Set Designers’ Vision Infuses Former Meeting House-Turned Private Residence

Jan 21, 2019

The interior of the main sanctuary space at Strawberry Hill.
Credit Brian Morris/WCAI

Just off route 6A in Yarmouth Port sits a former Universalist Meeting House called Strawberry Hill, built in 1836. It was converted into a private residence, and is now on the market. What makes the property so unique is the legacy of its most recent owners, world-renowned set designers Herbert Senn and Helen Pond.

World-renowned set designers Herbert Senn and Helen Pond.
Credit File photo courtesy Steve Heaslip/Cape Cod Times

“They’re very, very well-known throughout the theatrical world, both on Broadway in New York, and Boston, Houston, Texas, and as far as Moscow in Russia,” said Lee Marchildon, the real estate agent handling the sale. He’s lived in Yarmouth Port for 48 years, and knew Herb and Helen well.

They spent 40 years designing sets for the Cape Playhouse in Dennis. 

“And it was not uncommon for them, when the curtain would open they’d get a standing ovation and tremendous applause just from the set,” said Marchildon.

The couple bought Strawberry Hill in 1973, and used their considerable talents as set designers to transform the building’s interior. Their living space was the section of the building added on in 1934, behind the main sanctuary.  

“They had help, of course. A lot of the crew from the Cape Playhouse would come and help them on weekends or in the off-season, so they were very hands-on, and did most of this work themselves,” said Marchildon. 

The architectural style is what Marchildon describes as “whimsical-gothic.” Many of the walls and ceilings are painted to appear three-dimensional.

This "bookcase" with its classic volumes of literature is actually a storage closet.
Credit Brian Morris/WCAI

“I guess the correct name for it is the French word “trompe l’oeil,” which is ‘to trick the eye’ and that’s what it does,” said Marchildon. “You’d swear that it was all very intricate molding, carvings and medallions.” 

In one corner, what looks like a bookcase appears to be lined with volumes by Abraham Lincoln, Giuseppe Verdi, Henrik Ibsen, and a collection of Shakespeare. But it’s not a bookcase at all. 

“The whole front is completely faux. You know, it’s a nice storage closet behind all these classic volumes,” said Marchildon.

Herb also devised practical solutions for daily living, such as a release lever on an oil lamp chandelier which allowed it to be lowered for cleaning and re-filling.

Lee Marchildon demonstrates how a release lever on an oil lamp chandelier allows it to be lowered for cleaning and re-filling.
Credit Brian Morris/WCAI

The main sanctuary was once a plain New England meeting house. Herb Senn removed the original pews and stored them – along with their hymnals – in the attic. The room is now an open, airy space – its wood floors painted with large black and white squares that look like marble. An 1850’s pipe organ, still playable, dominates one side of the room.  

“The beautiful red stained-glass transom over the door is from the Third Avenue elevated transit system in New York City,” said Marchildon. 

The windows appear to have flowing white curtains with gold tassels. But a closer look reveals another of Herb Senn’s whimsical touches.

“Those are not curtains, those are all hand-carved wood made by Herbert down in his workshop. All of the gold tassels and the gold fringe are all wood,” said Marchildon.

These "curtains" and their gold fringes are actually made of wood.
Credit Brian Morris/WCAI

Herb died in 2003. Helen lived on her own here for another 14 years, and passed away in 2017. There’s nothing to prevent a potential buyer from changing the interior of Strawberry Hill. But the hope is that whoever purchases the property respects the history of the building, as well as Herb Senn and Helen Pond’s vision.

Lee Marchildon sums it up this way: “It’s just incredible for labor of love that went into this.”