Artful Allure

APRIL 2009

by Rebecca Falzano
Photography Trent Bell

Atop an island bluff, a fusion of art and architecture

Throughout history, places of arresting beauty have stirred the creativity of artists. It is not a coincidence that so many artists and artisans make their home in Maine—the ever-changing coastal scenery arouses remarkable acts of creative expression. Like many secluded waterfront locations, this alluring island property on a cliff overlooking the Sheepscot River is the perfect breeding ground for inspired work.

The homeowners—avid collectors, patrons, and lovers of art—were committed to honoring and cultivating Maine’s extraordinary talent. Their property, a renovated barn and a guesthouse known as the Irish House, is the embodiment of this commitment. Both have housed visiting artists who, inspired by the quiet waterfront setting, have created works that are now woven into the very fabric of the structures. Not only have the captivating views and serene ambience influenced the art, but the art, in turn, has influenced the design.


Architectural firm Royal Barry Wills Associates, renowned for designing the original Cape Cod–style house, brought the two structures to life. After more than eighty years in business, the firm was recently inducted into the New England Design Hall of Fame. For principal Richard Wills (son of Royal Barry, the firm’s founder) and project designer Lynn Talacko, the major goal for the project was to create comfortable yet beautiful living spaces that highlight the homeowners’ extensive art collection—which meant incorporating enough wall space to display it. “We wanted to make sure we didn’t exclude spaces for art by designing something that was so open that there wasn’t any place for it,” explains Talacko. The result is a floor plan and landscape that are conducive not only to the display of paintings and sculptures but to the artists living and working there as well.

Beyond a grove of black birch and high-bush blueberry, the Irish House is perched on a steep slope overlooking the river. Built in the early 1900s, the house was the quintessential summer cottage. The site, though captivating, posed some significant obstacles for the architects. According to local shoreline zoning regulations, the existing cottage fell within a seventy-five-foot setback restriction, which limited any additions to thirty percent of the current footprint. “Trying to create a house with ample living space and a garage on a limited site was a challenge,” says Wills. The architects came up with a creative solution: take advantage of the area between the setback and unrestricted space by designing a main gallery entrance with two “pods,” or pavilions, that fall outside the setback area. One of these pods houses the garage and part of the kitchen, while the other contains three bedrooms and three baths. “This gave us a bridge back from the setback,” explains Wills. In addition, the architects designed a steeper roof to increase the home’s volume. Ample windows and a three-sided covered porch take advantage of the stunning elevated views.
Artwork makes its presence known to guests as soon as they enter the house. Seen from the entryway, a long hallway lends itself perfectly to gallery space for sculptures and paintings. Opposite, an all-glass wall displays views of the river, and a sculpture courtyard outside beckons from beyond a set of double glass doors. The artwork comes from a variety of sources, including local galleries and Maine, Irish, and student artists. In addition to carving out space specifically for the artwork, Talacko has found simple illumination solutions using track lighting along every wall space where art is displayed. A few steps down from this gallery, a 4,165-square-foot main living area features an impressive cathedral ceiling, stone fireplace, and dining space. A few steps up to the right of the gallery are the bedroom suites for the visiting artists.

Establishing places for artwork was just as essential in the landscape design. Christopher Rice of Designs for Native Landscapes was careful to accent the freestanding and wall-mounted sculptures featured outside. Because the grounds are more reminiscent of a meandering path than a rectangular lawn, landscaped alcoves present more opportunities to display the pieces of artwork. In addition, the landscape design called for low plantings that would not interfere with the beautiful water views. Outside the Irish House, a stone terrace serves as a perfect place for gatherings. To maintain a simple aesthetic, Linkel Construction used only two materials for all of the stonework—bluestone and weathered gray quarry stone.

McNamara3_wTHE BARN
Set back from the waterfront in a patch of woods about a half mile from the Irish House stands the historic bank barn. Transported all the way from Pennsylvania, the southern yellow pine frame dates back to the 1860s and was resurrected here as a post-and-beam artists’ studio. Michael Perkins of Vintage Perkins in Brunswick is behind much of the hand-crafted beauty of the barn—he not only relocated the structure but built all of the studio’s fixtures (in addition to much of the furniture inside the Irish House). Many of the furnishings he crafted from wood were salvaged from the barn itself. Perkins also faux-finished the white-pine floors to add character to the space.

Since the 6,200-square-foot structure was designed to be a working studio space as well as living quarters for visiting artists, the architects added small dormers to accommodate four bedrooms and four baths along the perimeter of the second level. Below, the barn’s focal point is a central gathering space known as the Great Room, a name that aptly suits the space. Dramatic living and dining areas are accented by cathedral ceilings with aged beams, a massive stone fireplace, and art—of course—filling every nook. Above, a windowed cupola floods the area below with abundant natural light. Where sunlight is less plentiful, adjustable recessed lighting and hanging pendants highlight the artwork, while task lighting aids the artists in the studio.McNamara2_w
As with the Irish House, the landscape around the barn was designed to accommodate and accentuate the sculptures outside. Bluestone terraces provide usable outdoor space for not only the works of art, but the artists at work. As architect Wills sums up, “The idea was for a common space where people would meet and exchange ideas.” The result is a property that is an ideal marriage of design and artistry, serving to both inspire and exhibit Maine’s exceptional art.

For more information, see Resources on page 90.

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