One Life & Many Homes
PROFILE Dyke Messler – JAN/FEB 2008
By Joshua Bodwell
Photography Darren Setlow
A contagious devotion to all things “home”
There are numerous individuals who passionately pursue their interests alone, rarely involving others people in their ventures. And then there are people like Rockport’s Dyke Messler, a man who constantly draws other into the gravitational orbit of his passions. Like the ever-widening ripples of a pebble thrown into a still lake, Messler’s personal obsessions have had a discernable influence on Maine’s midcoast region since he arrived in the state 30 years ago.
Over the years, Messler’s many interests and infatuations have included everything from home restoration, architecture, and fine furniture to massage therapy, community revitalization, and land conservation. In the end, it seems Messler’s passions can be boiled down to three words: heart, home, and community. Though he is a man who was born in the Midwest and raised in California, and who admittedly gets “restless and itchy” every five years or so, Messler has called midcoast Maine his home since 1978. He may have lived in seven different houses since he arrived, but it’s evident that his roots are firmly planted in Maine’s soil.
Go East, Young Man
As a young boy, Dyke Messler was adopted into the Gamble family of Proctor & Gamble renown. His sunny childhood in Pasadena, California was punctuated by visits to the family’s architecturally acclaimed Gamble House.
When it comes to examples of the American Arts and Crafts bungalow, there is perhaps no more perfect specimen than the Gamble House. Designed and constructed in 1908 by legendary architect brothers Charles and Henry Greene, the house personifies the wood-heavy, Asian-tinged aesthetics that are the hallmarks of the American Arts and Crafts movement. In fact, there are few private American homes in existence today that rise to the same level of cultural influence and prominence—perhaps its architectural peer is Frank Lloyd Wright’s illustrious Fallingwater. In 1966, the Gamble House was deeded to the City of Pasadena and is now a National Historic Landmark, the federal government’s highest designation for its national treasures.
“For me it was just my grandparents’ house,” Messler says, smiling, “a wonderful place to go for Sunday lunch.” His memories of the home are more concerned with personal moments—playing in the dark, mysterious attic where his grandfather kept cages of chattering parakeets, for example—than they are with the home’s famous ornate wood, leaded-glass lanterns, and custom furniture. “I suppose, though, at some level my fascination with the built environment stemmed from there,” Messler speculates, twirling his reading glasses as he thinks. “I’m not sure, but I’d like to believe that it did.”
In hindsight, Messler says he’s realized that his was a charmed childhood, and one he is exceedingly grateful for. As he got older, summer-long vacations to another family home on a northern Michigan lake gave Messler a taste for the country east of California. He enjoyed the rural landscape and, when the time came, Messler chose to study history at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. After planting his feet firmly on the East Coast, Messler would never again return to live in the West.
The First Home…of Many
After college and with a history degree in his pocket, Messler wandered up to Grafton, Vermont, and toiled for several years in the area’s seasonal hotel business. While the 23-year-old Messler had few ideas about what he wanted to do next, he nevertheless felt supremely confident about making one life-changing decision: buying his first home.
Messler vividly remembers the moment he discovered the house 36 years ago. It was a golden autumn day, and the 200-year-old maple trees that lined the driveway were ablaze with color when he first glimpsed the circa 1820, post-and-beam Cape Cod farmhouse. Messler says he instantaneously fell in love with the “saggy, baggy” house. “My father tried to talk me out of it, but I really wanted to settle,” he remembers. “I think I’ve had a strong nesting instinct since I was young.” Over the next few years, Messler hired local craftsmen to restore the home from top to bottom, even as he fell in love, married, and grew increasingly restless with both the hotel business and the isolation of Vermont.
An uneventful year followed in which the Messlers lived and worked in Boston, an environment that proved too jarring a change from rural Vermont. On little more than the fact that his wife’s father was from Ellsworth and she had summered in Surry as a child, Messler struck out for Maine’s midcoast in 1978 and landed in a house on Rockport Harbor. After earning his real-estate license, then deciding he wasn’t suited for desk work, Messler pined for the thrill he had felt restoring his first house in Vermont—a feeling that inspired him to buy a decrepit Cape Cod on Camden’s Chestnut Street. Messler repaired and sold the home within a year, earning what he remembers as a “modest profit.” He then snatched up another house on the same street and repeated the process. Unlike his Vermont restoration, this time Messler played a more hands-on role in the work, doing as much of the physical labor as he could. He quickly realized that restoring old homes usually entails the undoing of bad decisions and poor craftsmanship. “Anything I add now, I want to look like it was part of the original house,” he says, a philosophy that has kept him from mixing contemporary architectural elements into his historic restorations. But Messler even uses the word “restoration” loosely, noting that he has no interest in making an old home feel like a museum. “I’ll always bring back as many original features as are appropriate,” he says, “and then I have no qualms about adapting the home for modern needs and incorporating those needs into the fabric of the old house.” Messler likes to believe he brings about a “renaissance” in the structures he has restored.
The Satisfaction of Scratching an Itch
For many years, Messler continued to buy and renovate properties, eventually taing the name Vintage Renovations for his business. More often than not, the renovations were intended for resale, while others were for himself and his family. But as Messler’s reputation grew, he began to have one of his self-described “itches.” The “scratch” to that itch came in the form of a two-year architecture program at the University of Maine in Augusta. In his 40s by this time, Messler says the program, and specifically the teaching of professor Roger Richmond, infused him with a renewed passion for old homes. He was soon tackling increasingly elaborate projects, such as restoring a circa 1795 Federal-style home with six fireplaces.
By the mid-1990s, however, a new itch needed scratching when Messler became interested in massage therapy. After earning his massage license, Messler realized he would need office space and purchased a building on the edge of downtown Camden. After renovating the home and creating seven office spaces, he placed an ad in the local paper thinking that other like-minded practitioners of holistic alternative healing techniques might be interested in renting. The response was so swift and overwhelming that Messler soon scooped up the Victorian next door and did the same thing, and then did it a third time a few years later. By 1998, Messler owned 10,000 square feet of office space spread across three adjacent buildings.
After growing weary of being a landlord, Messler sold out in 2002. However, the Wellness Center, his initial vision, remains home to several thriving businesses to this day. The highly visible project won Messler an historic preservation award from the state and, Messler feels, set a new tone in Camden for what a mixed-use neighborhood could look and feel like. It’s a project that he is clearly proud of.
While the Wellness Center demanded much of Messler’s attention for several years—a difficult time in which his marriage began to dissolve—he still somehow managed to build two new homes, one of which is clearly ripe with inspiration gleaned from the Gamble House. Always one to remain in forward motion, it seems that nearly every itch Messler has scratched during the last couple of decades has rippled out into projects that have positively impacted the lives of many people. For instance, Messler teamed up with Michael Roy, a longtime friend and colleague, to start Phi Home Designs in 2003. Initially begun solely to build custom furniture, Phi has since grown to include cabinetry and casework as well as general contracting services. Just as he always intended, Messler sold the business to Roy after four years—but like so many other passions in Messler’s life, the positive energy that went into the creation of Phi led to something else, which in turn led to something else.
When Phi quickly outgrew its home in Messler’s Camden barn, he and Roy relocated the business to a large barn in Rockport. Their new location also happened to have a Cape Cod home on the same property. “I initially thought that if we fixed the house up, it could be a nice way to showcase Phi’s furniture,” says Messler. But then, as Messler exposed his “traditional tastes to the more contemporary work” being produced just down the road at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship, he soon realized the space could be a perfect venue to showcase the work being produced at the school. With the help of Jana Halwick, the house morphed into Carver Hill Gallery, which soon morphed into a one-stop destination for complete home décor. As for the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship, Messler solidified his dedication to that organization when they built a new 1,000-square-foot gallery as part of their expansion in 2004. Messler’s contributions to the cause were so appreciated that the gallery was named after him. And the same winter the gallery opened, Messler guest-curated Woodworkers of Midcoast Maine, an exhibit that featured the work of 24 artisans.
Enamored by a Wealth of Old Houses
Whether it is wellness, the arts, or the creative economy, Messler has remained devoted to community involvement in his adopted state and beyond. In addition to sitting on the volunteer boards of the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship and Penobscot Bay Healthcare, Messler serves on the board for Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts and is the chairman of the Gamble House’s board of overseers.
Today, the ever-itinerant lover of old homes has ended up in a house he first admired when he moved to Camden 30 years ago. Messler is currently in the process of restoring the circa 1809 hip-roofed Federal and is adamant about pulling off anything that was added during the last century. “I’m very fussy about my old-house work,” he says over the din of pounding hammers and the occasional whir of a circular saw. “You can’t do good work in old houses by cutting corners.”
Even as this new restoration is underway, just a few miles down the road Messler is building a Gamble House-inspired Craftsmen-style bungalow that he may move into sometime next year. “It’s Greene and Greene-inspired, but retrofitted for Maine,” he says over the bang of a nail gun in some far-off part of the house. “I’m using lighter wood throughout and siting it to feel much brighter inside than West Coast bungalows.”
Will this new home—a paean to the home that is likely responsible for inspiring a life-long passion—be Messler’s last? It’s hard to say.
“I keep saying I’m winding down, telling myself this is my last project,” Messler says, his eyes wandering to the young apple orchard beyond the rain-streaked windows of his snug living room. “But I’ve had amazing opportunities to do very challenging work in Maine, and there is just such a wealth of old houses to work on.”
A man of few but well-chosen philosophies, Messler shares one as he reflects on three decades of work: “Pretty much everything has been done once already. It’s a matter of reorganizing that and doing it really well…trying to do it better.”