By Rebecca Falzano | Photography Irvin Serrano
The artful restoration of a historic Portland landmark
Perhaps the very first glimpse of what is now Caroline Denham and Peter Rolfe’s home in the Deering Highlands neighborhood of Portland was a sketch from the early 1900s, which advertised the promise of a grand Colonial Revival with a portico. And below the sketch, a note:
“Our illustration this week is from the pen of Mr. C. E. Poor, in the office of Mr. F. A. Tompson. This handsome dwelling, which is now in course of construction for one of our most successful young attorneys, is going to be one of the most comfortable as well as one of the most attractive homes in Longfellow Highlands. It is Colonial in design, and will be up to date in every respect. Longfellow Highlands is fast becoming the most desirable of all sections now available for building of refined homes; and it speaks well for the Fessenden Park Company that they have secured control of such a section, and are developing it with so much tact and foresight as to the future needs and requirements of Portland’s best people.”
At the time, the neighborhood was called Longfellow Highlands, and the architect who designed the house was Frederick A. Tompson (without an “h,” although records vary). The “successful young attorney” for whom the house was built in 1901 was Fred V. Matthews, a man who advocated for the establishment of Deering High School in 1897 on a parcel of land that was once known as Stevens Plains (the building is now Lincoln Middle School). His opposition, at the time, was a strong contingent of Portland citizens who didn’t think the Deering area warranted a school of such magnitude.
A hundred years passed, and the neighborhood came to be known as Deering Highlands. The local high school had, in fact, been built (and later moved to a different building). Caroline Denham and artist Peter Rolfe were living just three houses down the street in a bungalow, with Rolfe’s art studio occupying half of the house. “It was a little tight,” recalls Denham. They had lived in the neighborhood for more than a decade and wanted to stay, but they needed a house that could accommodate a separate studio for Rolfe. They didn’t have to look far: a historic house on the hill a few doors down had three 1,500-square-foot levels—two floors for living and a third floor space that would be perfect for painting. The couple, who first met at a Christmas party in 1982, were relieved to have found a house that wouldn’t take them away from the neighborhood they loved. But it was going to be quite a project.
Denham and Rolfe had thrust themselves into a unique role: they had become stewards of this house and its history, but they were also twenty-first-century homeowners who desired a few changes to suit their modern lifestyle. They called on Portland architect Mark Mueller and builder Michael Monaghan of Monaghan Woodworks to help bring their vision to life. The major items on their wish list: install an elevator that would allow Rolfe to transport completed paintings from his studio to the lower floors, convert a second-floor bedroom into a master bath and closet, and turn another closet into a sunroom to expose the original Palladian window to views from the inside of the house.
“Making the old and the new construction meld together was a challenge,” says Monaghan. And both Mueller and Monaghan agree that adding the elevator was particularly complex. Mueller worked on a design to incorporate it into the floor plan and extend it up through the house. “It had to be placed such that it did not interfere with the grand-stair opening located in the middle of the house,” he explains. The elevator was quietly tucked away in the rear of the house.
Back when the home was built, grand entryways were in fashion. At roughly 24 feet by 12 feet, the generous open hall is meant to make an impression. As a room unto itself, it was no small feat. “A painter spent about four months in the entryhall patching and repairing the woodwork from many decades of normal family use,” recalls Denham. Luckily, in the entry vestibule and first- and second-floor halls, a few of the original leaded-glass windows were still intact, enabling Denham and Rolfe to get the damaged ones repaired and replicated to exact specifications by Bryony Brett Stained Glass in Portland.
As the days are long gone when a paid cook works unseen in the back of the house, the homeowners wanted to open up the kitchen into the dining room to create a more modern ambiance where the hosts and their guests are no longer separated. Denham asked M.R. Brewer in Portland to have millwork recreated in quartersawn oak to match the existing dining room woodwork, and she chose a typical French cross design to tie in with the French furniture and draperies of the dining room. This oak woodwork frames the roughly 8-foot-wide opening between the kitchen and dining room and has a look totally in keeping with the elegance of the house’s perfectly preserved 1901 millwork so beautifully displayed in the front entryhall.
One of the major portions of the restoration was the kitchen, which previous owners had renovated decades before. “We gutted it,” says Denham. “We were looking to erase what had been done and bring it back.” They chose Cook and Cook Cabinetry in Scarborough to custom design white cabinetry that would extend all the way to the ceiling. The kitchen layout was also a challenge—a chimney created a partition of sorts in the middle of the room, which limited the couple’s options. Cook and Cook came up with a solution: leave the brick deliberately exposed and embrace the fact that the kitchen has two parts. The kitchen and pantry spaces are now separated but visually connected to a sitting area and coffee bar, where Rolfe—a coffee aficionado—can brew his daily cup.
Upstairs, the spaciousness of the entryway below makes for a large second floor, but it had a deceptively small amount of bedroom space. To create more distinct rooms, Denham and Rolfe had a roomy closet transformed into a sunroom. A large bedroom was split in half to accommodate, on one side, a much-needed master bath and, on the other, a master closet. The closet cabinetry handcrafted by M.R. Brewer extends to the ceiling, just like the kitchen cabinetry downstairs. The bathrooms also received modern-day updates such as heated floors and towel racks.
Nine-and-a-half-foot ceilings throughout create generous wall space that Denham and Rolfe take advantage of to hang Rolfe’s paintings. His artwork is everywhere, telling stories of their travels—time spent in Mexico, Italy, and of course, Maine. Every room is bursting with the colors of his canvases, each beautifully framed and thoughtfully displayed to complement the decor. Denham’s own artistry can be found throughout the house as well. A former interior designer, she hand-selected all of the fabrics and furnishings, making sure they are in keeping with the period style of the home.
The detailed restoration continued on the exterior. Years ago, all of the house’s façade details—decorative onlays over the bay windows, dental moulding under the eaves, window pediments, and all of the first- and second-floor spindles and railings on the front—were removed when aluminum siding was installed. A photograph of the house from the City of Portland’s 1924 tax records guided the exterior restoration. Saco Manufacturing and Wood Turning recreated all the spindles, and M.R. Brewer recreated the railing caps—all in mahogany. Dean Duryea rebuilt the window pediments and dental moulding, applied the newly recreated onlays, and completely re-sided the house after the aluminum siding and original lead-painted clapboards were removed.
Historic homes present a particularly difficult challenge. They first require an education and then a decision: Do you erase and start over or embrace and carry on? In some rare cases, homeowners find a way to become stewards of history without surrendering modern-day amenities. Denham and Rolfe are these rare homeowners who are able to enjoy the best of both worlds: a meticulous historical restoration with some personal touches, all complemented by their own beautiful artistry and story. “We come home and just feel so grateful that we get to live here,” says Denham.
And history is grateful for them, too.