A historic shingle-style house in Kennebunk gets a respectful contemporary update.
The house was built in the 1920s, but the oak tree had been standing in its place for far longer. The Kennebunk house saw plenty of changes over the years—it was home to Edmund Muskie, former U.S. senator and Jimmy Carter’s secretary of state, as well as a half-dozen other families who moved in and out of the shingle-style beauty, enjoying their summers on the hill. The oak tree stood there through it all, acting, as landscape designer Ted Carter likes to say, as a “great witness.” So when it came time to change the yard, to ease the steep slope and put in a pool, there was one thing no one wanted to touch. The oak, they decided, would stay.
The house, too, stayed much the same, though over the course of a few years and a few renovations, it did change its shape. Residential architectural designer William Ross of York Harbor designed an addition that would house an octagonal-shaped owners’ suite upstairs and a sunny dining area downstairs. He also created a pool house (which features a kitchenette, bar, sitting area, and loft) to provide extra space for summer revelry. “The goal for the existing house and its additions was to keep the architectural integrity and continuity of the existing house, and now the poolhouse, all in line with one and another and working together as one,” explains Ross. Inside the main structure, Spang Builders of Kennebunkport reconfigured the floor plan, knocking down walls, rejiggering rooms, and letting more light and air enter the space. Interior designer Louise Hurlbutt of Hurlbutt Designs (who also happens to be a neighbor) did a complete overhaul of the space, giving it an air of contemporary elegance that works smoothly with the period details of the exterior.
“When we first saw the house in 2012, I knew that it had an amazing location and incredible bones,” says homeowner Rob Souza. Although Rob and his wife, Tina, currently live in Massachusetts, Rob was born in Bangor and grew up in Kennebunk. “We were drawn to this house because it had an old Maine structure to it,” he says. Ross adds that the “fine exterior architectural details” of the house were all “well proportioned and modest in scale, exceptionally well done.” And as an added bonus, the owner left them all her original furnishings, which made it ready for immediate use. “We were able to move in instantly, enjoy it for a while, and then make it our own,” he says. The first step was reworking the lawn and backyard, a process that began in 2017. The people who owned the house before, Rob says, “didn’t want to look at the golf course, so the backyard was all overgrown.” Rob very much did want to see the golf course—after all, he had played on that same green countless times as a high school student. “I wanted to open up the views and take advantage of the area beyond the tree,” he explains. “But we didn’t want to move that massive, majestic oak tree. It’s amazing—there’s no way you could touch that tree.”
To make the backyard more usable, Carter changed the grade of the yard, making the slope less sharp as the lawn approaches the pool. After the pool, there is a precipitous drop down. “At about six feet from the pool, it starts to change severely,” he explains. “We impregnated that bank- ing with all the native material that was present. This was very valuable real estate, obviously, but before we changed the yard it was totally useless.” Carter was able to keep many of the trees in place, including the oak and some birch trees (two species that “hate having their feet run over, so we were very sensitive to that,” he explains) while adding ample space for outdoor recreation. Now, where there was once an overgrown hill, there’s a pleasant green lawn, with a blue- stone patio that surrounds the pool and hot tub and leads dripping feet straight into the shingle-style pool house. “Rob wanted the pool house to be as big as allowed, but to look as small as possible,” explains Ross. “And he wanted it to embody all the architectural styling of the main house.” By leveling the lawn and pushing the drop-off back behind the swimming pool, Carter was able to create a clean line of sight from the owners’ suite, kitchen, and sitting area out across the bright blue water, through the trees, and into the landscape beyond. “It creates an optical illusion that draws the golf course toward you,” notes Carter. This summer Carter will continue his work with the Souzas, adding container plantings around the area to balance the “sharp edges and clean lines” of the hardscaping. “It provides an ever-evolving and ever-changing touch to the unforgiving stone surface,” says Carter. “The utility of the pool design is wonderful, but it needs a softer, feminine touch to balance the pool and cabana.”
After they updated the yard, the homeowners began to think about how they were using and enjoying the interior of their summer home. “Getting the pool house and backyard right was the first step,” says Rob. “Once that was done, I knew in the back of my mind that the house layout didn’t make a whole lot of sense.” The original house opened out toward the street rather than the backyard, which means the views of the lawn and pool were hardly visible from the kitchen or dining area. Tina and Rob wanted to be able to look out their windows and see the leaves change on the oak, watch their three kids swimming in the pool, and check out conditions at the golf course. So they decided to open up the inside, taking down major walls, opening up the central staircase, and reorienting the rooms so that the major living spaces now face the backyard rather than the front of the house. “The biggest challenge in the main house was trying to blend an old home with a new addition,” says Kevin Henry, one of two project managers from Spang Builders. “Nothing in the old house was plumb level or squared off.” Since the home was built before the days of laser levels, it wasn’t as exact as the addition was bound to be. “We had to be on-site every day with our foreman to make sure things matched in the transition areas,” Henry says. To do that, he had to forgo some of the usual technology he’d employ in a project like this. “We used more old-school methods, with strings and lines of sight, to make sure everything looked right.”
Since the flooring would be “impossible to match,” according to Henry, they decided to replace it through- out the house. They put in prefinished, wide-paneled engineered flooring made of European oak, which nicely matches the neutral color palette of the countertops and finishings. When it came to interior design, the goal was to “keep the interior bones classic, but make it look more contemporary with lighting, kitchen design, and finishings,” says Hurlbutt. “Tonally, throughout the house, everything is gray with white walls. Tina and Rob aren’t into the beachy, blue-and-white theme, so we went with a more earthy look.” In the kitchen, there’s a deep gray granite kitchen island with “incredible swirls,” says Hurl- butt, while the bathrooms boast dark gray vanities topped with marble and accessorized with gold-toned fixtures. “It works very well together,” says Clayton Spang, co-project manager. “Louise and Tina really collaborated on how this would all look, and it came out modern and elegant.”
The Souzas’ love for contemporary, streamlined style shows throughout the home. The white octagonal owners’ suite (an era-appropriate architectural feature that Ross characterizes as a “tower element” and Tina says “feels like a treehouse,” thanks to the leafy oak branches that embrace the many windows) and features a modernist candelabra-inspired chandelier. The beach stone fireplace offers more understated elegance, with wave-smoothed and rounded stones tucked neatly below a white mantel, above which hangs a dreamy landscape painted by Kennebunk-based artist Ingunn Milla Joergensen, a close friend of the couple. “Our house is now so open, it makes you feel at ease,” says Tina. “It’s restful.” For the past few years, Tina, Rob, and their three kids have spent as many summer weeks and fall weekends at the Kennebunk house as possible. “Sometimes, we drive up for just 24 hours—that’s enough time to feel rejuvenated,” says Tina. “It’s just our happy place.”