Neighborhood Art Project
A creative couple enlists architect friends to design a home that unites the Maine vernacular with the Auber-modern
For years, painter MJ Blanchette and writer Brian Cox lived next to a dilapidated home on Kittery Point, and they were pretty happy with the situation. The structure— likely built in the 1700s and once owned by a famous sea captain—was overrun with animals and collapsing in on itself. Still, the couple relished the privacy that the adjoining property gave them. They even felt some responsibility for the place, occasionally mowing to keep back the encroaching forest. Then “one dreadful day” in 2009, as Blanchette puts it, a “For Sale” sign appeared. Blanchette and Cox panicked. Clearly the land would sell. It was on a quiet cove with views of a tidal river as well as the open ocean. Blanchette and Cox unhappily pictured a McMansion next door. To protect themselves, they decided to buy and develop the property with the help of their architect neighbors, Paul Bonacci and Lucy Schlaffer of ARQ in Kittery, a couple who “share our interests in sustainability and preserving historic character,” says Cox.
Soon enough, the idea of developing the property for a like-minded person retreated, and a new thought came forward: Blanchette and Cox would build for themselves, maintaining the footprint of the original home (and even some of its materials, including doors, hardware, floorboards, and beams), while designing an ultra-modern addition and a separate two-car garage with a second-floor studio space. Merged, the forms make for a contemporary home with echoes of the past and a responsibility to the present, given the numerous environmentally friendly choices that drove the design (see Bright Ideas for details).
Initially the plan was to reconstruct the original Colonial and put a foundation underneath it, but builder Barry Chase of Chase Construction in Wells convinced Blanchette and Cox of the wisdom of dissembling the house for useful parts and starting with a new foundation. In its current form, the “new” version of the old structure is a gabled two-story hugged by chimneys and fronted by a long porch. Ahistorically, however, the house is painted black and features a long shed dormer with a row of five big, square windows and a standing-seam metal roof. Inside, there’s a large living/dining/kitchen area downstairs and a spacious owners’ bedroom with two sitting areas upstairs. The addition and garage/studio are outside the original footprint and read as contemporary cubes, clad in tongue-and-groove red cedar clapboards with galvanized steel posts supporting corner overhangs and large windows with black anodized aluminum frames. The addition has a second-floor guest bedroom and TV room and a first-floor exercise room and sunroom, as well as a mudroom and pantry. Both the addition and garage/studio have high vertical clerestory roofs made of standing-seam metal, an unusual feature that is one of the first things one notices upon arriving at the house.
The traditional part of the house has classical styling, seen in its basic form and in living room features like detailed trim and mouldings, a Victorian mirror, and an old bust that sits on a mantel and above a wood fireplace surround obtained from friends with a historic house. Blanchette sanded and repaired the wood, leaving some imperfections, before painting the surface chalk white, waxing, and buffing. (By way of a swap, Blanchette and Cox gave their friends some doors from the original house.) But there are also contemporary and even industrial elements. For instance, the original beams that support the second floor of the main house are reinforced with metal, cable lighting slices through several rooms, and the furniture includes a custom concrete coffee table in the living room. Meanwhile, the contemporary addition occasionally uses traditional materials, as in the central stairwell, which is walled with the now-faded painted floorboards from the previous house. Juxtaposed with the antique wood is a custom stainless-steel railing and oak treads, which lead upstairs from a polished concrete floor that has been ground down to reveal the aggregate.
Additional choices reflect a fondness for midcentury modern design, including a bright blue Saarinen womb chair and a white Eames lounge chair in the living area and six Eames molded-plastic dining room chairs. Abundant custom cabinetry, also reflective of the era, was built by the Webhannet Co. (a subsidiary of Chase Construction). Webhannet used black walnut Europly, a plywood product with a walnut veneer that, when cut, reveals lighter layers of wood. Throughout the house, the dark veneer is employed for the flat panel of the cabinetry, which is then framed or accented by the paler plywood edge.
Hardwoods, including oak flooring and a spruce ceiling in the living/dining/kitchen area, provide a counterpoint to the dark cabinetry. The owners’ bedroom features beams of aged oak, a cedar accent wall, and a ceiling partially clad in spruce. Wood furnishings run the gamut from a cedar hope chest between the living and dining rooms that Blanchette inherited from her mother to an English oak dining table that Cox “flung his body over,” Blanchette jokes, when he realized it was for sale for only $99 at the local Crate and Barrel outlet.
Still, as an artist whose work tends to atmospheric landscapes and paintings of solitary houses, reminiscent of Edward Hopper’s, Blanchette is very much interested in pops of color. The blue that appears throughout the house—on exterior doors, select furniture pieces, kitchen wall panels, large vases, and glass bathroom tiles—is inspired by a robin’s-egg-blue door that Blanchette and Cox found in the original house. Bolder colors show up in the house’s many rugs, including a magenta living room carpet and a multicolored sunroom rug, both of which Blanchette assembled with 19- by 19-inch carpet tiles from the eco-friendly company FLOR.
Bonacci speaks of the house as facilitating a “user- friendly, nonprecious lifestyle.” There’s a bit of a Zen vibe too, in part because of the half-dozen Buddhas on the property, including a bronze garden statue that looks into the sunroom and is festooned with shells and old square nails that Cox has found on the beaches where he surfs. The Buddhas reflect a design rather than a particular religious commitment. Still, the owners’ bathroom, with its simple white soaking tub, glass shower, and teak floor mat and bench, certainly feels like a meditative space, as does the peaceful, secluded deck, which is made of ipê and includes a pizza oven whose zinc-and- plaster exterior and block form—designed and built by stonemason Bill Avery of South Berwick—are in keeping with the contemporary addition.
Landscape architect Soren DeNiord of Portland extended the conversation between old and new even as he aimed to make the exterior continuous with the interior. There are industrial aspects to the landscape, such as a board-form concrete retaining wall between the house and parking area; eco-surprises, like the vegetated roofs on the addition and garage; garden beds with low- maintenance natives such as low-bush blueberry, hostas, echinacea, lupines, and bee balm; and areas left fallow, simply to see what will happen. One development that has delighted the owners is the black-eyed Susans and liatris from the roof that have self-seeded around the foundation. “There was no great planting plan,” Blanchette says. “It just happened over time. I’ve grown more interested in color and texture and don’t need every area to be about blooms.”
As for the couple’s old house, Blanchette says the new neighbors have rightly done what she and Cox did with their new place: “They have made it their own.”