Of Stewards and Seafarers
A historic lifesaving station on Popham Beach gets new life as a multi-generational compound
The white clapboard building with the red shingle roof wasn’t intended to be a home. It was a lifeguard station, designed for public service and funded by the government for the sole purpose of saving lives—that is, for rescuing capsized fishermen, inexperienced swimmers, and any other unfortunate people who might find themselves suddenly out of their depth. Built in 1883 on a grassy dune overlooking the sandy expanse of Popham Beach, the Hunnewell Station (now called the Surf Station) served seafarers for decades. But, like many historic structures, it eventually went into retirement. Slowly, the stately property began to degrade. The roof began to sag under the weight of the cupola, the wood floors were badly worn down by sand and feet, and the bright white facade became weathered and dingy.
The old station looks very different today, thanks to the work of Bob Stevens of R.W. Stevens in Phippsburg. A developer purchased the property in 2012, and soon after, Stevens got to work restructuring the interior, opening up the first floor to create a spacious living area and fortifying the drooping third floor with metal fasteners. But, although they were making massive changes to the interior, it was important to everyone involved that the exterior remain the same, so that it could continue to serve as a landmark for passing beachgoers. “Every day in the summer, there are people walking up and down the beach who stop in front of the building to look at it,” says the homeowner. “It’s an amazing piece of history.”
“From the outside, it’s exactly the same, except it’s been tidied up. But from the inside, it’s a whole new building, with new wiring, insulation, and plumbing,” says Stevens. During the restoration, Stevens and his team replaced the entire roof, reframed the roof deck, fixed the exterior porch so that it would better match the existing building, installed new flooring throughout (using old-growth Douglas fir), put new windows into the kitchen and living room, and built several new structures for house guests (including the “cottage,” a two-bedroom, two-bathroom freestanding house that fronts the beach).
And yet, while so much has changed, there are elements of history left intact throughout the compound. “When we bought the property, the seller agreed to leave everything related to the state of Maine and the U.S. Life-Saving Services in the home,” explains the homeowner. “We still have maps on the wall and a Life-Saving Service bell that you can ring. We have oars from the boats and buttons from the early Coast Guard uniforms.” These small touches are scattered through- out the main house, the cottage, and the boathouse, and they help ground the building in time. The current home-owner has even added some historic relics of his own, such as a 38-star American flag, which is framed and hung near his Thos. Moser bow-front office desk. “It’s a hand-sewn authentic linen flag that dates to the time when the building was built, back when Colorado was just admitted to the Union,” he adds. “We’ve kept the house true to a theme. We have barometers and compasses and other things related to seagoing.”
When the current homeowner moved in, the house was entirely “livable.” In addition to completing the necessary renovations, the last occupant also left some agreed-upon pieces of furniture. “But over the past few years, we’ve been able to make the house a home,” says the homeowner. “If you wanted to, you could sterilize the space and get ex- pensive armoires and furnishings and keep it like a museum. But that’s not us. We have shoes lying around, and sand gets brought in from the outside.” For reasons both practical and aesthetic, he chose couches slipcovered in white canvas for the main living areas and woven jute area rugs to cover the wood floors. “We wanted it to feel beachy,” he says.
There is no air-conditioning in the house, but this hasn’t been a problem. Inside, the Surf Station looks and feels cool. The look comes from the light and natural color palette—the trim is bright white throughout, and the walls are painted a variation of linen or cream— and the comfort is due in part to the well-placed windows and generous ceiling fans, which keep the air circulating in the event of a summer heat wave. During the winter, the house stays warm thanks to the radiant heating that seeps up through the Douglas fir floorboards and to the newly added insulation. “We took out a monstrous coal-fired burner that was covered in asbestos, and we put in a modern propane unit,” says Stevens. “The bathrooms are also brand-new, up to snuff, and fully modernized,” he says, with luxurious touches like marble tile and stainless-steel porthole-style mirrors installed above the sinks.
The kitchen, too, has been “done to the nines,” as the homeowner puts it. With a seven-burner Lacanche stove, two ovens, and marble countertops, it’s an impressive workroom that would thrill any home cook. The cabinets are made from poplar wood that has been painted black—a contemporary yet classic touch that speaks to the old–new nature of the project.
While the homeowner and his family enjoy the comfort of these many amenities on a weekly basis, when it comes to scenery, even the nicest of en suite bathrooms pales in comparison to the sculpted grounds and gardens that enfold the sprawling white house in a leafy green embrace. “The gardens are what really sold me on the property,” says the homeowner. “They pop, especially in July and August when everything starts blooming and growing. You can walk right out the door and grab parsley or fresh basil for dinner, or an eggplant or some tomatoes.” In addition to the herbs and vegetables, there are also apple trees and raspberry bushes, daylilies, daffodils, daisies, and other flowers. Installed by Landcrafters of Woolwich, the garden features “thousands and thousands of plants,” according to Stevens. These formally planted beds work together with the outbuildings (the cottage, the beach cabana, and the workshop) to create a sense of definition and order on the property. “In essence, with the smaller buildings, we boxed the garden in,” Stevens says. Instead of looking like a “cluster of unrelated buildings,” the compound feels like “one thing.” “We also brought in tractor-trailer loads of spruce trees and beach rose bushes,” Stevens reveals. “There was a lot of dramatic planting that went on.”
For the homeowner, this one-acre property is more than just a vacation destination. It’s a place where his family can reconnect. As a child, the homeowner attended summer camp in Maine, and his wife’s extended family have cottages nearby. In fact, they’ve designated the workshop as “Fred’s Shed,” named for a crafty family member who likes to work with wood and stained glass. “I like that you can go out there and tinker with things,” says the homeowner. “There’s always something to do.”
And that’s the most beautiful thing about the Surf Station. It’s a place that was designed with a purpose in mind, and although that purpose has changed over the years, it’s still a place that is meant to be used. From the gardens, where ripening fruits on the vine beg to be picked, to the beach, where soft sand commands the shucking off of shoes, there are reminders everywhere to slow down, pay attention, and enjoy. Sometimes, the homeowner likes to think about all the different people who have lived in this house and worked in this place. “To be in this building today, it gives me a sense of awe,” he says. “It’s survived through hurricanes, wind, snow, 90-degree heat waves, and freezing cold nights. Now I’m a steward for the next round of stories, and when I’m gone my kids and grandkids will be the next stewards.” Retired no more, the Hunnewell Station has been transformed into the Surf Station, and if everything goes according to plan, maybe a hundred years from now it will still greet Popham Beach walkers with its cheerful red roof, bright white walls, and fragrant blooming beach roses.