The renovation of a family getaway embodies Maine’s maritime history and highlights traditional boatbuilding techniques
Maine has nearly 3,500 miles of coastline, enough to stretch all the way from Canada to Florida if it were straightened out. With so much tidal shoreline naturally comes a passion for boats. This house on Maine’s midcoast arose out of this love of boats and from the noble centuries-old trade of boatbuilding. The owner, a successful businessman whose family had a home here, where he’d spent summers sailing, now lives out of state. But, says architect David Matero, who was hired to revamp one of the family’s local houses, “He loves the area and is passionate about it,” returning here throughout each year.
The commission, however, would be a first for Matero, who actually never met the client during the entire conceptual and building phases of the project. Instead, he worked with the gentleman’s representative and Chicago designer Bradley Bowden—as well as Eric Smith of Oceanside Builders—on the design and construction of the home. Bowden, who also brought on fellow designer Bridgette Haulenbeek to assist with interiors, had already worked on five other houses for the client, so he was very familiar with his charge’s programmatic and aesthetic preferences. “He’s a busy man and we don’t get a chance to meet with him often,” notes Bowden. “He lets you do what you think is right for him.”
The initial plan was a small-scale renovation centered on replacing old windows. But the house, which had been built in the 1970s, “was in poor condition, with mold and water in the basement,” Matero says. “The house no longer served the needs of an active family,” acknowledges Bowden. Rather than tackle the project right away, which would prevent the family from enjoying the property for a good while (it took one-and-a-half years), they started by erecting a boathouse with an apartment on the upper floor.
“It was like a life-size maquette,” says Matero of the structure—a place where the team could experiment with concepts for the larger house and present them in three dimensions to the owner. “The Douglas fir cladding and cedar shingles, the windows, and the standing-seam roof were used there first,” recalls Matero. These reflected the region’s vernacular materials. “I grew up in Norway, just west of Lewiston, where chicken barns were made entirely of standing-seam metal,” he remembers.
The boathouse was also where the team first deployed wood plank on the ceilings, what builder Smith describes as “installing a floor upside down.” This is, of course, a treatment commonly used in sailing vessel interiors, though in the boathouse it was rusticated and dark, which is why this concept did not translate identically to the larger house. Matero explains: “Darker ceilings make a space more intimate, which is appropriate to the scale of the boathouse. The main house was for entertaining with family. You want that to be lighter.” There, in the enormous great room, Smith installed a plywood subroof to which he affixed the paler oak plank sheathing. Aside from harking back to the area’s traditional boatbuilding, it also humanized the grandly vaulted space.
Before any of this could happen, however, the house itself had to be hoisted so a new foundation could be poured, then gently set back down again. The interior was essentially gutted, and a new wall added. Matero’s design, which incorporated traditional gable forms, shed dormers, large windows, and sliders, put a premium on natural light. This entailed some challenges for Smith—specifically, an almost 25-foot-long opening from the great room to the outside balcony. “There are 6,500 pounds of steel I-beam and columns that allow us to have an opening that size, plus another five feet into the wall on either side,” says Smith. “The multiple sliders have to be level within a sixteenth of an inch over its entire length in order for the doors to slide open and closed.” Inside the threshold, Bowden’s design also called for a slab of granite. Where it met the oak floor, he recalls, “We had to cope [carve the stone] along the entire 12-foot length of the planks, rather than the shorter butt ends.” Smith had an easier time of it with the butt-end coping around the marble slab of the hearth.
There was also the porch off the owners’ suite, which the owners wanted to use occasionally as a sleeping porch, but didn’t want a bed taking up floor space 24/7. So the team had nautical-style winches made for a bed suspended on rope that could be raised and lowered as needed. This, of course, required Smith to structurally modify the roof to take the weight.
Both the bed mechanism and a spiral staircase connecting the two floors of this porch allude to the seafaring life. The stair, which Bowden and Haulenbeek designed with mirror-polished stainless steel and teak treads as if for a sleek yacht, was built by Lyman-Morse Boatbuilding in Thomaston. Bowden calls the interior aesthetic “seaside refined.” The house came with a scattering of family heirlooms: a breakfront, several trunks, a church pew, bureaus, a piano, and a workbench. “Keeping the walls and wood tones light, and using natural stone,” says Bowden, “allowed you to see the antiques in a fresher way, as pieces of art in their own right.” New Windsor chairs around the dining table were an obviously companionable pairing with the breakfront. But other furnishings were more modern, such as teak barstools that have a driftwood quality and a hand-made look.
“We wanted to bring in references to the water, boating, and sailing, but we didn’t want it to be kitsch,” explains Bowden. The color palette of blues and neutrals, then, was not unexpected. While the spiral stair and the suspended bed mechanisms feel more literal, other selections were less so. The Azul Macaubas quartzite on the long kitchen island subtly mimics waves. The Lindsey Adelman chandelier over the dining table “reminded me of one of my grandmother’s sea floats all tangled up in a net,” Bowden says. The living room swivel chairs, practical for spinning around to enjoy the spectacular sunsets, also have a woven texture that, he observes, “could be like the outdoor seating on a yacht.” And of course, the ability to withstand both Maine’s punishing weather and salt air, as well as the family’s active lifestyle, called for indoor–outdoor fabrics and rugs.
Regarding the tough climatic conditions, Matero points out that much of the practical mastery of the house is invisible to the eye. “It’s a year-round home,” he says. “The double-thick walls and double-glazed Marvin windows, the geothermal heating and cooling system, and the addition of an interior wall, which enabled more insulation, make it very energy-efficient.”
In all seasons, the house reminds its occupants of the joys of summer sailing along the Maine coast. As Bowden concludes, “The house is quietly engineered just how a beautiful sailing vessel would be. Everything came back to that.”