A secluded lodge on Moosehead Lake features unparalleled craftsmanship, museum-quality antiques, and high-minded design.
For four years, architect Tim Mohr of Tim Mohr Architect in Southwest Harbor spent the majority of his time living on the shores of Moosehead Lake working on a rustic vacation home located down a seven-mile gravel driveway in an unnamed township north of Greenville. The location was so remote, he explains, that many of the project’s craftspeople began to live there full- time, including master builder Roger Gump of R and L Consulting in Bluffton, South Carolina. “We ran it like a lumber camp,” Mohr says. “Just getting there was quite the adventure. Cell phones didn’t work, and the roads were terrible. The moose population was higher, too—I lost two windshields to moose. And since there were so many people involved, there were all sorts of rumors about the house.” Everyone in Greenville, Mohr said, wanted to know what was happening up at that isolated site.
While the rumor mill churned out stories of indoor bowling allies and other unlikely amenities, the reality is significantly more traditional—and far more refined. The residence, which is perched on a ledge roughly 75 feet above the waters of Moosehead Lake (the homeowners call it the Cliff House), is inspired by both the Arts and Crafts movement of the early twentieth century and the Adirondack-style camps of New York State (a rustic, naturalistic type of building popularized in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries). The Cliff House has a log exterior stained gray with red-painted accents, a slate tile roof, bronze windows, and an octagon-shaped entryway. This particular element was inspired by William Avery Rockefeller’s lodge on Saranac Lake in New York. Mohr first saw that structure in the early 2000s, when the Cliff House homeowners flew Mohr out to see the distinctive Great Camp, which was designed by architect William G. Distin and built in the late 1930s. At the suggestion of the homeowners, Mohr used the exterior of the Saranac Lake house as a starting point in his designs. Another influence Mohr cites was the Timberline Lodge in Oregon, an arts and crafts mountain resort and hotel constructed during the Great Depression. It was funded by the Works Progress Administration and the Federal Art Project as a “monument to the skill and faithful performance of workers on the rolls of the WPA,” as then-president Franklin D. Roosevelt explained during the dedication ceremony. “When it came to the Timberline Lodge, I liked the combination of craft, art, and architecture, which is hard to find in this day and age,” Mohr says. “With this project, we incorporated similar elements of craft throughout, which reflected the tastes of both homeowners.”
To construct the Cliff House, Mohr and his team first ordered and erected an 18,000-square-foot Rubb tent, which housed not only the unfinished structure but also a complete wood shop. From 2004 to 2008 hundreds of contractors, builders, craftspeople, and architects filtered in and out of the jobsite, adding their contributions piece by piece. “The house was built like a yacht,” Mohr says. “Since it was protected from the weather, we could have finished surfaces inside the tent. We could go about every step in a logical way.” Typically, houses in Maine are built from the outside in. Not so with this grand camp. “All the timbers were cut on-site, assembled on-site, and finished on-site,” says Mohr.
Builder Mike Hewes of Blue Hill–based Hewes and Company recalls the four-year project fondly. “We got help from virtually every woodworker on the Blue Hill peninsula and beyond,” he says. “It was a really great job for us.” (It didn’t hurt that the homeowners brought in a French-trained chef to prepare meals for the crew.) For several years, Hewes worked closely with Mohr, creating custom cabinetry, stairs, and doors based on Mohr’s designs. At the homeowners’ request, they used butternut, eastern white pine, white oak, red oak, and black locust woods in various places throughout the house. “The house is all made of American hard and soft woods,” Mohr says.
Unlike many of the projects Hewes has worked on in the past, the owners of the Cliff House didn’t want to use any plywood in their cabinets. Instead, all the millwork is made from solid butternut, selected for its tawny color and visible grain. “The construction detail was extremely labor intensive,” Hewes says. While plywood panels can easily be cut to size using a CNC (computer numerical control) machine, solid wood cabinetry requires that each piece be cut by hand. In addition, the owners requested that Hewes not use any iron pieces. “Every fitting, every screw or nail, had to be made of stainless steel,” he says. “Those will never, ever rust.” To Hewes, the most incredible aspect of the Cliff House is that every element was built with both an eye toward the future and a nod toward the past.
Inside the lakeside estate, history is visible in every room: On the living room walls hang a series of “live masks” carved by Native Americans from still-living trees (hence the name). In the entryway hangs a 1,500-pound chandelier, which was constructed by blacksmiths at Stanley Studio out of antique boom chains, which were used by loggers to rip trees up by their roots and purchased from a collector in Greenville. “I picked out 10 or 12 of them, and we sent them down to Texas, where Stanley and his crew transformed them into this chandelier,” Mohr says, pointing toward the circular black lighting fixture. Directly below the chandelier sits a table custom built by furniture designer and artist Clifton Monteith and decorated with inlaid twigs set into a star pattern. In the tradition of the Great Camps of the late nineteenth century, which incorporated elements of craft directly into the structure of the building (think carved finials shaped like bears or a branch- shaped railing on a stairway), Mohr gave Monteith the freedom to create permanent pieces of art built into the very walls of the home, and his intricate designs can be found in nearly every room of the camp.
As the layout of the home flows from the octagonal front room toward the living room in the back, the decor becomes increasingly warm and welcoming. Although the house features many pieces by famous makers and artists—including a George Nakashima live-edge desk and dying poppy prints by famed photographer Irving Penn—the homeowners have mixed these pieces with various items from their collections to great effect. There are nineteenth- century wooden tramp-art boxes on the bureau in the owners’ suite, a collection of Native American knives displayed along the shelves in the living room, and woven square bags with geometric patterns in natural colors hung in a cluster in a guest bedroom. To help select from their stock of antiques and art, the homeowners brought in interior designer Claire Ratliff of Cullman and Kravis in New York. Ratliff had worked with these clients before, and she praises the taste of the homeowners, saying that their preexisting art and antiques collection made this project “very unusual for us.”
“Instead of buying the antiques, we helped them place most of the items they already owned,” she explains. The homeowners had a longtime interest in Arts and Crafts works, and had purchased many of these items before even breaking ground on the house. While Ratliff didn’t purchase furniture or antiques for the homeowners, she did help them pick out several large rugs, which anchored the living room space and provided a color palette for all the textiles they brought in. “The homeowners had these two big Donegal rugs, and we placed them in the living and dining rooms. Not only is the scale of the pattern enormous, they also feature a super intense palette,” Ratliff explains. “For lack of a better word, the living room rug is like an Arts and Crafts take on a traditional Oriental rug.”
The saturated cream and raspberry hues of the rug are echoed by the plaid wool upholstery of the living room furniture. “We chose fabrics that could stand up to the colors of that piece—not compete with it,” says Ratliff. “We also kept in mind that it is a Maine house with a lodge feel. We ran with that idea and pulled plaids that felt at home in a mountain house.” In the bedrooms, Ratliff commissioned custom handwoven rugs that riffed off the patterns of the Donegal pieces without directly copying the patterns or hues. “We didn’t want anything to feel too manufactured or new,” she says. Like the green-tinted, uranium- glass pendant lanterns that change color as the light dims and fades, or the homeowners’ collection of antique eastern Native American snowshoes that are on display in the downstairs hallway, the textiles were chosen to showcase the beauty of small imperfections and the natural grace of handmade items.
“As you walk through the house, from the front door to the back, you see so many unique things,” says Hewes. “Every single thing in that house is unique. You’ll never find a home like that anywhere else in the universe.” For these solitude-seeking vacationers, that one-of-a-kind escape, filled with hundreds of custom elements, is truly a dream destination.