Housing the Generations
A cutting-edge design makes use of humble materials and simple forms.
Maine is old enough, and its agricultural history rich enough, that the phrase “iconic Maine farmhouse” can refer to many things. A house with a red barn. A “big house, little house, back house, barn” arrangement. A residence next to a small- windowed, oversized chicken barn. And then there is the classic, white clapboard farmhouse, often with a porch for gathering and a few weathered outbuildings for tractors, animals, or any of the various things you might want to shelter on a farm. Outbuildings are invariably humble, something that architect J.T. Loomis of Elliott and Elliott Architecture in Blue Hill kept in mind when he designed an additional home next to a Milwaukee family’s farmhouse on Great Cranberry Island.
The primary structure, a graceful old white farmhouse, has had many residents through the years. At one point, it may even have been a rooming house. Since the 1970s, though, the Milwaukee family has owned the property. The family members know some of their property’s history, especially that which relates to the Bulger family, whose daughters, Marjorie and Hilda, were born in the early part of the twentieth century and resided for much of their long lives on the island. When Marjorie and Hilda each married, their parents gave them land flanking the farmhouse so they could build their own homes. Eventually Hilda’s house passed over to neighbors. Marjorie’s house remained on the property but deteriorated over the years. In 2000 the family that currently owns the white farmhouse—a mother and her adult daughter and son (the former in Milwaukee, the latter in Norway), with their several children—began to think about housing the generations in separate but related structures. They thought for over ten years before they commissioned an architect. Only by this time, it was the grandmother who would be housed in the side structure and the younger generations in the main house. (The Milwaukee family bought the Maine farmhouse in the early 1970s and Marjorie’s property several years later.) Initially, the family thought they might simply renovate the house where Marjorie had lived; as they felt loyal to the property’s history, especially because they had known Marjorie and Hilda. About visiting the flanking houses when she was young, the adult daughter says, “We used to sit in their rocking chairs and talk. Hilda gave us gumdrops, and Marjorie and her husband gave us Andes candies and Juicy Fruit gum. They also used to welcome us with doughnuts or other baked goods when we arrived for the summer.”
When it became clear that Marjorie’s house wasn’t worth saving, the Milwaukee family decided to commission a new, historically sensitive home, which was completed in 2011 and is now known as the Phippen house after Marjorie’s married name. The daughter explains that, although she and her mother commissioned the house together, “My mother’s preferences were paramount. I acted mostly as family representative.” In the end, the mother’s desires were for a small, one-bedroom, year-round, environmentally responsible house that nonetheless would protect everyone’s privacy while allowing for communal gathering when desired. The new house, designed by Loomis and constructed by Great Cranberry Island builder Michael Westphal, comprises two compact structures—one private, one public—that are linked by a 12-foot ipê deck.
The private structure is an unembellished gable form with an eastern white cedar shingled exterior and a western red cedar shingled roof flush to the exterior walls. Loomis conceived of the interior space as that of an old sail loft or wharf building, an open shell into which the walls were dropped. The result is a single-floor living space with two dominant rooms, one housing a kitchen, living, and dining area and the other, a bedroom. A bathroom with two sliding doors separates the spaces. To extend the emphasis on simple materials and forms, Loomis chose reclaimed southern yellow pine for the floors and painted tongue-and-groove white pine for the walls and ceiling. Three large square windows are placed in a vertical column on the south-facing gable in order to maximize natural light. Furnishings are midcentury modern rather than farmhouse inspired, including sofas, tables, and chairs from Design Within Reach, and a Rais woodstove with sleek lines that owe nothing to the many traditional woodstoves in the main house.
Attractive as all this is, there isn’t enough room for a large gathering, a problem solved by the imaginative addition of the public structure, a freestanding screened porch that the family calls “The Box” and that Westphal describes as a cube. The screened porch is wrapped with removable screen panels and shingles on three sides. The fourth wall is made of ipê slats, laid horizontally with a slight gap between boards, so one can see into the space. (At night, light shines through the slats and out the windows, making the whole space glow.) A steel-frame staircase with ipê treads leads to the flat roof above. Rimmed by a stainless-steel cable railing and posts for safety, the roof deck offers 360-degree views, including a long-distance view west toward Acadia. The siting of “The Box” provides privacy between the Phippen house and the farmhouse. The location addresses a number of other desires as well, including creating outdoor spaces for playing and relaxing while also preserving a public walking path to the shore. The path, which Loomis describes as “a big part of the island culture,” was particularly important to the family.
Over the years, the original farmhouse has received attention as well, with Westphal doing much of the work. (His sons, who live on Mount Desert Island, commute over on the ferry to help him.) Back in the 1970s, when the mother and her then-husband first bought the home, it was out of pure love and impulse. The decision “was irrational to say the least,” says the mother, given that they didn’t yet own a year-round house, and he was just starting law school. (The couple only knew the island because they had come with a Wisconsin friend who had been visiting Great Cranberry Island for her whole life.) Initially, a foundation had to be added under one of the house wings, and sagging parts of the structure had to be propped up. Walls and the exterior were refreshed with new paint and wallpaper. More recently, Loomis and Westphal remodeled a “summer kitchen” (located between the main kitchen and barn), downstairs bathroom, and laundry area. Even with these changes, the house, in all its detailing, suggests days gone by. Much of the original home has been left as is, including interior woodwork, kitchen cabinetry, stained glass, decorative wood screen doors, a lead-clad sink basin, and more. In addition, many furnishings and objects remain, including an organ, a sofa, the dining room table and chairs, beds, wall-mounted antlers, and two quilts made by Marjorie Phippen. There are still tintype portraits on a bookcase that also came with the house. “We don’t know who they are,” says the adult daughter. “There are things that have always been in the house and always will be here, like little mysteries.”
At one point in the almost 50 years that the family has owned the property, they tried to sell. “We had no takers,” says the mother. Now, she says—and it’s no surprise, when one sees the beautifully preserved historic farmhouse seamlessly paired with a home in a unique new design— “We are so happy that we weren’t successful.”