A residence inspired by boathouses and fishing shacks cuts an elegant modern profile on Kennebunkport’s coast.
Helena Galle, founder of a website for women over 40 called Grey-Feathers, is nothing if not ebullient. Asked to name her favorite aspect of the house that she and her lawyer husband, Craig Galle, built on the Kennebunkport coast, she comes on like a high-speed train. “Everything, everything, everything,” she says in rapid-fire rat-a-tat, then proceeds to enumerate the skylight above her bathroom mirror, the fact that her cooktop faces the view, the simplicity of the interiors, the light-filled hallway…and on and on. Catch- ing her breath, she concludes, “But honestly, we spend the most time at our dining room table. The view is incredible. To one side you have a preserve where no one lives, and to the other side you have the Atlantic Ocean. It’s a magical place. Who would ever want to leave?” Indeed it would be hard to find a reason.
The couple have homes in Florida and Florence, Italy. Until 2014, they also owned another in Maine, which they sold. Galle immediately regretted the decision. “I grew up in Connecticut,” she says. “You can take the girl out of New England, but you can’t take New England out of the girl. I’ve made my husband a convert.” Still, Craig was less than excited about the uninteresting structure that formerly occupied this site, which had little sense of connection to the outdoors and ocean. So they engaged Boston-based Marcus Gleysteen Architects to build them a house primarily for the two of them, but with a second floor “zone” that could be opened up when their kids, ages 16 to 28, came to visit.
Gleysteen, as it turned out, was developing a modular concept he calls “a first version of an empty-nester prototype house.” The various zones allow the home- owners a 4,500-square-foot residence that is “as experientially small as possible. It’s tight, easy to take care of and manage, with all the main spaces on the view.” By putting extra quarters upstairs and in a guest cottage, he says, “those zones are out of sight, out of mind.”
The form of the residence draws on boathouses and fishing shacks built on granite foundations that populate the coast. The modules that make up the structure are clad in alternating Maine granite and cedar, with vast expanses of glass (the largest being almost 28 feet). Connections between them employed Boral, a material made of bio-based polymer and fly ash, which is a byproduct of the coal industry. The material looks to the eye like steel. But Boral was necessary, explains Geoff Bowley, the principle of Bowley Builders in Kennebunk, because “it allowed us to paint with a dark steel-like color that offset the connecting forms while absorbing little to no moisture and, therefore, it won’t move or contract in warm or cold temperatures.”
Punishing coastal conditions, in fact, determined many of the building materi- als. “We want to bring the beauty of nature in while keeping the terror of nature out,” says Gleysteen. “Here, windblown debris is a major issue.” Hence the use of windows from Duratherm in Vassalboro, which was able to create fenestration larger than many other manufacturers could build, and was also able to sandwich a layer of acrylic between panes, rendering the glass shatterproof.
The interior is filled with innovations so subtle that they might go unnoticed, even though they immeasurably enhance the experience of living in the home. Take the entry hall stair, for example. “We tried to make it as simple and minimal as possible, but articulate the way materials came together,” says Gleysteen. “The wood treads never touch the walls. They’re interrupted by an interstitial length of steel,” actually an extension of the steel armature upon which the treads sit. Gleysteen repeated this idea with the kitchen shelves. These are almost imperceptible details that, nevertheless, when observed, elicit a deep appreciation for the home’s craftsmanship.
“Sustainability is about using local materials,” says Gleysteen. “But it’s also about maintaining artisans and the craftsmanship that Maine is known for, from the ironwork- ers to the masons.” He spent considerable time, in fact, with the latter to figure out how to alternate the size of stones and the seemingly random placement of them to achieve patterns on exterior walls that convey a refined rustication that contrasts with the spans of glass and cedar.
The architect also brought light in throughout the house with devices like the skylights over the aforementioned owners’ bath sinks (allowing the couple to see their faces in natural light). He foreshortened the kitchen wall just before it arrived at a support column, leaving a gap so that anyone cooking or prepping could look out the front glass panes to see who is arriving when they hear car wheels on gravel. And that cooktop facing the ocean? “It’s a trick that Lydia Shire taught me,” says Gleysteen, speaking of the famous Boston chef and restaurateur. Shire explained that unless a chef is doing a lot of à la minute cooking that requires concentrated attention, cooking “is much more of a social thing,” requiring minimal attention as one adds ingredients to pots, waits for water to boil, or stirs the soup. Conversely, washing dishes requires “constant hand–eye coordination” in order to not break something or cut oneself, so there’s more time spent looking down. Because of that, Gleysteen placed the sink against the tiled inner wall and the cooktop facing the sea. At 36 inches high, the range height is lower than the 42-inch counter of the island, which conceals (and protects guests at bar stools on the other side of the island from) cooking spatters.
Galle and Gleysteen collaborated on the interior design. Most upholstered pieces were sourced at RH, but accessories came from Illums Bolighus, the Copenhagen-based retailer that the Swedish architect considers the best source in the world for Scandinavian design. “The most sculptural component we have to work with is light,” he adds, explaining that they sought out pendants and chandeliers from a variety of fine handcrafted sources, such as the 150-year-old Schonbek (now part of Swarovski) chandelier in the living room.
Buxton-based landscape architect Emma Kelly’s approach to the grounds was to “borrow outdoor rooms for indoor space” to create “one long experience of arrival and release.” Conceptually speaking, from the approach through the preserve, she says, “we pulled the best of the woods with us, bringing it closer to the house,” (i.e., placing evergreens along the facade), while out back was about the sea, which meant lots of clearing toward the view. To create privacy on the lateral sides where adjacent houses were visible, Kelly continues, “we packed in materials—lots of green.” Ferns, huckleberry, and bunchberry bushes create dense underbrush for taller trees.
The extraordinary amount of thought, layering, and craftsmanship, however, is orchestrated so subtly that the experience of the house and property comes off as effortless and easy. Which is, of course, the aim of the best modernist sensibilities. “A lot of us believe in simplicity on the far side of complexity,” says Gleysteen, “taking a Gothic church and reducing it to something almost Shaker. It’s simple and minimal, but rich in meaning and context.”