A Home of Her Own
In Falmouth, an owner puts her personal stamp on a beloved cottage by the beach
Colleen Boyle has spent the majority of her adult life caring for others: spouses, two children who are now grown, and the countless patients she has treated in more than four decades as a trauma nurse. In 2013 she decided it was time to do something for herself. She was living in St. Petersburg, Florida, when her husband passed away after a long illness. Afterward, she sold whatever belongings wouldn’t fit in a moving van and returned to Maine, where she was born and had lived prior to the Florida move. “After all that had happened down there I was looking forward to doing what I wanted, and that was to buy a house and remodel it exactly the way I wanted to,” says Boyle. She had renovated before, but never on a grand scale, and never on her own. When asked about the difference between solo and partnered home projects, she responds quickly: “No compromises this time, girl.”
She focused her search on the Portland area, eventually purchasing an early-twentieth-century Cape on a quiet Falmouth road that dead ends at the ocean. “What got me right away was the neighborhood,” says Boyle of the rows of closely spaced cottages laid out before a shared waterfront lawn. Residents also share a private beach, as well as a dock. Taking in the buoyed stretch of blue juxtaposed with gables and the occasional gallivanting child, you might think you’ve stumbled across a summer community. “Kids run around in bare feet until 10 o’clock at night, and everyone keeps an eye on them,” says Boyle. But the neighbors here are largely year-rounders like Boyle, who rises at 4 a.m. every morning to exercise before her 7 a.m. hospital shift.
Imagining she could transform the cramped, low-ceilinged Cape into an “open, efficient, beachy, three-bedroom cottage,” she approached Caleb Johnson Architects and Builders in Biddeford. Upon inspection, however, the team discovered a rotting wooden foundation with no footings to support the weight of the structure. “It would have been more expensive to pick up the old house and set it back down on a new foundation than it was to start from scratch,” says Johnson.
Working with the existing footprint in order to comply with zoning regulations, the team, which included construction manager Andy Herbine, designer Darel Bridges, and architectural designer Jessica Jolin, set about creating a home that Johnson calls “more feminine than a lot of the projects we’ve done.” “Colleen didn’t want a hipster-modern design; she wanted elegant details,” which the team delivered in their trademark authentic fashion. The exposed eave structure on the front gable is a classic cottage feature that looks like an embellishment—perhaps because it conjures the carvings on ancient Greek and Roman temples, which were inspired by arrangements of wooden rafters like these. A trio of load- bearing brackets beneath the stairway bump-out also doubles as decoration, as do the beams that crown a rear patio: they are the delicately shaped ends of the white-painted hemlock timbers that slice through the living-dining-kitchen area, supporting the second floor. “The language of construction we use is directly derived from function,” says Johnson. “Nothing you see here is ornamental, any more than the sexy curve of a sailboat is ornamental.”
Inside the home, the main carrying beam, wider than the rest, separates the kitchen from the living room and the dining room from the foyer, which are arranged to maximize daylight and allow for glimpses of the water view. “I feel that I’ve failed if a client has to turn on a light in any room during the day,” says Bridges, who worked on the initial concept design. Sunlight streams in through banks of double-hung, awning, and casement windows in the southwest-facing living room and kitchen, while in the utility areas, sequestered on the northeastern side, the glazing is limited to functional single and double units. “Chiaroscuro, a Renaissance term referring to the balance of light and darkness in a painting, is a principle that echoes throughout the design process for me,” says Bridges. “This balance allows me to create an implicit ‘user guide’ to the space, directing people to the areas of importance.”
Focal points, including a massive Carrara marble waterfall island and a ceramic tile backsplash that recalls a watercolor seascape, also help draw visitors into the gathering spaces. Boyle fell in love with the waterfall design after seeing it in a magazine and thought about pairing it with slate countertops, “but Jessica felt it would ‘stall the flow of the kitchen’ and I should stick with the same stone,” she says of Jolin, who stepped in after the schematic design phase to complete the architectural design, material selection, and interior detailing. A similar conversation unfolded when Boyle suggested installing an upper cabinet next to the kitchen windows. “Jessica said it would ‘look lonely.’ Architects talk funny. But she was always right. Her mom’s a nurse, and I don’t know if that was our connection, but we felt really comfortable with each other. Many times she’d tell me, ‘Oh, don’t do that; this is what you really want.’ And I’d think about it and say, ‘Of course I don’t want a see-through fireplace!’”
On that point, “we felt it would be more appropriate in a cottage to stress natural materials versus glass,” says Jolin, who devised an enclosure between the living room and kitchen to house a stone fireplace. Finished in white, random-width nickel- gap paneling, the wall coordinates with the beams, which are streaked with natural checking, and the custom inset-panel cabinetry, creating a range of intriguing shadow lines. Boyle wanted “a lot of turquoise,” and Jolin helped her choose a palette of soothing blue-greens for the walls. Aqua striped and floral upholstered seating, which Boyle selected with help from the team at Dwellings in Falmouth, adds subtle contrast in the living room, while occasional bright “moments,” such as the backsplash and front door, painted in Sherwin Williams’s Gulfstream, energize the scheme. “Set against natural shingles, the door is a nice surprise and foreshadows what’s to come inside,” says Jolin.
A curvaceous wrought-iron door knocker, handmade by Sam Smith of the Portland Forge, presages the graceful brace, also by Smith, that supports the white oak interior stair railing fabricated by the Wood Connection in Gray. Black window sashes, door and cabinet hardware, and a black walnut dining table, designed by Jolin and crafted by Gabriel Keith Sutton of Biddeford, continue the theme. “We wanted to balance the soft color palette,” says Jolin, who worked with Boyle to choose rustic metal dining room and kitchen pendants for the same reason.
Eight months into the construction process, Boyle had a realization. With the home’s bedrooms accounted for (one is hers, one is for guests, and the third is used as an office), “I thought, ‘Where am I going to do my quilting? My rowing?’ I plan on this being my last house, so it seemed worth it to finish the basement.” Furnished with a sewing table, rowing machine, daybed, television, and a curtain rod displaying her running medals, “this is where I sit in the evenings and drink a beer,” she says of the completed space. Next door is a laundry room with a salvaged porcelain chicken feeder she converted into a sink for bathing her wire fox terrier, Duke. A black granite countertop and turquoise backsplash, crafted from the same tile seen in the kitchen, surround the sink, and a white beaded chandelier dangles overhead, creating a little spa for a prince among pups—and a delight for an owner who relished making it her own.