Spirit of the Past
Big believers in small town, USA, Brett and Brenda Williams breathe new life into an old home on Cousins Island.
When Brett Williams initially saw the house on Cousins Island, he wasn’t entirely certain that the small shingle-style cottage would be a good fit. “The first thing I liked about the house was the lot,” he says. “You get the sunset coming in right behind the house, but it was in really bad condition when we saw it.” However, his wife, Brenda, had a slightly different reaction to the home. “She said, almost immediately, ‘We have to have it,’” recalls Brett with a laugh.
And so they bought the rundown house with a yard full of weeds and brush. Brett wanted to invest in Maine—his family had been vacationing in the Pine Tree State for several years—and he believed purchasing a second home was a good way to do it.
There was one other thing that sold him on the property. While many buyers would have torn down the old structure to replace it with something new—which might have been the more economical approach, admits project architect Kevin Browne of Kevin Browne Architecture—Brett didn’t even consider it. “I’m a bit of a history buff,” says the Connecticut-based engineer. “I knew this house had a very rich history. It went all the way back to 1905 and a gentleman named Sir Henry Thornton.” Thornton, Brett explains, was a Midwestern native who was knighted after serving in the Allied ranks in World War I. He was a railroad tycoon and a bit of a globetrotter, and he built the Cousins Island home as a “getaway for him and his family,” Brett says. “He was a man who did a lot of interesting things, he built a lot of grand hotels.” How, then, could Brett tear down one of his most beloved buildings?
Instead, the Williamses decided to renovate the cottage and turn it into a getaway for their family, which includes three kids: two teen boys and one preteen girl. With Browne’s help, they transformed the cottage into a bright, airy retreat with all the modern amenities they would need to enjoy summers on the Maine coast, including an outdoor shower. “That’s as much for the dog as it is for the kids,” Brett jokes.
“We had to bring the house up to today’s standards,” Brett says. “But we didn’t want to worry about getting dirt on the floor or letting the dog get his paws muddy. We rarely go up with just our kids and nobody else—usually, when we go to Maine, we have a car full of our kids and their friends, and we have family and friends visit all the time. We wanted to create an environment that felt relaxed, that felt a little like you’re on a boat.” Summer, he goes on to explain, isn’t a time for staying indoors. “It’s a small area overall, but we’re in Maine! You get up, get out, and enjoy the day.”
Over the course of three years, they worked with Browne and their longtime builder Jeff Sonnichsen, who Brett brought up from Connecticut, to restore the main house (local builder Todd Harrison worked on the nearby carriage house). They had to replace the roof and the walls, and restructure the interior, but they managed to keep “the soul of the house intact,” as Brett puts it. “A lot of the beams, the ceiling, the floor, the old fireplace and stairs—all that is original to the house,” he says.
Much of Sonnichsen’s work involved stripping the house down to its “old bones,” he says. Although the house has been transformed, he is pleased with how much of the original structure remains. “I know that if the original builder could see the house he would recognize it immediately. We exposed the old bones, and we kept the shape of the house intact. He would see the roofline, and recognize it. He would walk inside and see his elliptical arch in the living room, and then he would see my identical one, and he would know them both. He’d see the fireplace, still there. And I think he would be very pleased with how it all blends together.”
“It was important to Brett to keep a traditional look,” Browne explains. “We used similar rooflines, and we kept the proportions of the gambrel roof very close to the original, as are the slopes.” While the original house had clapboard siding, its features were consistent with shingle-style homes but with a few “funky, Victorian elements.” The final design features red shingles all along the exterior, which blend harmoniously into the surrounding environment.
“One of the biggest challenges was figuring out how the roofline would be held up,” Browne says. “We created the floor plan, and then we had to figure out how to make it all work. The bridge between the two structures was also a challenge. We added a covered porch off the main bedroom, and the covered bridge. Before, there was a covered porch on three sides; now they have one on all four sides. That’s why the house looks bigger than it is—it’s all the porch space.”
The Williamses’ interest in history is evident in the interior of the house, too. With the support of interior designer James Light, Brenda took the lead on decor, sourcing antiques from throughout New England to use as wall accents—like the LIVE LOBSTER sign she purchased at the Maine Antiques Festival in Union—and as major features of the home. “Our primary goal was to create a space that would last,” she says. “We didn’t want to change it yearly, or even in 20 years. We joke that the house lasted a hundred years, and we plan for it to last another hundred.” Her goal was to achieve that “clean, shiplap, New England cottage look with modern features.”
The blend of old and new is particularly evident in the kitchen. “We drove up to Vermont somewhere near the Canadian border to get the center island for the kitchen,” Brett explains. “The sliding pantry doors were actually a single door from an old mansion in Manhattan. We cut it in half and turned it into these pantry doors. There’s a story behind practically everything in our house.”
Tina Rodda, cofounder of Kitchen Cove Cabinetry and Design, says the Williamses were a treat to work with because of their collaborative nature. “Brenda would call me and say, ‘I’m in Vermont and I found an antique cash rack, can we make it work?’ She would send me pictures of her finds, and I would look at them and decide where they would go,” she explains. Rodda says it was also important that they pay homage to the original tones of the home. “The house originally had a lot of dark cabinetry, so in keeping with that theme, we used walnut for the base cabinetry, and to lighten it up, we gave the pantry doors a lighter stain.”
This mix of wood, she says, is also historically appropriate. “An older house wouldn’t have been put together in a totally consistent way,” she says. “Having two finishes helps make the kitchen feel like it grew in place.”
The clean, thoughtful design continues into the second story of the house, where Brett and Brenda created three bedrooms—one for them (complete with a Juliet balcony with an ocean view), one for the boys (with multiple bunk beds designed to look like a ship’s quarters), and one for their daughter (with an extra loft bed for any friends she might bring along). “Sonnichsen did an amazing job building the bunks right into the slope of the roof,” Browne says. “Even in the kids’ rooms, you can see all this amazing built-in trim and casework.” Another notable feature is the iron railing built by Windham-based White Knuckle Kustoms that runs along the beds and up the stairs and gives a distinctively nautical feel to the compact sleeping space.
The finished summer cottage reflects not only Brett and Brenda’s design sensibilities but also their commitment to “Small Town, USA.” Brett says he chose to buy products from all around the Northeast in order to help support local businesses. “It’s important to me that we help keep small shop owners afloat and alive. It keeps the spirit of industry going,” he says. “It’s no more expensive than buying something mass produced, but you have to be a little more selective and patient. Sometimes, you have to look hard to find what you want. But there is no better feeling than taking something that would have been destroyed and saving it, bringing it back to life again.”