Dawn Walsh and Paula Erickson are standing in an unfinished space with no interior walls aside from studs that frame the two bedrooms at the Lily House on Wellfleet’s bay side. “In this space we will collectively hold our friends, community members, and partners in the last weeks and months of their lives,” Walsh says.
Walsh, an end-of-life doula who introduced the Outer Cape to “death cafés” — gatherings for tea and cake and discussion of death as a life experience — is a founder and the executive director of the Lily House. Erickson is a social worker, activist, gardener, and a co-founder.
Walsh and Erickson’s vision of a communitarian space where people can be cared for at the end of their lives began to take shape when Sandra Wonders, who died in 2021, bequeathed her house to the organization. Now, that same vision is reflected in a renovation process that has community members donating time and resources and working together on everything from demolition to putting up drywall to painting.
Walsh says she hopes the collaborative approach will create “a sense that this is a home that belongs to all of us.”
The current plans include two accessible bedrooms and bathrooms, a shared kitchen and living room, an office, and a room where family and friends can reflect and recharge. The organization designated a building and grounds committee and chose a contractor, Davenport Building, based in South Yarmouth, that was willing to incorporate what Walsh calls “barn-raising community workdays.”
R.W. Townsend and Sons cleared trees, the Stove Place in Harwich Port donated a fireplace insert, Ethan Poulin’s landscaping team from Truro put in a smooth, concrete cobble walkway to the door, and John Walsh, a neighbor, painted the exterior siding a deep purple. The list of volunteers and contributors is a long one.
Steve Gazzano, a retired National Seashore ranger, works closely with Ed McPartland, a retired builder from Wellfleet, to source materials and find subcontractors. “Ed and Steve are a dynamic duo,” says Walsh. “They’re the guys on the ground coordinating everything.”
“Working here has been magic,” says Gazzano, a cheerful man with a white mustache and a curiosity about people. “The right person shows up at the right time. It shows how connected we are.”
Amy Munsat, a Cambridge-based architect, got to know the project through her brother and sister-in-law, Peter and Lisa Munsat, who live in Wellfleet. “I intended to do just a little bit of work but got hooked into the mission,” she says. She ended up providing detailed drawings that builders could work from. “It’s a beautiful mission and a beautiful team,” she says.
One of her challenges was making the Lily House feel like a home, rather than an institution, while considering things such as privacy and easy access to bathrooms. Providing space for residents to look out their windows from bed was one priority. An alcove between the two bedrooms was designed to display flowers. “The house will always be full of flowers,” Erickson says.
Erickson is working with garden designer Tim Callis on plantings. “We’re in the middle of shady, piney woods here, close to the sea,” says Erickson. They plan to plant mostly native plants across the front of the house, including ferns and spring ephemerals. A pair of holly trees were recently provided at a discounted price by HF Johnson Tree Farm in Osterville.
On the deck, which is still in need of replacement, Erickson pictures planters with colorful blooms that attract pollinators, bees, butterflies, and birds.
The team is integrating artful touches, including light fixtures donated by Chad Jacobs of Bone Simple Design., who lives in New York and Truro. After a walkthrough of the property and a back-and-forth about different options, Jacobs arrived at a lighting solution that incorporated string and natural rope into custom-made fixtures in the bedrooms and common areas. “All the fixtures that we picked together give a soothing feel to the rooms,” says Jacobs. Consistent with Jacobs’s design principles, none of the fixtures expose bare bulbs. “Light fixtures should be about the texture of light coming through some sort of material,” says Jacobs.
Erickson worked with Walsh and Lisa Munsat to decide on the dark purple exterior. “This color is here. It is in the trunk of a wet pitch pine. In purple beach stones,” says Erickson. “We liked the idea of a rich color that had many moods but from which the light of the house would shine out,” she adds. “The door, being a warm, sunny color, would kind of sing out as a welcome.”
One piece of art was left by Wonders, the original homeowner. The embroidery, tucked away in a drawer, framed and waiting to be displayed, reads “Joy be with you while you stay, peace be with you on your way.”
“As we started claiming the house as ours for the first time, we closed the door and saw this hanging behind it,” says Erickson. “Here’s our motto.” “It was hanging there for decades, waiting for the Lily House,” adds Walsh.