A Magical Metamorphosis
A historic retreat on MDI is restored and expanded, with the help of a determined young family and visionary architects.
The latest chapter of this story begins in September of 2007, when Steve and Allison Sullens were married on Mount Desert Island (MDI). Allison, who spent summers camping in Acadia National Park with her family while growing up, had recently introduced Steve to the area, and they had decided to hold their wedding there. During one of their prewedding planning trips, Steve connected with a local real estate agent who showed the couple some properties. The day after their wedding, the agent called to say she had an incredible property that they really needed to see…and she promised that it was a very special place. As fate would have it, the couple was staying with their families at a home just two properties away from the one the agent wanted to show them, so they jumped into a couple of cars and headed over, following the winding, nearly mile-long driveway until it suddenly opened onto an expansive 86-acre property featuring a pool pavilion and a one-room glass teahouse. “It’s a big property, and we were kind of blown away by the whole thing,” says Steve. “Ultimately, we spent part of our honeymoon negotiating the purchase of the property.”
In addition to its picturesque setting overlooking Western Bay with views to Blue Hill Mountain in the distance, the other piece of the property’s allure was its special history—the earlier chapter of this story. It had been the private summer retreat of the late Brooke Astor, who named it “August Moon,” for the Chinese midautumn harvest festival. Astor’s primary Maine residence, a Parish-Hadley–designed home called Cove End, was located roughly ten miles away in Northeast Harbor, but this was where she liked to escape with friends and her high-profile guests to swim and relax. In 1964 Astor hired local architect and landscape architect Robert W. Patterson to build a Chineseinspired pool pavilion and teahouse as a nod to her childhood in China and her love of travel. She also commissioned a Japanese-style garden adjacent to the buildings based on the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden nearby, which was designed by famed landscape architect Beatrix Farrand. A family friend purchased the property from Astor in the mid-1990s, which brings the history up to 2007, when the Sullenses subsequently purchased the property from her.
Steve and Allison, who are based in New York City, planned to use the property as their primary getaway and a place to entertain family and friends during summers and holidays. From the start, they knew they wanted to restore and modernize the existing buildings and garden while building an additional new home on the property. A few years before their wedding, Steve had hired the award-winning SPAN Architecture firm to renovate a loft in New York’s Flatiron District, and he and Allison had become friendly with the firm’s founding partners, architects Karen Stonely and Peter Pelsinski. The couple attended the Sullenses’ wedding and toured the property with them the day after. So it wasn’t long before Steve and Allison hired SPAN to transform the property into a retreat for their family. “We started working with Pete and Karen to create a master plan of what an overall living arrangement would look like,” says Steve. “Our goal was to leave the historic piece exactly as is, with the magic of what was there, but then build adjacent to it in a way that would be in line stylistically with everything else— without detracting in any way from what was already there.”
SPAN approached the project by looking at how to pay homage to the existing Patterson structures while also addressing their clients’ aesthetic and functional needs and figuring out how to knit the structures into the landscape. Robert Patterson has designed over 80 homes and other structures in his lifetime; many of these are on MDI, including the Bar Harbor Yacht Club and Beatrix Farrand’s Garland Farm. Before they drew up any plans, SPAN and the Sullenses did a deep dive into the architect’s legacy, touring many of his existing structures and obtaining drawings and information from the Bar Harbor Historical Society, including the original plans for August Moon. They also talked with local historians, as well as Astor’s grandson, who knew the property. “Patterson’s approach to the landscape, as well as his craftsman detailing and Astor’s fascination with Chinese architecture, were jumping-off points for us,” says Stonely.
During the first few years, the Sullenses stayed in the pool house when they visited. “We had our first daughter, and we were living in the pool house with a pack ’n’ play at the foot of the bed,” recalls Steve. “And my parents and her parents would join us sometimes and sleep in the teahouse.” They quickly realized they needed something larger, with modern amenities for guests, so SPAN proposed building a guesthouse and garage—which would be a totally new structure and a study for the design of the future main house—as a way to meet the young family’s needs. “The project was paced to be a discovery for all of us, a way to test architectural ideas and also give them an opportunity to live on the property before beginning the main home,” says Stonely. Ultimately, the style they settled on for the guesthouse and main house incorporated elements of Patterson’s midcentury modern, Frank Lloyd Wright–inflected style and the Southeast Asian influences that were already present on the property, and melded SPAN’s more contemporary style with the Sullenses’ fondness for arts and crafts design.
Completed in 2015, the 2,500-square-foot two-bedroom guesthouse successfully merged the various styles, giving it the feel of a modern camp. SPAN worked with local builders Brian Shaw and Joe Coles to help them to realize the midcentury modern–influenced clean lines and other elements that were typical of Patterson’s style in the wood-and-stone cabin, with custom furniture and built-ins like hidden doors, a folding table by local woodworker Rick Bradbury, lots of bookcases, and classic board-and-batten, all designed by the architects to emphasize the idea of bringing the outside in.
Before starting work on the main house, SPAN refurbished and upgraded Patterson’s pool pavilion and teahouse, with the help of the original plans for both structures, courtesy of the local historical society. The pool house’s original conical roofline mirrors Blue Hill Mountain, which is visible in the distance, and it sits over glass clerestory windows that were enlarged as part of the renovation. “We took the windows back to their original intended size, added a bedroom and a utility space, and designed a living zone for entertaining while fully updating the original saltwater swimming pool and adding a hot tub,” explains Pelsinski. The Southeast Asian theme was reinforced in the teahouse, which was also restored, featuring stunning window-glass tracery and graceful rooflines with upturned eaves.
Patterson’s original landscaping plans for the area surrounding the pool pavilion called for native plants, and the Sullenses replicated them using native ferns and mosses and red pines, beech, and birch trees. The original Japanese garden that sat to the north of the pool pavilion had a fence around it, but the couple decided to take it down while keeping the entry gate and some of the copper guardian statues in place. Eventually, they hired landscape architect Todd Richardson to handle the overall landscaping for the property, and to reenergize and expand the existing garden using native species and create pathways between the buildings and down to the waterfront.
Before breaking ground on the main house in 2015, SPAN and the Sullenses spent time very carefully choosing where to build the 5,750-square-foot, six-bedroom and six-bath structure. Ultimately, they sited it in a saddle between two ridges in the landscape, north of the pool house. As SPAN explains, the home takes its cues from the existing rocks, waterfront, trees, plantings, and topography of the site. And given the emphasis on the landscape both far (overlooking Western Bay toward Blue Hill Mountain) and near (beautiful old trees, ferns, and rock outcroppings), the connections between the interior and exterior informed many of their subsequent decisions.
At first glance, the home appears to be organized in three volumes: a kitchen that sits at the lowest plane, a double-height living/dining area, and the owners’ bedroom suite, which resembles a glass treehouse. But there’s also a hidden fourth volume, set into the hillside at a subterranean level, which contains five guest rooms with en suite baths and a family game room that overlooks the water and is topped with a green lawn. The variety of roof angles and large vertical windows offers an array of views out onto the surrounding water and landscape, and these views, along with the ever-changing natural light, lend a sense of drama to the structure.
As part of the effort to tie all the buildings on the property together, the upper floors of the main house incorporate many of the same local materials, including Douglas fir and cedar, as the original structures as well as local stone sourced from the same quarry Patterson had used. The underground section of the home features concrete floors and lighter colored walls, as well as large plate windows and sliding doors that lead to the water, and skylights to brighten the space. The home is topped with an insulated zinc coated copper roof that blends with the sky.
SPAN designed the interiors and furnishings in the guesthouse and main house to help reinforce the unique character of those spaces, and to work with the way the Sullens family would live in them. “We designed a bunk room to allow sleeping for all of the children at once, a bespoke family table to accommodate many people with a custom bronze lazy Susan, and a glass-walled owners’ bedroom that cantilevers into the tree line so that you truly feel as though you are sleeping within the canopy of the forest,” explains Stonely. “We had a wonderful, ongoing dialogue with Steven and Allison about every aspect of the home and the gardens. The relationship of each structure to one another is an equally important experience.”
Steve quickly points to the variety of indoor–outdoor living spaces as his favorite thing about the home, singling out one space in particular: “Our bedroom extends out over the lower level, and underneath it is this beautiful screened-in porch with a woodburning fireplace, and in the winter, we can swap in glass panels. We spend lots of time there, after dinner, entertaining and playing games.” He also convinced the builders to keep the trees around the building site as close as possible, not letting them cut everything down in the usual 20- or 30-foot perimeter. “It literally looks like the house has been here forever,” he says happily.
“We came into this project very naively,” says Allison. “It was such a learning process at every step—our knowledge of the history, of the island, and more. We’ve learned so much through this process.” The family now includes three children ranging from 8 to 12 years old, and they cherish their time together outdoors, hiking, boating, and skiing. Allison credits her husband with immersing himself in the history of the property and thinking about how their family would evolve and use the home before they started building. “He did all this while we were in the process of having little children,” she says. “He had a level of patience that I just didn’t have, taking the time, being meticulous, and making sure everything was exactly the way it should be. He really does have a desire to protect everything here and to keep it beautiful, and he did such a great job.”
“From the first days we owned the property, Allison and I always felt that we were caretakers of something that was incredibly special,” says Steve. “Part of Brooke Astor’s legacy, but also the legacy of the island, and of a different era that we felt was really important to preserve for future generations of our family and other families to experience.”