Bigger on the Inside
A small footprint offers plenty of scope for a complete and spacious cottage
It’s a truism among writers that some of the best art is rooted in constraint; the strict rules of a sonnet or a villanelle can scaffold (rather than quash) creative expression. One might look to Jan Jaynes and Joe Knoblock’s newly rebuilt cottage for another example. “We were trying to create a quintessential Maine home, an understated small cottage that would incorporate the space needs for three bedrooms and two and a half baths, in a tight footprint, with volume constraints and a lot of site restrictions,” says architect Michelle Phelps. “It took very careful analysis of how to achieve that.” On the small footprint of a generations-old summer cabin there now sits an elegant shingle-style cottage, its classic lines and open spaces uninhibited by the tangle of restrictions and limitations that shaped them.
The home sits on ten wooded acres next to the Damariscotta River, and the water sometimes offers easier access than the driveway. “We had a UPS guy that wouldn’t come down the road, even in the summertime,” says Jaynes; the road is impassable in winter, but it’s worth it, she explains. “If you have a good driveway into your place, you’ll have a higher-level water view. We have a bumpy, up-and-down, twisty road, but we’re right on the water.” Phelps designed the house to take advantage of that hard-won proximity, with a screen room that seems to float above the river and views of the water from every living space. “The great room with the fireplace—it’s gorgeous,” says builder Benjamin Laukka of Bruce Laukka Inc. in Rockport. “You sit there and you feel like you’re on a boat on the river, that’s how close you are.”
Relaxing by the fireplace must have been a cozy dream for Laukka and his crew as they worked through the winter on the project. “We stockpiled lumber in the fall, as much material as we could think of,” he recalls. Finding that no one would plow the road, the crew took matters into their own hands. “I don’t know if it’s a quarter mile or a little less, but quite a ways to run your snowblower. We stockpiled salt and sand and sanded it by hand, so we could at least get our four-wheel-drive trucks down there. There were times we couldn’t, so we kept a four-wheeler up top with chains and a trailer.” But, like the owners, the crew saw the bright side of the difficult access. “It’s just a beautiful spot,” says Laukka. “There’s a lot of solitude down there.”
The cabin that Jaynes had spent childhood summers visiting was too deteriorated to reno- vate, and ledges prevented relocating the home to a new site on the property. Phelps worked with the town planning board to ensure the design complied with the strict rules of shore-land zoning, which put restrictions not only on the footprint and volume but also on any changes to the site. Landscaping was kept minimal, with a stone terrace, stone wall, and some shrubs; pine needles and ferns were restored to areas that had been disturbed during building. While the previous building didn’t provide specific aesthetic inspiration, “I was trying to achieve a cottage that looks like it has always been here,” says Phelps. “With- out the rot,” amends Dan Phelps, her husband and partner at Phelps Architects in Damariscotta. “It’s not just a cabin, it’s a livable house. It’s got everything except a garage.”
The home’s classic look comes from its traditional shingle-style elements, including a complex hip roof with gables on four sides, a plethora of square-paned double-hung and awning windows, and a dramatic porch and deck on the water side of the building, which is the most visible. For the porch, Phelps created a system of mahogany frames and clips that allows the owners to switch out screens for glass panels from the inside (from the outside, they’d need to use a ladder). She designed the frames to integrate visually with the detailing on the white-painted Douglas fir posts, which are topped with structural scrolls. “They’re what give it the cottage-unique feel,” she says of the simple but decorative shapes. Doors with sailboat-shaped cutouts from the Wooden Screen Door Company in Waldoboro provide additional understated ornamentation without distracting from the real focus: the water view, steps away.
Indoors, the home feels anything but small. “We were able to create a sense of volume and spaciousness by having the open-concept great room with a cathedral ceiling that looks up through to a tiny study at the upper hall,” says Phelps. Red birch floors and natural pine ceilings add warmth to the bright space. The walls are painted a light gray to coordinate with the granite of the fireplace—which, in turn, was selected to echo the ledges that surround the home. Phelps worked closely with mason Justin Burgess to create the look of natural clefts between the granite blocks, with the mortared joints kept back out of sight. Classic white beadboard wainscoting and trim keep the look fresh and clean. A small balcony on the second floor draws the eye upward and helps to circulate air and light.
While the great room and kitchen are open and airy, the bedrooms and baths emphasize coziness and efficiency. “They really wanted just essentials in the bathrooms,” Phelps recalls. Jaynes concurs:
“What’s the big deal with a linen closet in the bathroom? But Michelle found room in two of the baths for small linen closets, one right under the eaves, just enough to put some towels in.” The bedrooms, too, have storage tucked into unexpected places. “We call the guest room the Alice in Wonderland room,” says Jaynes. “The eaves start right at the floor,” with a small space in the corner just big enough to hang shirts. “When you open it, it feels like you’re going down the rabbit hole.”
The home as a whole, says Dan Phelps, “shows what is possible for a small project. You don’t have to sacrifice; there are ways to incorporate the program that you want, and to solve that whole balance between cost and size and experience. A great house doesn’t have to be a behemoth.” The home’s quietly exciting craftsmanship and design, hidden away down a barely passable drive, resonate with Jaynes’s feelings about Maine as a place. “I remember being a kid, if someone had a second home they would go to the Cape, or to Long Island, or the Jersey Shore. No one went to Maine. People used to say, What do you do up there?” She laughs and doesn’t bother to answer the question. Some might not be able to see past a remote location, a ledge-strewn site, an impossible driveway. But those who know better will find a place of peace and beauty, a poem etched on the rocky shore.