by Candace Karu
Photography Trent Bell
A Maine builder and designer brings dramatic details to a classic Cape in Falmouth
Nicola Manganello is a new breed of entrepreneur: she combines an art-school education with business experience and whip-smart instincts. Her distinctive design sense and thorough knowledge of building codes, materials, and practices form the foundation of her eponymous business—Nicola’s Homes. Manganello is a real-estate developer for the twenty-first century, one who has a long personal history in Maine and a vision for how people want to live in her beloved state.
Manganello credits her business acumen to her father, Ed Manganello, founder of the successful Westbrook-based sporting-goods company, Olympia Sports. Growing up in Yarmouth, she was intrigued by the intricacies of her father’s company, but her interest in business competed with a growing passion for the arts. When it came time to choose a college, Manganello decided on Maine College of Art and immersed herself in the study of sculpture and color theory. “Sculpture appealed to me because I have always thought and planned in three dimensions,” she says. “MECA taught me how to execute the visions that I saw in my head.”
Manganello’s college experience included a semester in Rome where, in addition to expanding her classical art education, she developed a love of fashion. After graduation, she turned this avocation into her first business: Nicola’s, a high-end women’s clothing store that opened on Main Street in Yarmouth in 1996. The boutique occupied part of an old home and Manganello lived next to the shop. Nicola’s immediate success required that Manganello move out to free up space for an expansion, including a room devoted to decorating accessories and housewares. “That experience of renovating a nineteenth-century farmhouse gave me the bug,” recalls Manganello. “I loved the process of taking something old and making it new—making it uniquely my own.”
It was during this period that Manganello married her then-husband William Oliver, and soon after gave birth to their daughter Maeve, now 9. As the boutique continued to grow, the decor section became even more successful than the clothing business. “We got to the point where the store was ready for the next level,” says Manganello. “But I wasn’t. I didn’t want to miss Maeve growing up. I needed more flexibility.”
Closing her retail space opened up a new phase in Manganello’s career. She started Nicola’s Homes, a fledgling construction and renovation business that called upon her emerging skills as both a general contractor and interior designer. “This new venture allowed me to be a mom and still run a growing business,” says Manganello. “I was able to make my own hours.”
The new venture also allowed Manganello to grow into her role as a developer and carve out a niche in a market filled with talented designers and established builders. “I realized that I loved making new houses look old,” she says. “And I loved adding warmth and style to big vanilla boxes.”
The culmination of Manganello’s acquired talents is on display at 36 Maeve’s Way in Falmouth Foreside. The classic New England Cape is the second of six houses she is slated to build on this quiet, tree-lined lane named after her daughter. The designer has finished and furnished every inch of the project: from billowing window treatments and striking artwork to the down-filled couches and elegant bedding. No detail has been neglected. “The furnishings may not pay for themselves immediately,” explains Manganello. “But they are the most effective way I have of showing prospective clients what I can do to make a home unique.”
If, as architect Mies van der Rohe once said, God is in the details, then 36 Maeve’s Way is close to heaven. Manganello has an uncanny ability to create an environment of laid-back luxury punctuated with playful yet practical elements that surprise and delight. Vintage sliding barn doors and their beautifully distressed hardware create a divider between kitchen and family room that is as utilitarian as it is lovely. A pair of aged pediments, covered in layers of worn paint that reveal their history, grace the top of two hall windows, lending an authentic air of the past to the new construction.
To achieve her distinctive synthesis of style and substance in the home, Manganello worked with architect Travis Kinney of Gulfshore Design in Scarborough. Describing his working relationship with Manganello, Kinney says, “It’s a fairly loose process, and one that’s a bit of an anomaly. This is a spec house that has all the high-end details of a custom home.”
Inspired by the classical proportions reflected in the house, Kinney achieved stylistic and historical continuity by using traditional materials such as shiplap siding on the main section and cedar shingles on the garage. To retain the dimensions and scale of a traditional New England barn, the architect designed the garage with two bays in front and one perpendicular bay on the back side, resulting in a two-story building that is thirty-five-feet-square.
Manganello surrounds herself with a small cohort of talented people who understand her vision. Most recently, she has begun collaborating with Tessa O’Brien of Lady Paints in Portland. O’Brien’s contributions can be found throughout the house. With her unerring eye and enviable woodworking skills, she can make antique elements blend seamlessly into a new construction. In the home, an ancient carved newel post at the base of the staircase looks like it was custom made for the spot—a look that was only achieved after O’Brien spent dozens of hours at her workbench.
Today, two of Manganello’s mentors drop by to get a look at the holiday decorations. Ed and Marie Manganello survey the results of their daughter’s labors with obvious pride. “The importance of a home to a family and all that that means…I definitely get that from my mom,” explains Manganello. “It’s why I love what I do. I want people to feel that way about the houses I build.