From Forest to City
The wildly diverse portfolio of Hewes and Company, an employee-owned building company in Blue Hill
The first time I went to see a Hewes and Company project, I got lost on the way. This doesn’t happen to me very often, but Forest City is far more forest than city. The house, which was located less than a mile from the United States–Canada border, was tucked down a dirt road, surrounded by thick pines and perched on the shore of East Grand Lake. When I finally arrived, I walked slowly through the house, touching every surface. I crouched down to touch the reclaimed heart-pine flooring shot through with antique steel nails. On the porch, I let my hand rest on the smooth surface of the custom-milled posts. The shingle-style house was a marvel of craftsmanship, a private oasis for one family, a thing of beauty hidden far from civilization.
The next time I saw a Hewes and Company house, I had to drive seven miles down a private dirt road to get there. This one was on the shores of Moosehead Lake. It was filled with glorious antiques and museum-quality work by contemporary artists. And yet again I found myself stroking the wood surfaces, marveling at the workmanship, the butternut kitchen cabinets, the curved red oak arches, the white oak flooring. “We got help from virtually every woodworker on the Blue Hill peninsula and beyond,” Mike Hewes said at the time. “It was a really great job for us.”
This is the kind of work Hewes is known for—detailed, refined, precise. Over the past 45 years, Hewes has built his reputation, and his company, stick by stick, nail by nail. By this point, “people know we’re here,” says the Blue Hill–based Hewes. “We have a fairly good profile here in the neighborhood. Most of our new work comes in by word of mouth. People talk.” He adds, “That’s the business.”
Over the years, Hewes has worked with architects from all over the country, from California to Texas to Maine. He’s built contemporary houses with big square windows and cottage-style homes with sweet little gables. His company now includes “just shy of 20 employees,” according to Jessica Sprague, who runs the Hewes and Company office and is responsible for everything from marketing to human resources. Most of the Hewes and Company workers are skilled craftspeople who build custom houses; restore historic structures; create beautiful cabinetry, stair rails, doors, and built-ins; and work in the marine shop to make items such as DIY skiff kits, teak handrails and decking, and other items. “As in any business, it’s the employees that make the company,” says Hewes. And, as of June 2017, they are all part owners in the business.
Hewes decided to transition to an ESOP model (employee stock ownership plan) after decades of being a sole owner. He saw this as a way to keep the company going, to reward employees, and to provide an incentive for talented woodworkers to join the team. “As a younger person,” says Sprague, “this makes us more invested in the company. We want to see it grow.” Gardner Pickering, who runs the CNC (computer numerically controlled) machine and oversees marine projects at Hewes and Company, says he enjoys the amount of freedom he has, and ownership over his position. “Hewes gave me a lot of latitude and let me go find out what we could do with the CNC machine,” he says. “He has been incredibly supportive of pursuing all the strange things that walk through the door.” In the past decade, Pickering has worked on a 16-foot custom sundial (“for a client I can’t disclose,” he notes), a wooden trolley for a private estate in Florida, orthopedic chairs, and, of course, boats and homes.
While my exposure to Hewes and Company’s work initially gave me the impression that they specialize in creating traditional and elegantly rustic homes in far-flung places, that’s clearly just the tip of the iceberg. “We strive to do it all and do it well,” Hewes says. “We’ve worked on some exciting modern stuff lately, projects that look simple but aren’t.” He tells me about a house with a concrete exterior that had a “regimented look,” defined by strong horizontal lines and sandblasted for texture. (“The opposite of shingle style,” he notes.) A few years ago, Hewes oversaw the construction of a house that was half buried in a meadow and topped with a large glass entryway. “That was a really neat thing,” he says. He’d like to do more passive solar houses but hasn’t had the opportunity yet. “That’s where the building industry needs to go: smaller, more energy-efficient houses.” He adds, “That would be good for the earth, I think.”
While Hewes works primarily in Maine—indeed, that may be the one line that flows through the majority of his projects—his team recently got a chance to trade Forest City for New York City, thanks to architectural designer Joseph Jaroff. In 2017 the team at Jaroff Design was working on a pedestrian walkway that would flow through the first and second stories of a luxury development on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “[Jaroff Design] primarily works in glass and metal,” says Pickering, “so when they found out the clients wanted the bridge to be wood, they thought, ‘Well, this kind of looks like a boat. Where do they make boats?’” This line of inquiry led them to Maine, which led them to Hewes and Pickering and their CNC machine.
In February 2019 the crew put the finishing touches on the spiraling walkway and stair. Hewes, with a flair for under-statement, says it “came out pretty well.” Pickering called the process of constructing a sinuous 180-foot maple casing for a stainless steel bridge “truly fascinating.” “It was larger than any project I had tackled before,” he says. “But every single thing we did, every step, we had done on other projects.” The difference was the scale and the ambition behind this build. It pushed the company to new heights, resulting in yet another portfolio piece for the Mainers. “The degree of difficulty went up every day,” Hewes says happily. “But it was a pretty nifty process.”