REMARKABLE – SEPTEMBER 2007
By Joshua Bodwell
Photography James R. Salomon
A century-old cottage gets a loving makeover
Life can get cluttered.
There are days when it feels as though there is more to accomplish than is humanly possible. Some mornings, the local café is filled with customers and the line moves at a glacial pace. There is traffic and people driving erratically. At work, there is the tug of countless obligations and a “to do” stack that never seems to shrink. The grocery store is filled with options, but the shopping list is on the kitchen counter. And through it all, the cell phones ring incessantly.
Yet at the end of every hard-earned day, we retreat into our homes to take refuge from the mad, muddled world. Every home, we must remember, is also a sanctuary. This is the story of how a woman who spends her days helping other people find their own sanctuaries found one for herself.
A Maine native and lifelong resident of Portland, Mary Herbert has been a real-estate agent for the past five years. With a strong background in communications, Herbert has excelled in the real-estate world—she was recently named the number one RE/MAX agent in Maine for sales volume, and she landed in the top 25 for all of New England. But it might come as a surprise to learn that when Herbert, someone devoted to methodically finding the perfect home for other people, purchased a century-old bungalow a year ago, it was the result of an uncharacteristic and brash leap of faith.
In the mid-1990s, Herbert settled in the quiet Cape Elizabeth neighborhood of Shore Acres, just off Old Ocean House Road. She lived for a time in a house located almost across the street from her current home before she moved to a small house just a few blocks away. When the circumstances of Herbert’s life changed dramatically just over a year ago, she leapt at the chance to “get back up on the hill.” The passion she has for the location is understandable.
Perched atop a rolling hill, Herbert has nearly panoramic ocean views from her new house, depending on the time of year and the thickness of the foliage. Perhaps the most striking sight is her view of Portland Head Light, the iconic lighthouse that countless artists—including the American master Edward Hopper—have painted over the years. From the living room and wide deck, you can look out across the wild tree line below and watch the grand seaside sentinel spin its steady beam of light across the rocky shores and ocean beyond. “This is an amazing neighborhood,” Herbert says, complimenting more than just the spectacular view. “It almost feels like you’re on summer vacation up here.” Given the history of her home, Herbert’s analogy is particularly apt.
Just before the turn of the 20th century, a family from Palm Beach, Florida, had the Cape Elizabeth house built as a summer cottage on an adjacent lot (it was moved to its new foundation several years ago). Apparently great admirers of their primary residence, the family designed the cottage to be a near replica of their Florida home, right down to the nonexistent fireplace.
With a low and gently sloping roofline, supported by thick, round pillars on its sweeping porch, the house is a Floridian take on the Craftsman-style bungalows that were hugely popular in the early 1900s. But with four bedrooms, each with its own ocean view, and two-and-a-half baths, the “cottage” is certainly a comfortable size.
Herbert says that she felt an impulsive emotional attraction to the house and acted quickly when it was put up for sale. “I just rushed in and bought it,” she remembers, “thinking that I would only have cosmetic work to do.” That wishful thought went up in smoke when, just four days after she finalized the purchase, the furnace went kaput. Herbert laughs at the incident today, but she is still surprised that she allowed her enthusiasm for the home to fog her thinking. “I didn’t even have a home inspection done,” she admits. “That goes against everything I tell my clients on a daily basis!”
As it turned out, the furnace was just the beginning. After replacing the heating system and beginning to undertake what she imagined would be minor renovations, Herbert discovered that the little old house needed more TLC than she had thought. “Each project seemed to lead to another,” Herbert says. Soon enough, she had to rewire the entire house and gut the kitchen. Driven by the idea of creating a sparse and spacious living area, she also stripped the cottage of extraneous clutter. “The house lends itself to a beachy feel,” Herbert says, “but it had gotten away from that over the years.”
In the breakfast nook beside the kitchen, for instance, the walls were painted dark green. Herbert added bright wainscoting and painted the walls above a soft blue-tinged green called “Quiet Moments.” She tore up the old kitchen floors and continued the nook’s hardwood floors into the kitchen.
While there are custom-made beadboard cabinets from the Cabinet Shop in Yarmouth and luscious counters made of Carrara marble throughout the new kitchen, the stunning, absolute-black granite island catches the eye immediately. Devoid of a sink or range, the large island is dedicated to work space or, according to Herbert, “hanging out.”
Herbert also filled the kitchen with new stainless-steel Viking appliances that give the room a sophisticated but uncluttered look. Several other details also enhance Herbert’s seaside aesthetic: the refrigerator has been faced with the same beadboard as the cabinets, and behind her stove Herbert installed a backsplash made of Island Stone’s Sumba Speckled pebble tile from the Old Port Specialty Tile Company in Portland.
Before installing the new kitchen, Herbert ripped off the louvered doors that once separated the kitchen from the dining room. “I wanted to get as many ocean views as possible,” Herbert says of the decision. She not only let in the views, she also let in the light.
The bungalow’s “great room” comprises nearly half of the first floor and is brimming with more than a dozen huge windows and two sets of doors leading to a large deck. Between the dining room at one end and a more formal living room at the other, Herbert created a third space: a casual lounge area replete with a baby grand piano. Hardwood floors and soft-white walls with hints of pink and brown unify the space, even though Herbert gave the three distinct areas of the room some definition by adding wide crown molding and two false beams at strategic locations. “It was like a bowling alley in here,” she laughs. “I had to do something.”
Over the past year, Herbert has been doing a lot more than just “something” with her old house; in fact, she has been tackling more than she ever imagined. When asked if rushing to buy the bungalow was worth it, given all the unexpected hard work, Herbert doesn’t even hesitate: “Oh yes,” she answers with a few nods and a shining smile stretching across her face.
Herbert believes in the process of living in a space, finding its natural flow, and building upon that intimate experience. “This house is still a work in progress,” she says with excitement in her voice, perhaps even a little mischief.
“I love real estate,” Herbert says, “especially working with clients. But sometimes I struggle because I also feel so passionate about the creative, decorative side of the home, too.” For the time being, however, it looks as though Herbert will continue to help folks find homes they can pour their hearts into, just as she’s poured her heart into hers.