HYANNIS PORT, Mass. – What once were pieces of John F. Kennedy’s home are now pieces of art.
Floorboards, window panes, shingles, electrical fixtures, faded wallpaper, rusted nails and even a metal hook that once held a porch swing are among the ordinary items salvaged during an overhaul of JFK’s Cape Cod home and transformed by local artists into mixed media artwork inspired by the assassinated former president who was born 100 years ago this month.
When not in Washington, JFK, Jacqueline Kennedy and their two young children resided in the nine bedroom clapboard home with stunning ocean views from 1958 until his death in 1963.
Known as the “President’s House,” it’s one of three homes comprising the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, where the family famously gathered to spend afternoons walking the beach, sailing or playing touch football, or sharing their grief in times of tragedy.
The house gradually fell into disrepair, prompting current owners Ted Kennedy Jr. and his wife, Kiki, to undertake a major structural renovation in 2011. Tearing into the home, designer and builder Mark Grenier realized it was no ordinary remodeling job.
“It became difficult for me to put these pieces of history into the dumpster,” he said.
In a storage trailer behind the home, Grenier began saving countless items that would typically be discarded as construction debris. A plan was hatched for preserving and repurposing the materials.
“The thought was to take advantage of the extensive art community on Cape Cod,” said John Allen, executive director of the John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum, about 2 miles from the compound.
One artist, Richard Neal, spent considerable time pondering how to use the items.
“It took me a while to take in that these were artifacts from the Kennedys,” said Neal, who was 8 when JFK died. “I loved the Kennedys and I miss the Kennedys. Seeing their objects was very emotional for me.”
With an old window pane, kitchen shelving and a bookcase from the bedroom of John F. Kennedy Jr., Neal fashioned “Jack” and “Jackie,” portraits of the late president and first lady seen as if gazing from windows – she smiling warmly, he striking a thoughtful pose.
“I’d like to think that both of them are looking toward a future that they saw as really bright for our country,” Neal said.
Recently unveiled, the pieces will be showcased at various spots around the Cape, then auctioned off in August, with proceeds going toward another renovation, that of the museum.
Other works include a bald eagle set against a U.S. flag that retired high school teacher Carl Lopes partly fashioned from shingles and aluminum roof vents. Matthew Emery designed a frame using wallpaper from Jackie Kennedy’s powder room.
Artists were given liberty to use material other than what came from the home. Donna Mahan, for example, used seashells from a local beach in a mixed media piece symbolizing JFK’s love of the ocean.
For her, the experience was not only emotional, but also spiritual.
“I grew up in a time when Irish and Catholic went together,” she said. “Kennedy being the first Catholic president was very significant in my family.”
Mahan came across the idea of affixing two rusty nails to a wood fragment to form a cross.
Cape Abilities, an organization that employs disabled people, is helping make more of the crosses for sale to the general public. In addition to being art patrons, the Kennedys were advocates for the disabled, Mahan noted.
In a statement, Ted Kennedy Jr., a Connecticut state senator and son of the late Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy, and wife Kiki said they felt a “keen sense of stewardship” while renovating their home and were thrilled by the partnership with artists.
To many on Cape Cod, the president was as much a neighbor as a political icon, Allen said, explaining why strong attachments remain there more than a half century after JFK’s death.
“In many ways,” Allen said, “he’s still 46.”