In the heart of Portland, one woman finds an apartment that fits both her art and her ideals
Every morning, when Stephanie Cotsirilos wakes up, she looks out the window of her downtown Portland apartment. From her bed, she can see the spire atop the dome of City Hall glowing with the rosy dawn light of early winter. “I watch the sky to see what kind of day it will be,” she says. “This time of year, you can see pink turn to blue as the sun rises. I got very, very lucky with this place.”
After living in New York City for years, followed by several years spent in a large house in Orono, Cotsirilos was looking to find a balance between the bustle of America’s largest city and the quiet of northern Maine. She settled on Portland, where she could enjoy the best of both worlds. “I heard about this apartment from a friend,” she remembers. “But when we first walked through, I didn’t see beyond the superficial trappings. I didn’t realize how well it would fit me.”
It took a little help from Tracy Davis of Urban Dwellings to convince Cotsirilos that this condominium near Bayside could be transformed into a light, airy home. “We rearranged a lot of walls,” says Davis, who worked closely with builder Mike Meyer of Island Cove Building throughout the process. “In the old apartment, you had a very different flow from one room to the next, and they never quite connected in a way that worked for Stephanie. We opened it up so that she could enjoy and participate in the great city views that occur throughout every space.”
These days, one’s first impression upon entering Cotsirilos’s apartment is one of casual, warm sophistication. A piano sits in a place of honor in the living room—Cotsirilos studied music at Yale and currently works as a consultant for nonprofits—and two low gray sofas provide cushy seating for guests. The furniture is all relatively low, which makes the space feel even more open as it flows out into a balcony (shut off from the living room by a pair of glass doors). The one thing Cotsirilos wanted for this space, she says, was to create the illusion of a foyer.
“It’s just the tiniest suggestion of a foyer,” she says as she stands near the doorway. “I’m accustomed to undivided living space—I lived in a loft in New York, after all—but I wanted to create a small, functional space.” To give guests a brief place to pause before entering the sitting area, Davis created a wall of white cabinets, which provide much-needed storage space. It only takes a few steps to move from the “foyer” into the living space, yet the illusion is there.
Inside, the floor plan moves fluidly from living area to dining space to kitchen to work space to hallway to bedroom. The apartment is structured like the letter C, with the final curve terminating in a guest bedroom and economically sized bathroom. Cotsirilos’s bedroom is off the main hallway, divided from the hall by a glass door.
Similar pieces of tall glass appear throughout the apartment, echoing the windows and “elevating the eye,” as Cotsirilos puts it. “It makes it feel even bigger than it is,” she says. “Tracy [Davis] did the most wonderful job. She is a talented listener, like many good designers are. She understands things about you that you don’t even have to say. She gets what you want in the place you’re living, both as a result of what you are saying and beyond it.”
“The location really fits Stephanie’s personality perfectly,” Davis says. “It fits into her philanthropic goals and her participation in the city. She’s very driven in the social justice and the arts, and it makes sense for her to have this view looking out at the ever-changing landscape of Bayside.” There is one view, in particular, that Davis wanted to highlight in her floor plan: “You’re standing in her kitchen, and you look out toward Munjoy Hill at the cathedral, and then you look right, and you’re looking right into the courthouse clock tower. It’s one of the most distinctive and statuesque parts of the city skyline.” While the old design featured the same views, they are now framed and highlighted by wide doors, which help draw the eye outward.
“We were somewhat limited by the physical structure,” Davis says. “We had to work around fire stairs, which exists in the core of the apartment layout, at the heart of the building.” However, the upside to having all rooms clustered toward the exterior of the building is that it provides plenty of space for windows.
But the view is only part of the equation. The second element Davis wanted to highlight was Cotsirilos’s art collection. “I knew from living in New York that when you have a lot of windows, wall space becomes precious,” Cotsirilos says. “Tracy appreciated that, too, and so she created spaces that didn’t exist before to display artwork.” Davis installed a hallway toward the back of the apartment, which created an in-house gallery, complete with built-in bookshelf at the end to display ceramics and an antique Byzantine icon that Cotsirilos inherited from her grandmother.
The other major space for art display is the living room, where three of Cotsirilos’s most treasured paintings hang in a triptych behind the piano. The dark brown and orange palette is typical of American painter Willy Lenski, but the dramatic colors pose a challenge for a designer. Davis says that, given Cotsirilos’s existing art and furniture, she knew that a neutral color palate would provide the most harmonious backdrop. “I wanted it to feel tonal and soft. Overall, the apartment falls on the softer side of contemporary.”
Davis is quick to point out the difference between “modern” and “contemporary.” She explains, “We often lose sight today of what modern really means. When I say contemporary, I am referring to what is current, what is happening today, regardless of a nod to past design.” Cotsirilos, she says, already had many great contemporary pieces of furniture, including a Noguchi coffee table and handcrafted Shaker-style chairs. In order to bring the room together, Davis and Cotsirilos worked to select pieces from her Orono house and pair them with new pieces, including a circular glass dining table with a Lucite base.
But even with all the beautiful items inside the apartment, Cotsirilos’s favorite part of her home exists right outside her door. In the summer, she opens her windows to let music and street sounds float into her living space. She sometimes likes to lean over the balcony and watch kids getting off the school bus, their parents waiting with the family dog to walk them home. “This is what I love about the world: If people are playing music on the street, I can listen,” she says. “When people are having a rally at City Hall, I can hear it from here. I can hear musicians rehearsing in the back of Merrill Auditorium. I love going to Monument Square to join in civic free speech in action. In 2014 I ran into a march for Black Lives Matter. With my multiracial family, that is very close to my heart. I was looking for an event addressing this issue in Portland, and I found it right outside my door.” Cotsirilos spent the rest of that evening marching with like-minded protesters, an act that soothed her soul. “It was extraordinary,” she remembers. In the heart of Portland, anything seems possible.