A Home at the Edge of the Sea
On Pemaquid Harbor, a renovated property reflects the spirit of the seacoast, the natural beauty of the land, and one family’s abiding sense of place.
Stories of homes built on the edge of the sea are lessons in evolution and resilience. Nothing on Maine’s rugged coast goes unaltered by the passage of time. Not the tides, not the clouds. Not the trees, not the stones. And certainly neither a house nor a garden. Even in the best of circumstances, though, unexpected change can spark new clarity of purpose and serve as a catalyst for improvement. Such was the case when the owners of this scenic property on the Pemaquid peninsula were confronted with the task of restoring a family retreat damaged by fire. They embraced the extensive renovation project as an opportunity to preserve what mattered most: the beauty and spirit of this compound’s natural surroundings and the sense of comfort, freedom, and wonder the land inspires.
This is a family property, passed down to the current owners by their parents, who instilled in them a lasting appreciation for coastal Maine’s unpretentious pleasures. “We spent our childhood at a house on the Damariscotta River, where our grandparents settled in 1947,” one of the owners explains. “We have fond memories of playing in the woods, eating lobsters at Shaw’s, and day trips to Monhegan.”
In the early 1980s, the owners’ parents branched out and built a traditional New England–style home of their own on this picturesque stretch of land overlooking Pemaquid Harbor. With an eye to capturing the best views, the couple strategically placed their new home on the former site of the Edgemere, a massive, mansard-roofed Victorian inn that burned down at the turn of the twentieth century. Today, the memory of that landmark structure (which would have made a convincing stand-in for Monhegan’s famous Island Inn, built during the same era) lives on in the name by which this estate continues to be known: Edgemere.
“We wanted our home here to continue to be a gathering place for family and friends,” says the owner. “And a place to feature the talents and craftsmanship of local artisans.” To bring their vision to life, the owners collaborated with architect Michelle Phelps, of Damariscotta-based Phelps Architects, to rethink the lines and layout of the former house in ways that make sense for the way the family uses the property today.
The inviting dwelling that resulted, constructed by Bruce Laukka of Rockport, is neither a twin of its immediate predecessor nor a copy of the nineteenth-century hotel. Instead, Phelps helped the owners find ways to pay homage to the property’s deep roots in a thoughtful renovation/addition that blurs the lines between past and present. “The owners were sensitive to the fact that the time had come to carry forward the legacy passed down to them by their parents,” says Phelps. “There is a deep emotional connection to the land, and our project was all about doing right by the property and all it has meant to this family for three generations.”
Modest in proportion and devoid of ostentatious ornament, the clean-lined house that Phelps designed serves as the primary residence among several dwellings and outbuildings situated on a granite ledge rising over the harbor. The core of the new structure, like the former house, occupies the site of the historic Edgemere Hotel’s. “The rebuilding on this site was a tangible way of preserving the owners’ memories by recapturing the views they saw from their parents’ house,” says the architect.
Phelps incorporated nods to the local architectural vernacular in the reframed structure’s exterior. The welcoming front porch, prominent roofline, and silvery cedar shingles (stained gray to evoke the natural bleaching of the sun) are new additions. So are the natural Douglas fir porch posts and four-over-one Marvin windows, strategically situated to capture views and natural light during the hours the rooms they illuminate get the most use. A wood-frame screened door, crafted by Wooden Screen Door Company of Waldoboro, is incised with an abstract silhouette of Edgemere as it appears in a vintage photograph in the owners’ collection.
The front door opens to the home’s broad new entry hall, which functions as the residence’s main traffic artery, gracefully connecting new spaces to old. Above the single-story great room, Phelps installed a new rooftop balcony that serves as an outdoor gathering place and an open-air lookout onto the landscape, a feature evocative of the so-called widow’s walks of New England’s nineteenth-century sea captain’s cottages. The family flies the Stars and Stripes from the property’s flagpole, a personal tribute to the owners’ father and grandfather, both Navy men, and the country they served. A gold-leafed eagle, a prize passed down by the owners’ father, presides over the main entry.
Phelps opened up the former interior’s darker, more cut-up “room by room” layout to create a free-flowing space filled with an abundance of natural light. There is a private wing for the family and numerous guests, with shared common areas, including the renovated great room, bright new kitchen and breakfast area, mudroom, and a powder room. The second story of the renovated core structure is devoted to one bedroom and its ensuite bath, fitted with twin sinks and a curbless walk-in shower. A corridor of built-in storage leads to the bedroom, where nickel-gap wainscoting and a curved, fir-paneled ceiling further enhance the shipshape feeling of a well-crafted boat cabin.
Bucking the first-floor bedroom suite trend, the second-story owners’ suite is accessible by stairs leading up from the main hall as well as by elevator, a pragmatic addition Phelps incorporated into the plan for some time “down the road.” Windows frame the perimeter, giving the entire second floor the feeling of a private lookout tower. The view from a desk situated in a quiet space at the top of the stairs encompasses Johns Bay, the property’s surrounding lawns and perennial gardens, and the fishing boats and pleasure craft anchored in the harbor. In summer, friends gather for lawn games, and the owners—collectors of contemporary art—graciously invite local artists to paint and sketch en plein air on the grounds.
Downstairs, the new kitchen, with Shaker-style cabinetry and open shelving, leads to the home’s cathedral-ceilinged great room, sensitively preserved from the prior structure. This shared space—with its stone chimney wall and exposed timber frame ceiling—opens to a new interior courtyard via a wall of glass doors that connect the indoors and outdoors.
“On a property with multiple buildings, it’s important to design the landscaping to inform guests where to enter and lead people to various site features,” says Phelps. “The courtyard and stone paths were our way of providing a sense of order and direction, without too much formality.” Yarmouth-based landscape architect Sarah Witte designed the entry garden. Ellie Libby designed and planted the perennial gardens. A smokebush tree planted by the owners’ mother stands in a place of honor near the front walk. Inside, hooked rugs, antique furniture, pottery, and local landscape paintings she passed down instill a sense of family history and create a sense of continuity and harmony between past and present. The overall effect of the renovation, notes the owner, is both dramatic and tranquil.
“For all intents and purposes, this is a new house,” says Phelps, who carefully weighed every design element with consideration to personal meaning, present comfort, and future preservation. But the emotional connections felt here remain familiar, timeless, and abiding. That bond, in fact, may be the one thing about the place that will never change.