Home by the Sea
A shoreside property becomes a contemporary retreat filled with light, air, and art
There’s one kind of Maine coast view that makes me catch my breath every time I find it: a wide-open expanse of water, reaching off to the horizon. It’s not the most painterly of scenes; for those, better to seek out the sharp, dark cliffs, the soft curves of salt-marsh, the hush and hum of pebbly beaches. But spending time by the open water, hearing it whisper the secret movements of wind and weather from day to day, might nurture an artist’s soul. One such artist has found her way to such a view, and to a permanent home in Maine. “I always considered myself a Mainer,” she says. When she was 14 her father, a navy pilot, retired, and the family joined his mother at her house by the ocean. “This was the first place I’d ever lived for more than two years, the only place I felt emotionally connected to,” the homeowner says. “I really have considered it home.” Yet, after she left for college, career and marriage kept her in other parts of the country for all but visits until a few years ago. Then, at last, she decided to make Maine her full-time home and to build a house where the windows are full of sky and sea.
The house her grandparents had built on the family land was a midcentury ranch. “It just didn’t suit the property,” she says. “It’s such a majestic property, it deserved a great house.” To design something more fitting, she engaged Rob Freedman, Paul Gosselin, and Mike Bedell of Salmon Falls Architecture (the firm has since closed; Freedman and Bedell are now the owners of Kennebunk River Architects). The team worked with project manager Norm Laliberte and site foreman Joel Ewer of Spang Builders and landscape designer Carol Laboissonniere of CL Design and Landscape to create a contemporary shingle-style residence based on crisp, clean lines. “It’s not fussy,” says Freedman. “Just clean and comfortable, warm and welcoming.” The aesthetic emphasizes subtlety but doesn’t eschew grandeur. From the ocean side, a tall central gable draws the eye, while a second, smaller gable and the pitched roof of the garage echo its shape and anchor the ends of the home. Similarly, a stone chimney creates a strong vertical element in dynamic relation to the horizontal lines of the stone facade on the lower walls. “You want to basically glue the house to the ground,” says Freedman. Laliberte describes the effect more fancifully: “There’s parts of that stone facade, when it comes down the ground, where it sweeps out of it. It’s as if it’s climbing out of the ground, like a tree trunk.”
For the benefit of visitors not arriving by boat, the leeward sides of the three gables feature a wavy shingle pattern and slightly protruding peaks that create intriguing shadow lines. “When guests arrive, they’ll look at this house and say, ‘This is really cool; it’s a house that has a lot of interesting elements,’” says Freedman. It’s when the door opens, though, that the real drama begins. The entrance faces a wall of windows, filled with whatever show the ocean is presenting that day. “When you come in you see the ocean. That’s really the point, isn’t it?” says the homeowner. “Why would you compete with this? People don’t want to wander off. They come and stand at the window.”
If you can pull yourself away from the view, you’ll find yourself in the seating area of the great room, where a comfortable couch faces the stone fireplace. To the right, the ceiling rises to cathedral height over the dining area and kitchen. In contrast to the walls’ pale, cool gray (Benjamin Moore’s Titanium is used throughout the home), the vaulted ceiling is paneled in the same gray-stained red oak that covers the floors. The effect is open and airy without feeling cold or empty; there’s a restful sense of space and time to observe both the beautiful outdoors and the works of art and design that fill the rooms inside.
The homeowner designed the interior herself, relying on her artist’s instincts to create a harmonious space. “I wanted things to not compete with the natural landscape,” she says. “I’ve been through cottagey, beachy, jewel tones, full of color—I’m done with it. I wanted it really calm, with the things that we love, not stuff just to fill spaces.” The decor can fairly be called nautical, but its colors are the soft tones of driftwood, sand, and stone, not the crisp blues and whites of a yacht club. The shapes of ships and shells appear in unexpected ways—a semicircular cutout in the high wall above the kitchen evokes a hull; tables in the dining room double as pedestals for elegant sculptures of sea creatures; a bathroom displays the transom of a wooden boat that washed up on the beach. Naval influences appear as well: the ceiling fans recall old-fashioned airplanes flown by the homeowner’s father and grandfather, and a spiral staircase leads to a reading loft above the kitchen. Particularly striking is the kitchen counter, custom made of weathered-looking zinc. “I wanted to give a nod to that nautical history without being cute or overt,” says the homeowner. “I wanted a zinc bartop, but welded and soldered so it would look like part of a ship. I wanted the patina to change over time with use.” Leathered granite countertops and a tiled backsplash that evokes ocean waves complete the kitchen, which is oriented so that the homeowner can face the sea while washing dishes and chatting with guests.
The home is spacious but has only two bedrooms—one for the owners, with a cathedral ceiling and a modest size that puts the bed close to the ocean view, and a suite over the garage that offers a separate private space for visitors. “When my grandmother built the house, she only had two bedrooms,” the homeowner recalls. “We’d get invited over two by two. I kind of continued that tradition.” Instead of sleeping space, much of the home’s square footage is dedicated to making room for the owners’ pursuits. The artist has her studio, with brick floors and a rounded wall of windows to bring in light and the sea view, while her husband has a large bookcase-lined office, complete with a conference table and a separate entrance for clients (it’s also used by the couple’s dogs, who have their own shower in the mudroom area inside the door).
Creating their own space to live and work on the old family property didn’t begin easily. “Tearing down the old house was the hardest decision,” says the homeowner, recalling the sadness and tension inherent in letting go of a long-loved home. Once the process began, however, the project team put her at ease. “The architects were so thoughtful and thorough. They came to the property and stood in different places for a long time, really considered the placement. I relied a lot on their experience and their expertise. And I can’t say enough about the Spang team. Honestly, knowing that Norm had our backs made the whole thing very low stress,” she says.
The homeowner feels that the positive effects of the collaborative design and build have lasted long past the completion of the project. “When you get that kind of energy going, it sticks around. When people come to this house, they say it’s very calming,” she says. “That’s one thing that was important to me, coming from living in a very stressful city. My husband’s in a stressful job. There’s a lot of pressure in the world. I wanted this to be a retreat—a place where people could come and take a breath.” And when I visit, I feel that it’s true: standing at the tall windows, feeling the breeze through an open door, one can’t help but breathe more slowly, finding a moment to take in the light, the air, the presence of the sea.