Steward of Tradition: Peter Gross
PROFILE – March 2015
By Kathleen Pierce | Photography by Matt Cosby
Camden architect Peter Gross enriches the midcoast landscape one design at a time
Peter Gross is not flashy, neither are the homes he designs.
Arriving in an L.L.Bean jacket, hat, and corduroys to tour a project in progress in Camden Heights, the midcoast architect describes what will be the farmhouse teardown’s second life. “This will be a deacon’s bench, cathedral ceilings with a balcony,” he says as the last vestiges of daylight disappear from the late-autumn sky.
His clients, a couple who spend half the year in Florida, needed ample space for their extended family to visit, but were not interested in anything showy. They found the right designer. For 22 years Gross has built a strong portfolio of structures, from tiny camps to grand shorefront homes, that substantiate the quiet tradition that is Maine.
Fifty percent of his projects are vacation homes, like the upside-down house he worked on this winter and the family compound near the Camden Bowl, with a courtyard, guesthouse, and three-car garage. Gross has built up and down the coast, from Bar Harbor to Falmouth, but the midcoast, specifically Camden, is his wheelhouse. He aims for his structures to fit harmoniously into the landscape. Why? “Because they should,” says the Harvard grad, with plain- spoken Yankee confidence.
To manage this feat, one needs to know the landscape— intimately. Gross, who grew up in an old farmhouse in Camden, has the town’s peaks and valleys, crags and meadows, etched into his DNA. “It’s a lot of who I am. I was going through some old papers recently and found my college application; on it I said, ‘I want to come back to Maine and be a part of making Maine better,’” recalls Gross, who studied civil engineering at Tufts University and went on to receive a master’s of architecture at Harvard University. “A big part of my life is coming back to Maine and community involvement,” he says now.
The modernized, town-center headquarters for the Camden National Bank, which he designed in the early ‘90s, is a physical testament to Gross’s role as a pillar of his community. He is a former selectman and has served on the planning board and the Camden Public Library board of trustees; he is currently on the building committee for the Camden Snow Bowl. As an architect, his keen and clear vision helps tone and focus the town’s topography, block by block and sketch by sketch.
“Communities are made up of individual buildings, but they need to work together. They don’t have to be cookie-cutter,” he says. “That would be boring.” Anyone who has strolled through the residential streets of Camden, or driven through its Currier and Ives back roads, knows that hasn’t happened here. Some of the responsibility for this belongs to Gross, who returned after years of working in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to hang his shingle and raise his family a few streets away from where he grew up.
With projects ranging from cottages to banks and yacht clubs to schools, along with new builds, renovations, and rehabs, Peter T. Gross Architects embodies the integrity and sturdiness of the founder’s ancestors. The 1940 novel Come Spring by Ben Ames Williams chronicles a family who migrated into the Maine wilderness at the start of the American Revolution. The piece of historical fiction is based on Gross’s antecedents in Union, Maine, he says. It seems fitting that helping new settlers put down roots in Maine is his chosen path.
Most people don’t think about buildings, unless they are in the business. Gross is vigilant about the way homes and commercial space fit into the landscape, and also excited by the nuts and bolts of putting the buildings together. “I decided to be an architect when I was in the eighth grade,” says Gross, who still tries to be on-site to see his designs come alive. “I liked to build things and see things come to reality. I worked in light construction six summers as a carpenter. I liked it. It’s part of who I am.”
His upbringing offered more preparation for a future in architecture. When you live in a historic house filled with five boys, something always needs tinkering. Gross learned about caring for the bones of a structure firsthand. “My father was always repairing things around the house. Living in an in-town New England farmhouse with an attached barn needed steady attention. My dad was up on the attic windows when he was 88,” he recalls. “Back then, you did a lot of things yourself.” His respect for restoration came from his father’s father. “My grandfather was always building things. He was a plumber. My father was a mechanical engineer who worked for the Knox Woolen Company.”
Growing up with four brothers also honed Gross’s people skills. “I approach architecture from a collaborative point of view. When the house is finished, I want everyone involved to claim some authorship. I don’t want someone to say that it was all the architect’s—that it was all mine,” he says. “I am the design professional. I will guide you, but people have to be invested.”
That means he expects his clients to tell him what they want. It also means sometimes explaining to clients that their out-there notions won’t end tastefully. In that regard he walks a fine but important line. “Ultimately the house is yours. If you really want to put that shag carpet in the master bedroom, I’ll tell you you are crazy, but it’s your house.” He will also tell clients when a teardown makes sense, although he aims to conserve when he can. It starts with a discussion. “I get to know my clients well, so I know what they are thinking,” says Gross. “No one likes surprises.”
Would you recognize a Peter Gross home driving through town? “Probably not,” he says. And that’s fine by him. The 62-year- old has no Frank Gehry–like aspirations. A starchitect he is not. Gross stays young by maintaining boundless enthusiasm for his chosen trade. He learns constantly from on-site contractors and exploring new buildings materials.
His favorite project is “usually the next one,” he says. Does he have a dream project? “Not really. I just like to design. It’s like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle where I have a lot of control over the shapes and sizes. Lots of ways to skin a cat. There is not one passable way to design a house. I learn something from every project.”