Colonial Revival Revisited
REMARKABLE – July 2007
by Joshua Bodwell
Photography François Gagné
The art of restoration in Portland’s West End
When the word “renovation” is bandied about in the early stages of a project, it could entail anything from tearing down a single wall to gutting an entire home down to its bare studs. “Restoration,” on the other hand, implies a certain sensitivity to a building’s historic elements. While remaining faithful to the spirit of the original home, the effort to refurbish a circa 1914 Colonial Revival in Portland’s West End blurred the line between renovation and restoration
Homeowner Kathy Whelan remembers the initial plan could be boiled down to eleven simple words: “Bring it up to this century without spoiling the old features.” In the end, while the home’s original floor plan was left essentially intact, not an inch of the house went untouched. Creating the elegant home they enjoy so much today, Bob Whelan remembers, required not hundreds, but thousands, of small yet significant decisions.
One Mr. Davis, who worked in upper management at the New England Telephone and Telegraph Company, built the house on Vaughan Street just after the turn of the last century. In a neighborhood filled with homes designed by Maine’s masterful architect John Calvin Stevens, it was actually this home’s second owners who gave it a particularly deep Maine connection. In 1955, just two years after becoming president of Oakhurst Dairy, the company his father founded, Donald Bennett bought the home and settled in with his young family. Eventually a total of seven Bennett kids would roam the halls of the three-story home, running, playing, and doing things they were not supposed to in the old hand-operated dumbwaiter.
“It was such a family-filled neighborhood back then,” recalls Jean Driscoll, one of the Bennett clan. “It seems like every house had five or six kids in it back then, and when my mother rang her cowbell at 5:30 sharp every afternoon, all those kids used to run home for dinner.”
Driscoll, who now lives just a few blocks away from her childhood home, says she couldn’t be happier with how the Whelans have lovingly refurbished the nearly 100-year-old home.
Renovating the Restoration
As the Whelan’s searched for a home up and down the Maine coast, they both imagined they would settle on something with a water view. But when Kathy accidentally stumbled upon the Colonial Revival on the Internet, visions of the rippling Atlantic quickly dissolved. “It was eye-popping,” Bob remembers. “The house sort of sang to me, and really beckoned us.” Kathy agrees, saying the home’s stately design wasn’t overburdened with too many fussy architectural details. “It just had this wonderful sense of proportion and balance,” she says.
The inside, however, was a different story. Since the Bennett kids had grown and moved out, four of them run the thriving Oakhurst empire today, little had been done to modernize the home. In the basement, a massive, asbestos-covered furnace still chugged and churned in an attempt—albeit a poor one—to heat the three-story house, and bits of coal still clung to the coal shoot. The bathrooms were small and without showers, and the oddly shaped kitchen was full of antiquated appliances. The Whelan’s knew that the size and nature of the project would require a very special builder. On the advice of a friend, they brought in Michael Monaghan of Monaghan Woodworks in Portland to oversee the home’s rebirth.
“The passion Mike showed for this project right from the start,” Bob says, “was so genuine. It was a challenge—and Mike likes a challenge.”
The project fell squarely in Monaghan’s comfort zone. Major restoration jobs have become something of a niche for Monaghan since he began his business in 1985. “I just seek not to destroy the integrity of the inside of these houses,” he says. While honoring that mission, Monaghan did have his work cut out for him, especially when it came to the kitchen.
It was quickly decided that two elements of the kitchen could go: a crumbling, nonfunctioning chimney that took up an inordinate amount of space (and bisected the room above it) and a butler’s pantry that no longer served its purpose. Monaghan saw that the house was still defined by two distinctly separate spaces that recalled the days of its first owner: family space and servants quarters. “I just took those servant’s spaces out,” he says, “and tried to make it flow as one cohesive home.”
In other parts of the house, certain rooms required more creative thinking than others. In the master bedroom, for instance, there was not a wall long enough to accommodate a king-sized bed. But by ever-so-slightly reshaping the room’s configuration, space was made not just for the bed, but also for a master bathroom with both a shower and a tub.
Monaghan then went about reclaiming the sprawling, unused basement. After pouring a new cement floor, he built a large television room, a billiard room, exercise space, a sauna, and a wine cellar. “Whenever we can,” Monaghan says, “we love to use the basements in these old homes to create family rooms that are private from the rest of the house.”
To hide the modern air conditioning and heating system that Monaghan believed was crucial for the old house, much of the home’s decaying horsehair-plaster walls were torn out and replaced. In the end, he says, “nothing was left untouched.” The home was even rewired and replumbed from top to bottom.
It was a similar story for the exterior: the entire brick façade was re-pointed; windows were pulled out and restored; rotting fences were replaced with historically sensitive reproductions; and the 20-plus layers of paint that covered the columns and carvings flanking the front door were painstakingly sanded and stripped away, returning sharpness and definition to the handcrafted details.
The Whelans soon realized that the home’s rebirth was as much a product of the men and women doing the work as it was a continuation of its history. “We really got to know Mike’s crew and all the subcontractors,” Bob says, “and we realized we were working with real craftsmen. They cared; they cared about the house, and they cared about the community around it.” When the work finally came to a close, the Whelan’s not only had seventeen members of the Bennett family over for a Sunday tour of the house, they also hosted a bash in honor of those responsible.
“They truly have an appreciation for the home’s history,” Driscoll says of the Whelan’s own dedication to the house. “To know it’s in such good hands, and to see this work be done right, was really gratifying for us.”
All told, the project spanned roughly two years from start to finish. “These things can take a long time,” Monaghan says, “you run into unexpected things. There are highs and lows along the way, but that makes the end result all the more rewarding.”
“And this house,” Monaghan surmises, “is more beautiful than anything you could build from scratch.