Long before Ty Pennington and his obnoxious bullhorn took over our televisions and before every ranch house in America seemed to become a candidate for an extreme makeover, Mainers were converting utility sheds into guest quarters, turning unfinished attics into spare bedrooms, and erecting seasonal cottages of every size and shape in some spectacular settings along the shore. Instead of spending a week blitzing a project in front of cameras and lights at all hours, regular Maine people spent years toiling away quietly in the woods, using a combination of brawn, ingenuity, and persistence rather than backhoes, pneumatic nail guns, and prefabricated rafter systems. Many of these hand-built structures are still standing today, their rock-and-post foundations having shifted barely an inch during more than a century of freeze-thaw cycles.
And Mainers are still at it today. From a hot-dog stand that's been turned into a charming guest cottage in Camden to an Old Port office building-turned-townhouse and an abandoned chicken coop that has seen a new life as a family home, people in the Pine Tree State are still transforming buildings that have outlived their intended uses. These examples of Maine creativity might provide some inspiration for your leftover buildings — and without Ty's bullhorn.
Hot Dog Haven
A former take-out stand has helped create a camp community in Camden.
When most people buy a new house, they take an inventory of what the previous owners left behind and then toss most of it. But when John Scholz and Meg Barclay, a husband-and-wife team of architects in Camden, discovered a former hot-dog stand among the unusual assortment of buildings that they inherited from a previous owner at their summer camp on Hosmer Pond five years ago, they knew the structure deserved better than a trip to the dump. While a larger cottage on the property was being renovated and expanded as a year-round retreat, the couple decided this tiny building could become a retreat from the retreat, a rustic structure that could serve as changing room, seasonal guest bedroom, and impromptu stopover for friends and relatives. "We thought it was cute as a button," explains Meg Barclay. "It was a neat little structure and in perfect proportion to the cottage."
Renovating the hot-dog stand, which had served its last frankfurter long before arriving at Hosmer Pond, involved more elbow grease and soap than the complex architectural plans the couple is known for. A shed roof that had become so ingrained into the property that it had begun growing into a neighboring pine tree was replaced with a gable roof, and the walls that had enclosed the stand's deck and double-hung take-out windows were removed. The entire structure was dragged about fifteen feet closer to the main house, much to the impeded pine's obvious relief, but remains just a few paces from the water. Scholz and Barclay decided not to extend water and electrical service to the building, preferring to maintain its rustic three-season appeal. A pressure-washing and fresh coat of paint, along with a sanding and varnishing of the quarter-sawn fir floors, took care of the interior, and within months a combination lock was in place on the front door, its code known to a growing number of the couple's friends and relatives.
And despite its smaller stature and lack of modern amenities, Scholz says the hot-dog stand-turned-guest quarters has proven every bit as essential to the camp's success as its more spacious neighbors. "The thing that really makes the project work is the dynamic between the two buildings and the site they're on," he says. "The cottage without the hot-dog stand — and the hot-dog stand without the cottage — just misses something."
New York North
An office building in Portland's Old Port recalls life in a Big Apple brownstone.
When Jerry Ade moved to Portland after thirty-three years of representing big-name musicians in Manhattan, he was looking to settle down in a quieter city, maybe start a small business. But in December 2004, after stumbling across a five-story, circa-1860 brick office building across the street from the Nickelodeon Theater in Portland's Old Port that he believed could be converted into a luxury townhouse for himself, the fifty-six-year-old knew his retirement would be short-lived. "There were many buildings available, but I loved this location and I knew as soon as I walked through the door that I could make it beautiful," Ade says. "It reminded me of the brownstones in New York City."
What followed were four exhausting months of work that saw the 12,500-square-foot building practically gutted and transformed into an in-town townhouse, all under Ade's constant supervision. The ground floor was converted into a decorator's studio and retail store, with a Christian Science Reading Room, insurance company, and social-service agency filling the other commercial spaces. The top two floors, formerly occupied by an advertising agency, was where Ade planned to bring a slice of Big Apple style to the Forest City. He enlisted contractor Earle Ragan, of Ragan and Company, and architect Derrik Smyth, of Cubellis Associates, to effect the transformation. By installing a stairway between the two levels Ade managed to link three bedrooms and three full baths with a living room, dining room, family room, kitchen, and office — all in a space just twenty-five-feet wide and bordered by one-hundred-foot-long brick walls. A deck was built over Spring Street that provides views of Portland Harbor, while new hardwood floors and period fixtures provide cozy warmth in this bustling downtown location.
Ade has discovered some shortcomings in his newfound home, at least for in-town residents such as himself. "I think Portland is one of the most beautiful cities in America, but it's not a functioning living city," he says. "There's no grocery store — other than Micucci's — near here, so you have to get in the car to go to one. But I think as the city and Maine open the gates to business, this can become a wonderful place. Portland is too beautiful and Maine is too beautiful not to grow." And he's apparently quite confident in his predictions: Ade has already purchased two more downtown buildings and has plans to build two more.
Home To Roost
One towering photographer found room to stretch out in an old chicken coop.
Todd Caverly believes bigger is always better. At six-feet-seven-inches tall, the Union photographer says he's accustomed to bumping into low-hanging light fixtures and ducking under doorframes — but he doesn't care for it. So when Caverly and his wife set out to find a suitable midcoast home, they weren't afraid to tackle the conversion of a decaying, one-hundred-foot-long former chicken coop. The circa-1968 building would eventually require new sills and framing, as well as countless hours of Caverly's time removing sawdust, feathers, and other agricultural leftovers from the inside of the balloon-framed structure, but would provide enough square footage to accommodate the architectural photographer and his growing family. "I don't like living in the city, so I didn't want to be in Camden or Rockland or anything that big," Caverly explains. "I don't like being cramped in little spaces."
Today, that's hardly a problem. Caverly has opened up the interior to create a sixteen-foot-tall cathedral ceiling that he further raised to twenty-four feet in one section by installing a former grain silo as an oversized cupola. Three bedrooms and a full bath on the second level provide enough room for this family of five, while the entire ground level serves as workshop, garage, and photography studio. And if anyone were obtuse enough to miss his preoccupation with size, Caverly makes use of massive, rough log sections as stools surrounding a huge tradesman's sign-turned-dining room table.
Although the project is not yet complete — "I was just informed last night that finishing the master bedroom has been moved from the ten-year-plan to the five-year-plan," he laughs — Caverly says his new home has already proven its utility, from hosting a church gathering of eighty-five (with seating for sixty-four) to providing space for the couple's four-year-old son to expend his youthful energy. "For a guy with virtually no carpentry experience, this has been a tremendous blessing," he says. "For what we've put into it, I still couldn't touch a property half this size."