A Home for All Seasons
Former Brooklynites find peace, and plenty to do, on a wooded Bethel plot
Later this month, Bethel will bustle with the ski crowds that stream in during the winter. Stephanie Herbeck and Daniel van Buren will weather the cold with them, along with the “mud season” that follows. The couple will ride out airless, 90-degree days, when the wall of mountains and trees around their home intensifies the sauna-like conditions. (This reporter, who dropped in on such an occasion, thanks Daniel for insisting on central air.) And they’ll marvel at the riot of red, orange, and gold that transforms the forest in the fall. “We’re outside in everything—we love it all,” says Herbeck, who visited the ski town in 2008 with van Buren and their elder daughter, Dylan, now seven, and knew right away it would become their full-time home.
It was Christmastime, and a real estate agent was showing them around downtown, which was in the midst of a holiday festival featuring a candlelit walk, a tree lighting, and a legit-looking Santa. “It was like our realtor cued it,” says Herbeck. The Norman Rockwell scene, coupled with the town’s “mom-and-pop community” and ties to the outdoors, represented “the whole package,” she says. “Bethel is odd in a great way, in that here we are in rural Maine, and we have access to New York–style pizza, Southern-style barbecue, Korean food, and sushi. There are lots of artists here, too, and other creative types who are able to see their dreams through because of the business Sunday River [in next-door Newry] brings.”
After 17 years in New York City, the couple was ready to have “the opposite experience,” says Herbeck, a painter and former advertising art director. “My job was high-stress, deadlines, lots of travel, which didn’t work for me after I became a mother. And we wanted to be in a place where our kids are free to play and explore outside.” Despite growing up in upstate New York, “we both somehow identified with Maine,” says van Buren, a cardiologist. “It symbolized to us people who are themselves, earnest, and hardworking.” He found a job in Berlin, New Hampshire, and the couple began renting in Bethel, 45 minutes away. The fact that the area offers superior downhill skiing was the proverbial cherry on top of the move: Dylan and her four-year- old sister, Sydney, started lessons early on and light up when the sport is mentioned. Their enthusiasm is rubbing off on Mom and Dad, who also plan to take lessons.
Initially, the couple sought an old house, but they couldn’t find the right fit. Switching their focus to building led them to ahhh: 29 heavily forested acres rimmed with the layered crests of the Mahoosuc and Presidential mountains. Purchasing the property was a no-brainer; figuring out what to put on it took a few years. A light-bulb moment happened in 2012, when they drove past Chris Barstow’s shop, Specialty Timberworks, on North Main Street in Greenwood and spotted a sign: “Antique barn for sale.” They’d seen reclaimed timbers used in a new home and liked the personality, and patina, they added. Here was an opportunity to take the concept a step further: building a house around an existing frame.
The couple hired Barstow, who had dismantled the 130-year-old hemlock barn on a nearby property, to reassemble the timbers on their land. Bethel architect Jim Reuter and contractor Tony Andrews worked with him to adapt the structure—which now effects a rustic cathedral around the living-dining-entry area—to its new environment. Dealing with a fixed frame with “zero straight lines” was “interesting to the point of frustrating at times,” says Andrews. “But with all of us bantering back and forth we could always come up with solutions.” The thickness of the new engineered hickory flooring laced with ductwork would have left little headroom, or space for windows and doors, beneath the old beams. So the team elevated all the posts on 12-foot-tall supports that are encased in weathered barn boards and extend through the daylight basement. Additional hemlock knee braces strengthen the home against the gales that whoosh over the mountains, which are themselves framed in skyscraping stacks of windows in the living area. Upstairs, the hayloft was enclosed to create a pair of guest suites.
Barn board walls and a corrugated metal roof finish the loft structure. Shuttered casement windows and exterior sconces, mounted on either side of brick-red doors, simulate “cabins.” One of the rooms features woodsy plaid bedding and a decorative pot-bellied stove; vintage snowshoes, traps, and cookware hang from the beams. “We wanted to connect the house to the outdoors in a way that went beyond just having gigantic windows,” says van Buren. “In the process, we created a kind of ‘set,’ which I love.” Looking up from the living room, you can imagine a scene from The Parent Trap playing out here.
Vertical cedar siding sets off the barn on the exterior. Reuter designed a pair of wings rendered in horizontal clapboards, one on either side of the barn, to house the kitchen, mudroom, office, and playroom, along with the family’s bedrooms upstairs. A sweeping front porch and steel roof crowned with a cupola reinforce the agricultural motif and “root the home in this part of Bethel, which is green for miles with farmland,” says Reuter. On the backside of the home, a silo-shaped bump-out rises up through all three levels, creating cozy, windowed nooks in the basement bedroom (a future project), kitchen, and owners’ bedroom. A screened porch perched on stilts bookends the cylinder and approximates an aerie when you’re inside.
The bulk of the home was completed in late 2014. In the next few years, the couple plans to build a barn/ garage with a second-floor art studio for Herbeck. And the basement has infrastructure for a guest suite, rec area, and “Irish pub,” where they envision a dark wood-paneled bar, woodstove, and wall of vintage signage. “We had our wedding reception in a 1700s pub in western Ireland, and we loved the pubs in our Brooklyn neighborhood,” says van Buren. “With the basement and the rest of the house, our goal is to create a gathering spot. A place for our extended families to congregate and for our children, and their children, to come back to later.”
For now, the family is relishing the slower, postconstruction pace. Herbeck, whose acrylic character studies of leathery gents—one necktied and suspendered, one mouthing a cigarette—are displayed in the house, is focused on adding more figures to her portfolio. She’s also been giving her elder daughter art lessons on the porch. Occasionally, after sketching in charcoal on canvas, she lets both girls “attack it” with paint. “I love layers and even gobs of color, and even though I go over what they do, I appreciate that there’s a piece of their youth buried in there,” she says.
On weekends, the family heads out on the trail behind their house on foot, four-wheelers, snowmobiles, snowshoes, or cross-country skis. In warm weather, the girls practice archery in a tree- ringed clearing or construct “fairy houses” from sticks and bits of moss and bark. Sometimes the “creatures” sneak in to sprinkle the village with offerings of flower petals, glitter, or gemstones. Seeing the kids’ faces when they discover the supernatural treasures is “pure magic,” says Herbeck. And one more reminder, in a setting full of them, that they’ve landed in the right place.