oppressively humid Wednesday afternoon, and a group of kids in Stone Harbor basin are laughing as they splash one another on their standup paddleboards. From behind the sliding glass doors of her new home, Pam McBride looks across the denim-colored water to other houses nearby. Many take up two or even three lots. One takes up 3½. Such imposing construction is typical on this posh barrier island, synonymous with beautiful beach days, teaberry ice cream, and McMansions.

“A lot of the homes down here are so beautiful and stately,” said McBride, a business strategy consultant. “They’re built to be family compounds for centuries to come, which is awesome. But my idea of a summer vacation growing up was when you could put your feet on the furniture and relax a little bit. Nothing was too precious.”

McBride, a native of Washington Crossing, N.J., spent summers as a kid in Stone Harbor with her parents and their friends, a group with strong Philly roots. While the adults sang old college songs on the dock of their vacation house, she and the other kids roamed the town barefoot or attended teen dances at the Women’s Civic Club.

Once, when she was about 16, McBride and a friend took a six-pack of beer onto a borrowed Sunfish and ended up stuck in the Great Channel, where they had to flag down a boat for a tow. In the evenings, she came back from her adventures to what was typically a small, lightly constructed, A-frame house with open rafters and minimal insulation — the type of breezy little cottage that’s all but extinct on the island now. The dream, she says, became to someday have her own little beach house in this memory-filled town.

It’s a vision McBride’s husband, John Dent, couldn’t immediately understand.

“I had every prejudice that a Southern Californian would have,” said Dent, a lawyer and Los Angeles native. “I thought New Jersey looked like Trenton and Camden and Newark. Then we came for our engagement party and it was a total revelation to me that there was this incredible stretch of shoreline.”

In 2016, after more than 20 years of vacationing in Stone Harbor together, the D.C.-based couple purchased a 30-by-110-foot lot on the water that was home to a structurally outdated cottage. With the help of Asher Slaunwhite Architects, they spent two years designing and seeking approvals for a new, 1,650-square-foot space that would blend McBride’s affinity for a traditional Eastern Seaboard house with Dent’s preference for a mid-century, clean-lined, Southern California aesthetic.

Or, as McBride put it to her team: “Imagine if David Hockney bought a Nantucket wharf house.”

The home would also, naturally, need to pay homage to Stone Harbor’s historic architectural styles.

“Big things come in small packages,” said Jim Barnes, senior project manager for DL Miner Construction, who oversaw the $850,000 job. “The tiny details make this space feel broader than it really is.”

Complete with a Dutch front door painted in downpour blue and flower boxes overflowing with skyrockets, the finished product is only 19½ feet across. To maximize space, McBride drew inspiration from Amsterdam and Sausalito-based houseboats.

In a narrow hallway, the water heater and furnace are hidden behind white shiplap wall paneling, while a cozy, custom loft exists over the queen bed belonging to the couple’s 16-year-old son, Nathan. Perhaps the pièce de résistance is the stairwell, which also serves as a lightwell. Illuminated by linen-and-black-bamboo fixtures made by Vietnamese artists, the white-oak treads double as shelving for the kitchen’s bar. The railings are made of steel with a black finish to evoke iron, which shows up in old boatyards as anchor chain.

“The house has a nautical vibe without feeling gimmicky because it’s built like a boat,” McBride said. “You don’t decorate a boat to feel nautical because you don’t have to.” (Says Dent: “She fought me on porthole windows.”)

Contributing to the open, airy feel of the house is what McBride calls a “dotted line” between inside and out. The glass sliders open onto a terraced deck complete with fire pit, dining space, and pier from which the family can launch a kayak, stand-up paddleboard, or their 19-foot Sea Ray, named “Laughing Boy” after the infectious “waterfall-like chuckle” Nathan had as a baby. (As of yet, Nathan hasn’t reported any teenage boating misadventures like his mom.) There’s also an outdoor shower for rinsing off after the beach, though a little bit of sand on her engineered European white oak floors with a ceruse finish likely won’t bother McBride.

“As much as it is our baby,” she said, “we didn’t build this house in order to have people walk on eggshells in it.”

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