The Hamlen House
The Ageless Appeal of Tudor Design.
By Ruth Story
The year was 1920. For Americans the Great War was over and a new era of prosperity lay ahead. For James C. Hamlen, Jr., related to the illustrious Hannibal Hamlin family, it was the right time to build a new home on the desirable Western Promenade.
Hamlen had recently been called to Portland to help manage the Maine end of the family business, an international cooperage and lumber operation that had been founded by his grandfather, James Hopkinson Hamlen, in 1846, and continued by his father, James C. Hamlen, for many years after. But by the end of the war, J. C. Hamlen, Sr., wanted his son groomed to take full control of the business.
The move to Portland was an easy one for Hamlen since he had been born in Maine in 1886. In 1910, a year after graduating from Harvard, he had joined the family business in the Little Rock, Arkansas, processing plant where he learned about all phases of cooperage manufacture. In Portland he would acquire the skills necessary to manage the company’s interests throughout the world.
With his future ensured, Hamlen determined to build a house that would be appropriate for his position and comfortable for a family. He engaged his former Harvard classmate, Portland architect John P. Thomas. Inspired by his post-graduate studies in Europe and his work in the Boston offices of Wait and Copeland, a firm that specialized in Georgian- and Tudor-style homes, Thomas designed a stone and slate Tudor Revival house for the Hamlens. Even though the style was fashionable in many affluent areas of the East Coast, particularly in the Greater New York and Philadelphia areas as well as parts of the Midwest, it was a departure from the popular Colonial Revival and Shingle style homes of Portland’s West End.
Thomas’ design does not include many of the decorative features one might expect in a Tudor-style home, such as half-timbering, dark slate trim to frame and connect mullioned casement windows, or a thatched roof. These are features appropriate for cottages and houses in the Cotswolds of England or Norman villages of France where the climate is considerably milder than in Maine. Certainly no pragmatic Mainer would ever consider a thatched roof. For the Hamlen house, Thomas wisely specified sturdy slate tiles and generous overhangs. The result is a distinctly Tudor Revival house with appealing exterior features that convey the character of Elizabethan England, but it is also a house appropriate for New England. No wonder the current owners of the house, Ed Gardner and Steve DiMuccio, fell in love with it. In fact, Steve reveals that when Ed saw the house for the first time years ago, he declared, “Someday I’m going to own that house.”
Despite the traditional Tudor styling of the exterior, the interior design reflects the practical simplicity of twentieth-century America, a characteristic of the Arts and Crafts movement and the related Prairie School architects, particularly Frank Lloyd Wright. You will notice that stylistic influence as soon as you enter the foyer of the Hamlen house, which extends from the drawing room on your far right to the study on your far left. The foyer’s expanse is suggestive of Prairie School in its spaciousness, its terra cotta and slate tiled floor, its untextured walls, and low, unadorned ceiling.
Except for the flooring, the rest of the rooms in this house are equally simple, offering interior decorators clean canvasses to which they can apply their creativity. In part this is possible because the Hamlens lived in the house for eighty years (the last family member to call it home was James’ daughter, Mary, who died in 2001), and they made few changes, except for the addition of the drawing room’s bay window in 1924. This addition adds to the authenticity of the exterior Tudor Revival styling and provides a cozy nook from which to look out over the Western Promenade, the valley below, and, on a clear day, mountains beyond.
In 2002, Dick and Joan Rogers bought the house, which they named “Rocfleur” because it reminded them of Tudor houses they had seen in the French countryside. The Rogerses replaced the old furnace, updated the kitchen appliances, and renovated two of the bathrooms. They also landscaped the rear garden, creating a stone wall along its alley end and a small pond complete with a fountain. The result is a lovely view from the dining room and from the solarium off the drawing room. At the garage end of the garden, they created a kitchen garden complete with raised boxes in a traditional grid design where they grew herbs, vegetables, and cutting flowers. And for a final touch, they lined the garage wall with espaliered pear trees.
When the Rogerses decided the 5,200-square-foot house was more than they wanted to maintain, they opted for a condo and sold the Hamlen house to Ed Gardner and Steve DiMuccio, fulfilling Ed’s prediction that someday he would own the house and happily proving that sometimes dreams do come true.
The challenge to the interior designers invited to display their skills in decorating the Hamlen House was to create lovely, livable spaces for the owners to enjoy and for us, the visitors, to admire and be inspired by. The expansive drawing room with its large open fireplace framed with polished and textured gray granite dominates one side of the room. The double doors on the rear wall opening onto the solarium, are flanked by bookshelves, echoing the simplicity of Arts and Crafts styling. In contrast, the bay windowed nook at the opposite end of the room is suggestive of Tudor cottages in parts of England and France.
The spacious dining room, with its expanse of French doors that open onto a stone patio, seems to invite a designer to experiment, as anything is possible here as long as it allows diners to appreciate the garden beyond.
The downstairs study and upstairs master bedroom have presented another kind of decorating challenge in that the fireplace in each room is framed by classic Georgian carved surrounds, not what one would expect in either a Tudor or Arts and Crafts interior. The same challenge confronted the decorator designing the stairway and the powder room area in that the delicate railing of the curved stair case are Georgian in form, which is what you would expect to see in one of the West End’s Colonial Revival homes.
The kitchen and service area, originally divided into four small spaces, offered another challenge for the decorator, especially because the unusual double sink in the butler’s pantry and the cabinetry throughout the service area are original to the house. Here the designer had to retain the integrity of the sink and the cabinetry while creating a more practical and usable space for twenty-first-century living.
The upstairs rooms, including those in the servants’ living area, are stylistically undefined, putting few contraints on the decorators’ creativity. The upstairs rear hallways are characteristic of an era when servants were considered necessary but were to be as unobtrusive as possible. Census records indicate that the Hamlens had four servants, including a housekeeper, a cook, a nanny, and a chauffeur. The space above the garage was for the chauffeur.
Perhaps what is most intriguing about the Hamlen house as an early twentieth-century example of Tudor Revival design is the inherent flexibility of the style. As architectural historian Dr. Gavin Townsend explains in his book, The Tudor House in America: “In their day, Tudor Revival houses were seen as suited to a variety of landscapes, and their picturesque plans, which had to adhere to no rules of symmetry, were praised for allowing rooms, doors, and windows to be oriented in whatever position made the most sense. The Tudor style itself proved to be sympathetic to twentieth-century ideals regarding domesticity, simplicity, and honest craftsmanship. It was a patriotic style, too, associated with America’s early Colonial architecture and with George Washington’s ancestral home in England. It was also romantic — a style evocative of a robust Elizabethan era and of characters popularized by Shakespeare and Walter Scott. So, too, the style was evocative of aristocracy and genteel living, with connotations of dynastic stability, culture, and higher education.”
Clearly, the James C. Hamlen, Jr., house on Portland’s Western Promenade exemplifies all of those qualities.
Nick Noyes, Maine Historical Society, Richard Rogers, Portland; Ed Gardner and Steve DiMuccio; Barrels & Daring by Patrick C. Dowling (Timothy & Company, 1977); A Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Maine, Vol. 7, by Roger Reed (Greater Portland Landmarks, 1995); The Tudor House in America: 1890-1930, doctoral dissertation by Gavin Townsend (University of California, Santa Barbara).