This 4-Building, 40-Acre Property Includes a Cottage, Barn, Bunkhouse, and Spa
The homeowners gave design-build firm Knickerbocker Group free rein to combine their contemporary style with the property’s old-fashioned roots
The coastal property had been in Mark Eldridge’s family for over a century, so when Mark and his wife, Kathie, purchased it in 2004, the vintage cottage was looking a little worse for wear. It had mice, for one thing, and the one-story getaway was not big enough to accommodate the growing family comfortably. Still, “everyone had a lot of feelings about us tearing it down,” Kathie says. “It was very important—especially to my husband—that the new house feel like the old house. That drove our project from the very beginning.”
Located on the tip of a peninsula, the new compact house (with its grandfathered-in, zoning-limited footprint) became the first of four buildings (on two properties) that Boothbay- and Portland-based design–build firm Knickerbocker Group would create for the couple. The fruitful partnership began in 2011, with the rebuilding of that waterfront cottage into a cabin. While the Eldridges had considered building one big family home, the Massachusetts couple ultimately opted to create a modernized, winterized cabin in the footprint by the water, plus a bunkhouse located farther back for guest overflow. Even before setting foot on the property, Knickerbocker Group founder and CEO Steve Malcom was familiar with the unique, rocky spit of land and its firepit. “I live across the river from them. I would kayak around the point. I remember saying, ‘Oh, this is the best place in all of Maine,’” he says. “With all the people around the fire, right by the cottage, it was just a quintessential Maine summer scene. It was special.”
So Malcom understood why Kathie and Mark didn’t want to move their cottage back from the water. “Lately, we’ve been doing more projects like that one,” Malcom says. “We go for multiples and smaller, rather than one big house.” It feels more in keeping with the spirit of Maine, he explains, and it allows for greater freedom in where they can build. It also limits the impact the process will have on the land; smaller buildings mean smaller foundations, less blasting of rock, fewer trees ripped out or plants disturbed. The idea was to make a mouse-free house with a contemporary style, old-fashioned roots, and outbuildings as needed.
Other than those directives, Kathie and Mark gave the team at Knickerbocker Group basically free rein. “Having a client truly open to new ideas is surprisingly uncommon, so when someone like the Eldridges come along, you really get to flex your creative muscles more than usual,” says Knickerbocker Group principal Rick Nelson. For architect Susan Mendleson, the 2011 build presented an opportunity to showcase her problem-solving skills. “What stands out in my mind, ten years later, is the loft,” she says. To make the most of the allotted 1,400 square feet, Mendleson designed a ladder that leads up to the second-story sleeping area, with removable railings to allow the family freedom to take larger pieces of furniture up and down between the floors. “We didn’t ‘save space’ as much as we kept spaces from feeling too small,” she explains. “The original cottage had much lower window heads, forcing the view down to the ground unless you were seated. We used large windows to further extend the spaces outside with long views.”
“It is a bit of a cliché these days, but the connection between the interior and exterior was really crucial,” says Nelson. “Imagine sleeping in the main house’s loft bedroom and literally feeling like you are in the trees.” In addition to the large windows and abundance of granite, Knickerbocker Group also sourced weathered wood to lend the new structures on the property an older presence. Some of these planks came from mushroom-growing farms; others hailed from historic boats. “One of the memorable parts of the project was the wood sills used for the windows,” says construction manager Derek Chapman. “On top of being the perfect type of aged wood, the boards were salvaged deck planks from the oldest commissioned warship still afloat in the United States, the USS Constitution. With the owners being from Massachusetts, this was, in my opinion, the icing on the cake.”
For the Eldridges, this build was a resound-ing success, stylistically and practically. The cottage and the bunkhouse felt cozy and livable, the perfect mix of contemporary and rustic. “The process was amazing,” reflects Kathie. “I enjoyed every minute of our meetings. They really listened to us.”
The Eldridges liked working with Knickerbocker Group so much that, when it came time to build something even more ambitious, they knew exactly whom to call. In 2017 they acquired a 40-acre piece of land located half a mile up the road from their base camp. For years, they had been walking up and down the road, wondering at the undeveloped stretch of forest and field. Thanks to a tip-off from a neighbor, they were able to snatch it up as soon as it went on the market. “All that was on the property was an old, dilapidated barn. The first thing we said was, ‘Wow, wouldn’t this be great to have as additional sleeping space?’” recalls Kathie. “I called Knickerbocker and said, ‘What can we do with this?’”
This time, architect Julien Jalbert took on the task. The first order of business was the barn, which needed to be moved back from the road and placed on a new foundation. “The goal from the beginning was to make this pastoral property stay pastoral,” explains landscape architect William Joyce. “The topography was challenging.” According to Malcom, the barn was a “typical Maine barn, just built on a pile of rocks. But Mark and Kathie wanted to preserve it at all costs.” Knickerbocker Group’s crew picked out a new site, poured a foundation, and set the structure back before beginning an overhaul of the interior. The shell of the barn was great, but Jalbert says the second-story floor needed work. “It was like walking on a trampoline,” he says of the springy wood. “It was 150 years old and had the skinniest floor.” Inside, they found “cool old carvings,” that likely dated back to the 1920s, when the barn was used as a function hall. “We had to reinforce it with a frame inside,” he adds. Large glass windows opened the backside of the barn to the water, allowing natural light to pour into the family’s new recreational space.
After Knickerbocker Group’s builders finished re-raising the barn, they turned their attention to creating a spa. It was going to be Mark’s retreat, a place where he could go in the morning to work out, decompress in the sauna, and shower. At the time, Jalbert was new to Knickerbocker Group, and this design was his chance to take a big swing. “I put it together in a vacuum, and I showed it independently to the principals at my company,” he remembers. Their feedback was encouraging, so Jalbert presented his stone-heavy, glass-walled, contemporary vision to the family. “The norm is that you put a bunch of options together and ask your clients which one,” he says. “But I could present this design with the same energy and vigor I had brought to the team at Knickerbocker. I’ll never forget it; Kathie Eldridge saw it and just said, ‘I’m in.’”
As the build progressed, the Stoneview Spa (as the family has come to call it) grew a little in size and scope. Malcom advised the Eldridges to add a lofted sleeping area and a kitchen—he had a feeling the space was going to get a lot of use. “The site is just so spectacular,” he says. “I told Kathie and Mark, ‘You’re going to want to sleep down here.’” Another big change to the original proposal was prompted by mason Dan Ucci. He had worked on all of the Eldridges’ houses, and he knew their liking for local granite. When he saw Jalbert’s sketch, which included a large stone-veneered column near the entryway, Ucci threw out the idea of using one large gray slab to anchor the house. It would be difficult to achieve from an engineering perspective, and possibly rather expensive. But to build with boulders would also be monumental. “For someone who sees it for the first time, I think it just evokes this real sense of curiosity,” says Jalbert of the finished structure. “It’s like Stonehenge. It feels wonderous.”
“The spa is a place that’s just beyond words,” says Kathie. “It blows me away, whenever we’re there. The views, the setting, and the expanse of the building. The whole thing. The way the stone combines with all the wood features. Everything about it was phenomenal. It took many meetings, but it turned out amazing.” In 2021 this most recent build won the People’s Choice Award from AIA Maine. “My original dream for that building was preserved,” says Jalbert. “I’m so proud of how it turned out.”
But that’s not the end of the story. In fall 2022 the Knickerbocker Group crew returned to the Eldridges’ original property for another meeting, this time to discuss adding more sleeping space. You see, the family is anticipating new members. Their kids have grown up and begun bringing home boyfriends and girlfriends. Someday there may even be little ones. “We’re going to figure out how to turn it into the kind of multigenerational hub that they want,” says Malcom. “We were just over there last week, and it was one of those rainy, foggy days. We were amazed, again, by that property. It’s really something.”