Two painters craft an inspired cottage on Megunticook Lake
In the Camden home of Susan and Rufus Williams, art isn’t confined to canvases and frames. It’s in the juxtaposition of snowy and off-white surfaces, rendering a backdrop as nuanced and serene as a billowy cloud; the handcrafted brass doorknobs with a black patina that has worn in places, exposing the burnished metal beneath; and the cedar shingles the couple spent six months hand dipping to match the gradated gray-black of a faded Led Zeppelin T-shirt.
A friend mentioned loving the shade of the classic vintage shirt when the Williamses, who are both artists, were trying to come up with a color for their Megunticook Lake home. “Instantly I was like, ‘That’s it!’” says Susan, who is represented by Caldbeck Gallery in Rockland and Shaw Jewelry in Northeast Harbor. “We wanted a dark house that would disappear when you’re looking up from the water, but we didn’t want the shingles to be stained all the same.” So they purchased brown and bluish-black stains and mixed them in different proportions “to get these variations in color and density,” says Rufus, gesturing toward the cottage’s waterfront façade, composed of staggered square and rectangular forms that are checkered blue-gray in some areas and more uniformly charcoal in others. At the far end of the home, the original variegated brown shingles were left intact, creating an intriguing contrast.
The couple, who previously lived in Rockport, purchased the cottage in 2012 as a summer retreat and recently made it their year-round home. After the closing, “I kept thinking, ‘I can’t believe I own that toilet,’” says Susan of the fixture in the guest bathroom that Richard Lane’s team from R.A. Lane Construction in Rockport dubbed “Blue Thunder.” The questionable existing color choices extended to the guest bedroom, which was bright yellow with a hunter-green door, and the living room, where the woodstove was set off with a coral mantel and terra cotta tile surround. More significantly, the home was dark, due to heavy wood paneling, low ceilings in several rooms, narrow casement windows, and an overgrown yard that blocked light and the lake view. As for the layout, “It was like a hamster Habitrail,” says Meg Barclay of Scholz and Barclay Architecture in Camden, citing a staircase in the middle of the timber-frame living/kitchen area that led to a pair of dropped lofts, a vestibule that further chopped up the space, and a sloped ceiling over the steps that descend from the kitchen into the guest bedroom. “You felt like you were heading into a subway,” she says.
Barclay likens the challenge of streamlining and “introducing grace” into the home to that of a ballerina executing demanding choreography: “You’re doing something difficult but making it look effortless.” She worked closely with the couple on a plan to remove the staircase, lofts, and vestibule, as well as raise the collar ties in the main living space and the ceilings in the guest room and adjoining passageway. They also expanded the home on the driveway side to accommodate a mudroom, pantry, and entry porch. On the water side, they added an ironwood deck, enlarged a bump-out to house a little sunroom, and used an existing foundation that had never been built upon to create a new wing with an owners’ bedroom suite and a study. Glass doors and pairs of double-hung windows with large grid patterns showcase the shining half-moon of Megunticook.
The couple planned to replace the home’s interior wood paneling with reclaimed barn board from a lumber company. “Then Rufus went out to get a haircut and wound up finding a barn to purchase,” says Susan, referring to the day he stopped to inspect a pile of wood by the roadside in Thomaston that was marked “free” and discovered the owner had a 150-year-old structure ready to dismantle. Weathered gray boards—“the kind you dream about when you go looking for barn boards,” says Lane—now define the soaring, peaked woodstove wall in the living room and effect a giant headboard in the owners’ bedroom. The remaining planks were a less desirable deep brown, so the owners painted them Icicle by Benjamin Moore in the main living space, Cos Cob Stonewall in the sunroom, and China White in the guest room to create airiness. The pale shades, subtly contrasted with Decorator’s White on the ceilings, also bring out the gaps, checks, and nail holes that give the wood character. When the builders ran out of barn boards, they matched the old wood with drywall in the owners’ bedroom wing and new wood paneling in the mudroom and pantry. A strip of gray-painted shingles in the study, from what was previously an exterior wall, and whitewashed exposed brick from an existing chimney in the owners’ bathroom add to the mix of textures.
Susan traded her own paintings for several pieces of art in the house, including, in the living room, a sepia-toned photograph of Megunticook Lake by Joyce Tenneson, its surface fairly quivering with concentric ripples; in the mudroom, a piercing blue underwater shot by Cig Harvey of the Williamses’ daughter, her torso partially obscured by a luminous froth of bubbles; and a photo in the owners’ bedroom, also by Harvey, of Rufus jumping into the lake at sunset with Mount Battie glowing crimson in the background. An indigo oil painting by Susan of a beech tree, its trunk and branches curved like a dancer’s body, hangs over the bed, and a windswept black-and-white landscape of hers decorates a kitchen bookshelf. Rufus’s abstract watercolors are also represented: a wooded snowscape painted in cool, flat light graces a narrow kitchen wall, and another forest scene, rendered in brilliant blue and gold tones, punctuates the guest room.
Actual tree trunks Rufus debarked and painted white slice through the guest room, simulating beams and adding whimsy to the space. He also crafted the tiger-maple-topped dining table, which is surrounded by lath-back chairs from Ross Levett Antiques in Thomaston, and the walnut coffee table in the living room, which is furnished with new and vintage pieces in rich textures, including a navy velvet sofa, an ivory linen-and-walnut club chair, and distressed forest-green rocking chairs with caned seats. Susan assembled the pendants overhead—a riff on Tom Dixon’s Glass Bowl fixtures—with shades and blue cording she found online. “Creating this home was a very personal process for us, like a sculpture we shaped and added on to over time,” she says.
One more place you can see the artists’ hands at work is in the loft, accessed via an antique wooden ladder in the guest bedroom. Finishing the space “was spearheaded by the fact that both of our kids were going to be home for a week and we only had a bed for one,” says Susan. Inspired by John Singer Sargent’s 1916 watercolor A Tent in the Rockies, which depicts a rudimentary shelter assembled with narrow tree trunks and canvas, Rufus used the same materials to line the walls and gabled ceiling in the loft. “I saw that painting for the first time probably 40 years ago, and the sunlight coming through the canvas, captured in a way only Sargent can, stuck with me,” says Rufus. Perched on the twin bed beneath the room’s small dormer, you can practically feel Sargent’s golden warmth on your face.