Victorian Charm

FEATURE-July 2011

by Debra Spark | Photography François Gagné

Celebrating and representing the Maine landscape 

It isn’t often that grand homes in established Maine summer communities come onto the market. At least, it didn’t seem so in the late 1990s to one couple who frequently vacationed in the state. In their experience, such places were handed down from generation to generation, rarely leaving a family. One day, though, when they were picnicking at a club in one such established summer community, they heard about a nearby home. Apparently, the owner was childless and divorced—there was no one in the family to whom she wanted to leave her home—and she was ready to sell. The couple went to have a look. The property consisted of an impressive Victorian, sitting high on a rock ledge overlooking the sea and complete with a turret on which (they would come to learn) an eagle sometimes liked to perch. The house was dark. The grounds were overgrown. Still, the couple fell in love.

Now, twenty years later, that house is a bright, light-filled residence, done up in an elegant cottage style that showcases an exceptional collection of art. “For us,” says the wife, “Maine is all about this rugged, beautiful landscape and the sea. We wanted that to be the focus.” She wanted nothing in her house to detract from the view, which is, indeed, spectacular: taking in a small cove, an island, and the open ocean. To keep the emphasis on the outdoors, the homeowners minimized the ground-floor window treatments and chose interior colors that mirror what’s outdoors: blues and whites, soft pinks, yellows, and greens. 

But it is also true that Maine is the focus of the home in a different sense. The Victorian’s walls are covered with paintings of sailboats, fish houses, lobster boats, covered bridges, and farmhouses, all rendered by some of Maine’s most renowned contemporary artists. The work includes a Kevin Beers painting of Monhegan’s lighthouse, a Ralf Feyl painting of Friendship Harbor, and a Stephen Hodecker painting of an old green door. There’s an Alex Katz print that might not actually be of Maine birches, though they certainly look like the birches that run along the drive. Similarly, if the sunflowers in the Susan van Campen watercolor were not picked from a Maine field, they easily might have been. Other artists in the collection include Tom Curry, Sally Caldwell Fisher, Philip Frey, Marlene Loznicka, Jane Dahmen, Eric Hopkins, Doug Smith, and David Vickery.

Even the home’s more decorative elements reference Maine. There are several hand-painted pieces of furniture by Suzanne Norton of Boothbay Harbor, including a book caddy decorated with lobsters and a coffee table featuring a map of the midcoast area. Sea horses are embroidered on couch pillows, seashells frame a mirror in an upstairs bedroom, and many of the hand-hooked Claire Murray rugs feature seaside scenes. The homeowners are also avid collectors of Damariscotta Pottery.

To become a suitable space for art, not to mention a family of four, the Victorian underwent a major renovation in the late 1990s. Robert Schwagerl, a New York–based architect with whom the owners had worked before, led the redesign. For the ground floor, Schwagerl’s concept required eliminating the five small rooms that previously formed the kitchen and extending the space to make a large kitchen with an island and eating area. Schwagerl reconfigured the ground floor to preserve the formal dining room, living room, and front porch, while adding a sitting room and bathroom off the kitchen. Upstairs, bedrooms were expanded, and bathrooms and closets were created or redone. Things that could be saved were saved, including the original doors and fixtures. “Whenever we made a change, we did it in the same architectural vernacular as the original house,” says Schwagerl. “If we changed a closet or added a vanity, it was all done in the Victorian style. We tried to make things so they didn’t look like an add-on.”

Offering only a partial summary of the project, contractor Jim Bryant of Nobleboro says, “We took out 12 to 15 dumpsters of plaster and lathe. We pulled walls off, rewired, replumbed, moved walls, moved partitions, retiled the bathrooms, redid the whole kitchen, refinished the interior stairwell and brought it back to the original, worked on the whole exterior of the house, redid the clapboards and trim, reinsulated the exterior walls, and brought the house up to code.”

But it turns out there was even more to do. Not right away, but ten years later, when the homeowners decided to convert a porch into an additional living area and to take on a major landscaping project, which involved rerouting the drive, creating new gardens in front of the house, and adding a new stone terrace and sitting area.

Now, where the three-season porch used to be, there is a large, versatile space with a dining, sitting, and television-viewing area that integrates with the rest of the ground floor while offering a year-round view of the cove. The room’s windows (with three panes over one) have a transom look and allow light to flood the space.

In the front of the house, curved walls now bracket stone steps that lead to a flat lawn circled by hydrangeas. Referring to the terrace, Tom Farley of Farley & Son Landscaping in Rockport says, “We wanted a formal setting coming off the stairs of the porch. We ended up with bluestone, since the formality of bluestone seemed to suit the house.”

New additions include a rock garden with low-lying ground cover that has, with the help of additional irrigation, become a cutting garden. Gardener Aurel Marks of Waldoboro now tends the home’s gardens. During a conversation, she names some of the perennials in the gardens—hollyhocks, peonies, bee balm, Shasta daisies—then adds, “And lilies, lots of Asiatic lilies. In August, when they are blooming, the scent is wonderful.”

The list of those to whom the homeowner is grateful is extensive, and includes painter Dale Hunt of Damariscotta—who painstakingly refinished the elaborate front staircase and the fir floors (which had been damaged by the previous homeowner’s cats)—and Tommy Parra, a stonemason who worked on the terrace. “Watching Tommy was like watching an artist complete a painting,” the homeowner says. “He worked on-site and cut every piece of stone on-site. In the middle of the project, my husband said he’d like a fireplace on the terrace, and Tommy went back to his truck, drew what the fireplace would look like on a napkin, and two or three days later, there it was.”

Of the house as a whole, she adds, “We wouldn’t have been able to do it without the incredible craftsmanship that exists in Maine. The people working on the house cared so much.”

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