'The biggest boat in town'
Waterford — Jim Barnard gets seasick on anything bigger than a small speedboat.
"Being in a boat is like being in a turbulent plane," the 56-year-old said. "If you can just get through it, you're all right."
Nevertheless, Barnard, a bicycle and motorcycle collector and tinkerer who runs Bloomfield-based Northeast Lightning Protection, says he "might have the biggest boat in town."
Barnard's prized vessel, a 4,400-square-foot home styled after a vintage steamship, is perched on a 60-foot bluff overlooking the Niantic River. Tied to a dock on the starboard side, the home's bright white bow juts toward the cliff, where an anchor off the deck dangles from a nearby tree.
"People drive by in their boats and we can hear them talking, see them pointing," said Barnard's wife, Cathy, who runs Acme Lightning Rod in Simsbury. "We just wave and say, 'We can hear you.' Everybody seems to like it. It seems like everybody in town knows about it — that surprised me."
With multiple tiers of railing lined with Feeney LED lights, porthole windows, a 1920s bar, long glass windows and hardwood paneling that helps the house glow orange with every sunset, Barnard's boathouse is a voyage to the past. On a summer night, the lit deck evokes the revelry of "The Great Gatsby." On a gray day last week, the house felt like a New England steamship ferry braving a storm.
"I wanted it to resemble a ship at multiple points, and I think the builder did one hell of a job," Barnard said, referencing builder Jonathan Laschever. "We were able to take a nautical feel and a sense of humor and combine it into a building that really respects where it is."
As it turns out, Barnard's father, Jack — the retired founder of Northeast Lightning Protection — "was the only neighbor who gave me any problems about it," Barnard said.
Barnard said his father bought the house next door back in the 1990s. Over the years, Barnard's own eyes often turned to the lot farther south, where a small cottage failed to take advantage of the higher elevation and potentially great views. About eight years ago, Barnard bought the lot and, "on a napkin in a bar," began designing possibilities.
He said he started out with a more rectangular, post-industrial, steampunk feel that morphed over time and conversations with his wife and Laschever.
"He said he didn't want a basic Nantucket beach house," Cathy said. "I'm the one who talked him into making it into a boat shape. Once he got that idea in his head, he was off to the races. I had veto power and I wanted my office to have a view, but this was Jim's baby."
Completed last year after starting in 2013, the project remains ongoing, as the Barnards and Laschever still want to build a small dock on the river later this year.
Barnard grew up in Bloomfield but was drawn to the area in part because of family trips to Hawks Nest Beach in Old Lyme, where he had "the best of times as soon as you got over that first day of sunburn."
Laschever gave his stock answer to what he described as the question everybody asks: No, he had never worked on a house like Barnard's before.
"Nobody builds houses like this," he said, chuckling. "It's one of a kind."
Laschever joined the project after an architect drew up initial plans years ago. The drawings were "very fancy-looking" but didn't account for materials, interior design or a variety of structural challenges in a high-wind zone, he said.
"It had to be designed to meet the wind load and not twist if a big hurricane hit," Laschever said. "We had to figure out what materials to use. We redid the original plans from scratch."
The house, Laschever noted, sits on a 4,600-square-foot garage where Barnard, who used to manage the New England Muscle Bicycle Museum, works on cars and bikes.
Laschever said Barnard originally wanted the interior to have the appearance of an old factory, but "with all the exterior stuff — all the decks and railings — I said to Jim, 'The house now has a boat on the outside. It wants to look like a boat that fits the inside.'"
Laschever then advised on color stains, finishes and trim details. He's particularly proud of a tower in the center of the second floor, where "behind the crown molding is a band of LED lights that washes over the metallic-paint center," he said.
"Jim was great to work with. I had a lot of creative leeway," Laschever said. He added that Barnard "kept bringing me architectural salvage" items, including stained-glass windows, a bathtub and a urinal for the bathroom, and a backlit antique elevator dial that reminded Barnard of mob-era Chicago.
Cathy, whose uncle was a tugboat captain who told stories of traveling the world, noted red and green lights from his tugboat found a new home on the bow of the house.
Barnard — whose company's clients include casinos, municipal buildings and bridges, ferry terminals and residences — declined to discuss the house's total cost on the record. But he acknowledged the project put a dent in the couple's savings.
Smiling and shaking his head, he described the price tag as "astronomical to me. I'm really just a construction worker. I've been doing this since I was 15. I've been able to stay busy and never want for work. We've been fortunate, but we do good work."
While heating the place is costly, Barnard said, geothermal units and rooftop solar panels will save him cash over the long haul.
A woodstove fireplace warms the center living area at a spot where, years ago, Barnard would sit in a rocking chair "collecting sunsets," marking each one by whacking an old pine tree with a machete.
Now, Barnard and his wife — who spends half the week at the couple's apartment in Simsbury before officially making the move this spring — will collect sunsets on the bow.
"I've had breakneck crazy drives trying to get back here before the sunset," Barnard said. "I adore the way the water changes. Every five minutes, it changes 100 percent, until it's just a soft glow."
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