fb-pixel Skip to main content
Your Home: Makeovers

Turning a World War II watchtower into a guesthouse

Houseguests of car dealer Brian Kelly in Manchester get to sleep in a 165 foot tall structure designed to recall a yacht.

A former watchtower in Manchester-by-the-Sea was converted to a guesthouse. Architect Thad Siemasko envisioned “taking a 165-foot yacht and planting it vertically on land.” Dan Cutrona
On the ninth floor of their guesthouse, Brian and Shahrezad Kelly enjoy a bird’s-eye view from the wraparound balcony.Dan Cutrona

Sometimes you get more than you bargain for.

Such was the case for Brian Kelly, president of the Kelly Automotive Group, and his wife, Shahrezad Kelly, a medical science liaison, when they were searching for a home in Manchester-by-the-Sea. The property they admired on Smith’s Point came with a little something extra — a World War II observation tower.

The lighthouse-like structure, built in 1943 by the Army Corps of Engineers to keep an eye out for German U-boats in the harbor, wasn’t the reason they put in a bid. But it held definite appeal. Brian Kelly says, “I like odd projects.” That his father was a pilot in the war and his brother served in Vietnam intensified his interest. “Anybody over 50 finds it fascinating from a military standpoint.”


Brian Kelly’s five grandchildren are fans, too, eager to spend the night now that its metamorphosis from military lookout to modern guesthouse has just been completed. “I thought it might make a nice game room,” Kelly says. “I had no idea it would turn out like this.”

Architect Thad Siemasko of Siemasko + Verbridge suggested the theme for the tower: “Imagine taking a 165-foot yacht and planting it vertically on land.” The couple loved the idea and wasted no time browsing yachting magazines for inspiration.

While previous owners had made rudimentary attempts to upgrade the structure, its interior remained essentially bare. Lee Dellicker, president of Windover Construction, oversaw the transformation, adding plumbing, air conditioning, and insulation, then building out the 11 floors, which was no easy feat.

Every detail had to be measured, scribed, and custom cut for each floor, most of which are about 13 feet by 13 feet. “Given its origins, it was never meant to be fitted with custom millwork. Hats off to the craftsmen who worked on this project,” Dellicker says. It was also a physical challenge, because materials needed to be lugged up the narrow stairs daily. And the schedule had to be carefully orchestrated to keep tradespeople from tripping over one another.


Siemasko worked with the homeowners to assign a distinct function to every floor. The finishes and furnishings echo a luxury yacht’s, with highly lacquered mahogany and maple, custom built-ins, stainless steel hardware, and a touch of crystal for glitz. For the wood features, South Shore Millwork employed the same techniques used for boats, presenting sample after sample until the finish was shiny and authentic enough to please the team. “We just kept saying, ‘Like a yacht, like a yacht,’ ” Siemasko recalls.

The first-floor snack bar and half bath allow the family to run in quickly. The second floor is a comfortable living room with a gas fireplace, television, and built-in seating with automated footrests.

The first floor of the reinvented watchtower now holds a snack bar. Dan Cutrona

The bedroom, on the third floor, features a built-in mahogany bed with a floor-to-ceiling maple panel that shields it from the stairway. Curtains on either side meant to evoke a 1940s train berth add privacy. One flight up is the main bath, with an aqua-tiled walk-in shower and curvy maple vanity (high seas and sharp edges don’t mix). Next is a bunk room for the grandkids, and then another full bathroom.

Before the snack bar was installed, this is what the space looked like.

The adults hang out on the eighth floor, dubbed the Indian Princess Bar (Kelly says his wife is named after the princess in One Thousand and One Nights). The bar itself is based on the stern of a boat. Mahogany paneling runs up to and above slot-like windows that soldiers keeping watch over the coastline once peered through. The ninth floor boasts a balcony that wraps all the way around the tower, offering panoramic views.


“We were up there yesterday,” Brian Kelly says. “It’s like watching a movie of people enjoying the day sailing and kayaking on Manchester Harbor. You can’t help but smile.”


The 11-story tower originally served as a fire control tower. Dan Cutrona

The observation tower on the Kelly property is one of 46 such structures, officially called fire control towers, that were built along the Massachusetts coast from Gurnet Point on Plymouth Bay to Plum Island. (That’s “fire” as in “gunfire,” not flames.) They were part of the Boston Harbor defense surveillance effort, allowing lookouts to watch for and report on enemy vessels. At 11 stories, the property is the tallest surviving fire control tower in Massachusetts. It is one of 15 now privately owned. Sold as government surplus for $29,400 in the early 1950s, the tower was first renovated around 1994.

More photos of the guesthouse interior:

The main bedroom has a built-in bed. Dan Cutrona
The main bath takes up the fourth floor of the guesthouse.Dan Cutrona
The fifth-floor bunk room, with appropriately nautical furniture and accessories, stands ready to accommodate the grandchildren.Dan Cutrona

Marni Elyse Katz blogs about design at StyleCarrot.com. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.