Stories to Tell

Thom Sacco and Will Tanner often enter their house through this side door, which gives way to a mudroom. The entry structure and the one to the right are both late additions to the original house. Tanner’s grandparents owned nurseries, and his parents were enthusiastic gardeners. His own talents are evident around the house. Here, he makes use of a cutting garden, kitchen herbs, statuary, potted plants, bougainvilleas, dahlias, gardenias, geraniums, and petunias to create a fragrant and beautiful welcome to the home. The red flowers are a tribute to his mother, who liked the color.
In what is now a guestroom, the fireplace was previously covered up with drywall and the pine floor was painted red. Rather than scrape back what was undoubtedly lead paint, Sacco and Tanner added a coat of semi-gloss white paint. The relief of Dante is concrete on slate. The antique marble-topped walnut cabinet is from Random Harvest.
From the front, one can see the original three-quarter Cape and the three subsequent additions. When the couple bought the house, the large lilac was the only planting here. Now English boxwood, winterberry, and other small perennials are thriving.
A table in the mudroom is dotted with lamps fashioned from old trophies and pots planted with succulents.
The mudroom (opposite) has a herringbone brick floor and a steel chandelier with deer antlers. The fixture came from a Maine camp, but Sacco and Tanner bought it years ago in Delaware. The plants at right include a clivia, Norfolk pine, and an asparagus fern.
The ground-floor owners’ bedroom, one of three additions to the original house, steps down from the formal living room. The eclectic furniture includes an East Lake dresser, a Chippendale high boy, and a bench covered with fabric from Pillars in Freeport. Sacco and Tanner commissioned Daniel Kessler for the painting above the bed, which features their favorite view of the Seine, near the Sorbonne.
In the family room addition pine beams mimic the originals. The furnishings include a nineteenth-century gentleman’s desk from Pillars, a burled wood hutch from Random Harvest decorated with silver lusterware, and a coffee table that was originally a side table. Tanner and Sacco had the legs cut so it would work in front of the Mitchell Gold and Bob Williams leather sofa from Home Remedies in Portland. Annapolis artist Rick Casali painted the forest scene at far right. A hatch to the basement is hidden under the rug.
Pine boards replaced the linoleum previously on the kitchen floor. Sacco and Tanner also added the window in the background and topped the walnut cabinets with granite countertops.
The dining room features original king pine rafters and an early-nineteenth-century mirror that covers an interior window. The antique claw-foot table, assorted antique chairs, hutch, and side tables came from Pillars in Freeport or Random Harvest in Washington, D.C. Tanner added shades to the heavy bronze chandelier. Although he prefers not to use drapes, which can darken a room, he employed them here to give the space a more formal feel.
The previous owners of the house sensitively repaired the original cooking fireplace and baking oven, including the wood surround and mantel, by contacting experts at Strawbery Banke Museum in New Hampshire. The mantel shows charring from a 1942 fire. Various types of porcelain from Tanner’s many collections are in the niches. The gold-framed paintings are by Annapolis artist Tim Bell.
The original foyer with a black and white checkerboard floor looks into the formal living room. A tall farmers’ clock stands to the right, and a mural painted by the relative of a former owner circles the room. In the background is a snow scene of Provincetown by painter Simie Maryles.
The owners’ bathroom has a deep Kohler tub and frameless glass shower. At right is a mirror that was purposely hung upside down to create a shelf on top.
Tanner describes the couple’s Barred Plymouth Rock chicken as “an excellent and steady source of fresh eggs.”
Sacco and Tanner converted the existing pool to a saltwater pool to make it more eco-friendly. The barn in the back is a guesthouse. Tanner used tropical plants in pots to give a “sense of vacation” to the outdoor scene.

A Washington, D.C., couple add a new chapter to a historic Cape Elizabeth home

Houses always have stories to tell: stories about who lives there, who once lived there, and what the objects and arrangement of rooms, past and present, signify. Even so, the house of retired lawyer Thom Sacco and interior designer Will Tanner seems unusually chatty. Or maybe it’s only that their home has a lot to convey: two and a half centuries of history, plus a present incarnation overwhelmingly rich with antiques, design aplomb, and horticultural pleasures. Once upon a time, the house was a three-quarters Cape, the oldest or second- oldest in Cape Elizabeth. The designation is not quite clear, because the other oldest house has documents to prove it was built in 1760. The three-quarter Cape property—which once comprised 230 acres—was purchased in 1760, and it is known that the house itself was standing by 1764, but its actual birthdate is a bit murky.

The house’s growing years are more apparent. The sales from one owner to the next, 13 in total, are documented with photographs of renovations obituaries of former owners, and historical society clippings, all kept in a loose-leaf notebook that Sacco stores in his office. Then there are stories passed down over the years. As Tanner and Sacco have heard tell, the tiny spaces behind a concealed panel under the stairs of the original former foyer was “the Indian closet,” intended to provide cover in case of attack. The charring (still visible) on the fireplace mantel in what was formerly a kitchen was from a 1942 blaze. A desk that belonged to newspaperman Robert B. Beith, who at one time owned the house, was apparently burgled by a Nazi spy looking for information on the newspaper’s supply of wood pulp, which could be used for munitions. As for the living room, that was for wakes in the days before funeral homes.

Even the basement has a backstory: The space has a no-longer-full 800-bottle wine cellar and tasting table. To get there, one has to flip back the rug in the family room, open a trap door in the wood floor, and head down some very steep steps to the creepy lower level. There one sees largely empty wine racks, the brick arch that supports the central chimney, and a System 2000 boiler that was part of a recent energy- efficiency upgrade. For a cocktail, it’s a lot nicer to go upstairs to the nook of the alley kitchen, where there’s a small wet bar and wine refrigerator.

From 1979 to 2010, Doug and Sharyn Howell owned the house. The initial structure had a large central chimney with four fireplaces, one for daily cooking that has a side oven to bake bread and iron swing arms to hang pots. The Howells added to the Cape on three occasions, always with historical accuracy in mind. In the 1980s, the kitchen area and family room were expanded. The king pine rafters visible on the interior of the original house were replicated for the extensions. Meanwhile, two bedrooms were added upstairs. Later, a new owners’ bedroom was added off the formal dining room downstairs. Still later, a new mudroom entrance was attached. At some point, a Howell relative painted a mural on the foyer’s walls depicting the original house and barn and a view of Portland before the fire of 1866.

The house’s current chapter began six years ago, when Sacco and Tanner bought the property, now whittled down to five acres, upon relocating to Maine, where old friends and a goddaughter lived. The couple waited a year to move in. In that time, Miles Fenderson and Matt Priddy of Mill Creek Builders in Falmouth updated the house and turned the barn into a guesthouse for Tanner’s sister. The couple refreshed the walls with two shades of gray, refinished the wood floors, replaced kitchen linoleum with wide pine flooring, and pulled out an interior hot tub to make an office. In the upstairs hallway and bathroom, drywall was removed to expose the original brick. They substituted efficient, lower profile recessed fixtures for existing recessed lighting and added track lighting to illuminate their artwork and to brighten areas where recessed fixtures could not be installed. Energy efficiency was important to them—Sacco was previously employed by the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy—but they wanted to update without disturbing the home’s historic value. They rewired, insulated the basement and attic with spray foam, added the new boiler, and replaced the existing glazing with six-over-six-pane Marvin windows. To insulate the attic, the roof needed to be redone. In the process of re-sheathing and adding cedar shakes, custom rubber-lined teak gutters, and cedar shingle siding, builder Alan Dana Long of Cape Elizabeth found a six-foot-square secret room between a closet and a wall in the upstairs hallway.

Decorating was a matter of combining artwork that the couple had collected over the years with antiques and rugs that were mostly purchased in a focused year of shopping before they occupied the house. Tanner has no aversion to mixing different shades of wood or periods of English, French, and American furniture. He favors neutral backgrounds and pops of color—like turquoise nineteenth-century Bristolware vases and a matching lampshade in the largely brown family

room—as well as plentiful mirrors, gold frames for artwork, and collectibles. Pieces of early-nineteenth-century copper and silver lusterware—a form of clay pottery made to mimic pricey metals that Tanner explains was once the poor man’s sterling silver—bounce light around the rooms. He also collects brown transferware, white and gold Old Paris dinnerware, and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century clocks, of which he has 14 spread throughout the house. One tall and very loud nineteenth-century French clock in the foyer rings on the hour, and then two minutes later, in case the rising farmer for whom the piece was intended has neglected to get out of bed. Curiosities the couple have acquired over the years round out the decorating: mammoth turtle shells hang by the central hearth, award trophies turned into table lamps are arranged on a mudroom table, and a giant Edwardian mirror leans against a dining room wall. The mirror’s carved wood frame rendered in gilded gold and faux woodgrain features crests, urns, flying dragons, lions, faces, and purely decorative motifs.

The exterior of Sacco and Tanner’s house is as much of a showstopper as the interior, with multiple gardens interspersed with container plantings, urns, topiary, bubbling fountains, and even cooing doves, which are kept in a cage in the front yard. The Howells raised pheasants, and Sacco and Tanner use the leftover cages for chickens, which provide them with eggs.

Leaving the couple’s home, one can’t help but have a “Wait, but I forgot to ask” urge. There is clearly so much more to learn. Not just about the house’s history— although one could really go to town there, imagining, say, the 1940s when there was a store at the end of the road, as well as multiple Quonset huts housing the military— but also about the owners, their own rich lives, once professionally entwined with the federal government and now playing out in a chapter in Maine. But that, as they say, is another story.