A dynamic modern home in Jefferson is full of tricks.
Like a Japanese puzzle box set in the trees overlooking Damariscotta Lake, the uniquely modern house of Malcolm and Joan Campbell is full of hidden compartments and trick doors intended to
conceal the owners’ personal effects while complementing the home’s overall design. The dining room table, for instance, rests on crate-like pedestals that become cupboards. Twin coffee tables pull out from beneath the built-in couch. Drawers slide from under beds. Chairs transform into rockers, balconies into gardens, concrete walls into the prow of a ship. And a bedroom closet opens to reveal a stainless-steel ladder leading to the library catwalk. In fact, not a single piece of furniture is unplanned. Each was designed by the same Portland architect who conceived the house, Christopher Campbell, the owners’ son.
“What do you do when you’ve finished building a house?” the designer asks before answering his own question. “You fill it up with all this furniture, and we thought, let’s not. Furniture just takes over. It wins. I wanted to get all that out of the way.”
The result is quiet and uncluttered, a cohesive blend of natural and synthetic materials that extends from the aluminum slab floors to the birch kitchen and bookshelves to the milky white polypropylene stairs that wind toward a bedroom perched on the roof like a giant ice cube that’s tumbled from a guest’s drink. The open design and airy atmosphere of the four-season vacation home leave plenty of room for the imagination, particularly if you like to imagine you’re on the water.
“If you come across it in the woods, it looks like an abandoned tugboat just waiting for the sea to rise,” remarks Christopher Campbell. “The hill is so precipitous, you almost think, ‘maybe the whole thing is about to slide into the water.’ ”
Anchored to a steep ledge near the end of a dirt road, the house consists of two separate cabins — one shaped distinctly like a ship — that are joined by a thirty-foot, glass-encased bridge. The kitchen, bathrooms, and two bedrooms — one in the basement, one on the roof — are aboard the ship. The two-story library and master bedroom are, well, on the mainland. The dining room runs between.
To minimize furniture while maximizing space, Campbell created ten “Turtleback Chairs” (these were featured last year at the Portland Museum of Art’s exhibit Getting Personal: Maine Architects Design Furniture). Each is set on casters and can be wheeled from room to room. Grab the metal handle, remove the back, flip it, and the chair converts to a cozy rocker. But much as you may admire the design, you aren’t likely to find them anywhere else.
“What if our friends like these?” Joan Campbell asked the Maine furniture maker who built them.
“Never again,” he responded.
Apparently, the company had planned on filling the order in a couple of weeks. Instead, it took three months. Set around the sixteen-foot table, they create the illusion of an indoor craft. Eat, if you’d like, or dream you’re paddling out to sea.
“It’s sort of a lark,” remarks Joan Campbell, who along with her husband is an avid rower. For years she and Malcolm, a retired professor of art history who taught at the University of Pennsylvania, rented a cottage by Damariscotta Lake, beginning on their honeymoon. Each summer they returned with their three children, then their grandchildren.
“The whole family in effect grew up here,” Joan Campbell says, noting that her grandmother went to Lincoln Academy and later retired to a farm in South Bristol. “So there are a lot of family roots.”
The Campbells own a traditional home in New Jersey but have long been intrigued by modern architecture. The shape of their Maine vacation home grew from their love of the water and the outdoors.
“There were a couple of ideas floating around, and they all sort of merged to make the form,” explains Christopher Campbell. “I wanted a great big screened porch with vistas and the potential for breezes to pass through, and I wanted to somehow include this seasonal creek that runs down between the buildings. That became the bridge, which ties together these two conceivably separate buildings.”
Lower the windows and the bridge becomes a screen porch. Lift them, and the house is comfortable year-round. But because the windows are so heavy, Christopher Campbell had to engineer a pump that could be concealed inside a wall. Open a door. Pull out what looks like a bicycle pump. Hook the end to the top of a window, and a jack raises the glass with the flick of a valve. Yet another of the home’s cool tricks.
“I wanted it to be a very manageable house to live in and take care of,” the architect says, adding that when guests aren’t visiting, all the activity takes place on the main floor, which stretches eighty feet from end to end.
Standing inside, the house feels a bit as if it is sailing through the trees. Colorful pine and birch sway outside the vast windows. The twelve-mile-long lake lies down a steeply wooded path.
Securing the house was no small affair. Local builder Scott Pearson pinned the foundation to the ledge with iron bars, then constructed the base of concrete — a lot of concrete — 260 cubic yards to be exact.
“The first fourteen feet is concrete all the way up,” Christopher Campbell declares. “I wanted the comfortable feeling of knowing this thing is not going anywhere.”
Pearson constructed the forms with pine boards and brought in a pump truck to pour the cement. The grain of the wood still shows and forms the interior wall of the basement bedroom, which the Campbells jokingly refer to as “the dungeon.” The thermal qualities of the sixteen-inch-thick walls, which are partially buried, keeps the bedroom cool in summer and helps it to be one of the warmest rooms in the house in winter. It also provides a particularly quiet retreat in a house full of guests.
High above, the third-floor bedroom invokes the completely opposite sensation.
“This is how birds feel when they wake up,” Christopher Campbell says of the room dubbed “the eagle’s nest,” though one grandchild remarks that it would be better called “the eagle’s snack” because she thought predatory birds might devour the people who slept there.
Nearby a window opens onto the roof, or “lunch deck.” In summer, blueberries grow in flats, creating a visual buffer between guests and the sharp rocks forty feet below. A smaller deck, which is easier to access, sits off the kitchen. But even when the beds are bare and the air carries a chill, there’s plenty to enjoy inside.
The library, with an enormous window angled to keep off rain, supplies two floors of books, as well as a cheery fireplace. Dual writing stations invite casual work, while the catwalk makes a fine perch. Set off by a black velvet curtain, the master bedroom contains its own bathroom. What’s unusual about that lavatory — like the rest of the bathrooms in the house — is its diminutive size. Even the shower room, with an enormous cedar soaking tub, is just large enough to turn around in without getting stuck. Those tiny spaces are quite deliberate, Christopher Campbell explains.
“It’s a throwback to the whole idea of an outhouse,” the architect says. “It’s not a room you want to spend all your time lolling around in.”
Throughout the house there is a calming consistency. All the curved surfaces, including several ceilings, are painted periwinkle blue. The bathrooms all contain corner sinks and loose stones scattered over drains in the floors (toss a bucket of water on them for easy cleaning). And the curves on the prow match the curves of the chairs, which match the curve of the roof over the library.
But perhaps the nicest consistency is the way in which the house allows the family to spend time together, cargo rolled away, grandchildren splashing in the tub, the ship sailing on.
- By: Meadow Rue Merrill