The edgy and traditional merge at a beloved family retreat
I associate dilapidated bungalows with wooded back roads that lead to the waterfront. There might be nothing particularly pretty about the homes, but they speak of summer pleasures: blueberry picking, eating lunch in a damp bathing suit, and hiking through the woods. The Eldridge family had one of those kinds of places. In fact, they had one of those kinds of places for 100 years. The home sat on a narrow peninsula at the confluence of the Sheepscot and Cross rivers in Edgecomb. The eaves were so low that you had to stoop to look out the windows. You could enjoy wildlife both inside and outside the home; red squirrels eventually took up residence. Even so, the place was beloved. It wasn’t for living in, anyway, but for sleeping. Life at the bungalow was oriented to the supremely peaceful outdoors.
By 2003, when ownership transferred to Mark and Kathie Eldridge of Massachusetts, part of the house was sagging and pulling away from the rest of the structure. The septic system had problems. So did the plumbing. The windows wouldn’t open and close. When the two looked into propping up the sagging part of the house, they learned that the effort would negatively impact the rest of the structure. Reluctantly they realized it was time to make a change.
Since the bungalow was built into a 75-foot setback, Mark and Kathie could rebuild in the existing footprint, or they could build a larger house farther from the water. Neither option seemed quite appealing. Building in the existing footprint would get them a house big enough for themselves and their two teenage children, but it wouldn’t allow them to invite the extended family for a stay. Building farther back meant losing the immediate proximity to the water. Besides, a house that met their entertaining desires might be too big, out of scale with the forested spit of land. “For us, the beauty of the place isn’t just about the water,” says Mark. “The wildlife and woods are part of the magic. We didn’t want something that screamed ‘new house.’ We wanted something that blended in.”
Design/build firm Knickerbocker Group of Portland and Boothbay came up with a solution. The Eldridges could build two modest-sized structures: a cottage in the existing footprint that would house the immediate family and a bunkhouse beyond the setback for overflow guests. A slab granite terrace with a grill and fieldstone fire pit could bridge the expanse between the two buildings. As designed by Knickerbocker architect Sue Mendleson, all the spaces, indoors and out, would have views east and west to both rivers. There would be rooms where people could gather, but also nooks with window seats and private spots with Adirondack chairs, where one could sneak away to be alone. “We wanted to create a jewel box that would speak to an era gone by but still have a twenty-first-century edgy feel,” says Knickerbocker Group’s owner and CEO, Steve Malcom.
To do this, Mendleson designed the cottage to have an open-plan ground floor with an owners’ bedroom and an upstairs loft reached by a ladder stair. For the bunkhouse, she designed a downstairs gathering room and owners’ bedroom and an upstairs bunkroom with four single beds. Both structures have features that harken back to the traditional waterside cottage, like screened porches with beadboard ceilings and exteriors of shingle, board and batten, and wood paneling. The cottage has an outdoor shower, nickel- gap interior walls, fir post-and-beam elements, an oak floor treated to look like reclaimed wood, and sloping ceilings made of a richly patinaed wood that comes from mushroom farms. The variety and types of wood in the cottage are not traditional, of course, but the decision to use wood was driven by the Eldridges’ fondness for the knotty-pine paneling of the original home.
Other aspects of the house seem decidedly contemporary but of a piece with a waterside home, such as a large powder room mirror framed with rope and a nautical Restoration Hardware dining room chandelier that also makes use of rope. The living room furniture is Crate and Barrel with fabric that Kathie chose because its pattern reminded her of sea creatures.
The edginess enters into the home with a number of one- of-a-kind design decisions. For instance, instead of there being small windows in the cottage loft’s gable roof, the gable walls are entirely glass, forming a large second-floor glass triangle that one can see into as one walks toward the house. Although it is open-plan, the cottage’s ground floor has a stone chimney that divides the space. A living room fireplace is on one side of the chimney. A kitchen wraps around two of the other sides, so the kitchen’s stove wall is actually made of large slabs of granite. Knickerbocker fixed a range hood, as well as floating mahogany shelves, into the chimney stone, and fit in a faucet for a second kitchen sink where the Eldridges wash clams, lobsters, and the mussels they pick from the rocks just outside their door. Other unusual custom details include a Craftsman-style fir portico with slim columns perched atop two granite boulders and a dark-tile front entry floor with a compass rose. Outside, the stone terrace has custom Adirondack chairs made from branches and stained pine, and a grill is fitted into a stone framework with a single curved piece of granite serving as countertop.
Kathie opted for a blue and neutral color scheme for the cottage. The palette has a subtle richness, especially when juxtaposed against the cottage’s wood and stone elements and against the darker colors of the kitchen, which incorporates natural cherry cabinets, a distressed, black-painted cherry island, honed black granite countertops, and a mahogany breakfast bar. Knickerbocker’s Elaine Murdoch, a certified master kitchen and bath designer, assisted in the decisions here and in the bathrooms. Kathie was considerably bolder with color in the bunkhouse. She found carpeting that comes in tile form for the bunkroom floor. Its various colors inspired the room’s blue comforters, orange dust ruffles, bright yellow bureau, and lime green, pill-shaped end table.
“For me,” says architect Mendleson, “everything about this project is about transitions.” She is talking about how the road leads you into the property, how the wall finishes help you move inside, how the views open up as you move around the property, how the double triangles of the loft’s roof open up a sky view, and how each interior space offers a different exterior view. Both Steve Malcom and Elaine Murdoch observe that another transition is from past to present.
In summer, Mark’s great-grandmother used to take a swim in the cove every day. Now his children get into the water and immediately want to get out. The water’s really too cold for swimming. Still, the Eldridges boat and kayak. They hang out on the screened porches and wander in the woods. They observe the seals that come to sit on a rock by their house at low tide. When the original cottage came down, the Eldridges’ eldest daughter was frankly “emotional,” says Kathie. “You’re tearing down my memories!” the girl protested. Now she loves the new home. As for the Eldridges’ son, he told his sister before she saw the new house for the first time, “It’s like somewhere you’d dream about.”