Cottage On the Cape
It's a situation of which most coastal Maine real estate aficionados could only dream: a seaside lot in Cape Elizabeth's historic Delano Park neighborhood was available. It hadn't gone on the market yet, and the intricacies of the site's permits meant that a house would have to be designed and built tout de suite. So a decision had to be made quickly.
For a lucky pair of Florida boaters who'd yearned for a Maine summer home, the answer was an instant yes. "We were in San Diego when Rob Whitten" - the Portland architect known for designing homes that fit easily into their surroundings - "called to tell us this property was available," says the husband, a longtime broadcasting executive. "We came immediately."
Four years later, sitting in the comfortable, elegant living room of the four-thousand-square-foot house the couple built, it's easy to understand why their decision was so simple. Out the large windows that dominate the front of the house Casco Bay glistens. It's an expansive view, with Ram Island Ledge Light in the foreground, Portland Head Light visible through the trees, and Halfway Rock Light far off in the distance. "When we looked at the property that first day, I said, 'We've had three walkers go by, one car, and six vessels,' " recalls Whitten. "It seemed like it fit the bill."
Indeed, "We're water people," explains the wife. "Even on our boat, we're on the fly bridge." So it seemed only natural to orient the entire house, down to the furnishings and the choice of color on the walls, around the unparalleled view. The homeowners felt that a screened porch was essential, so Whitten and project architect Brian Stephens chose the spot with the best vantage point for the octagonal gazebo and literally worked backward from there to design the rest of the home.
Along the way, the architects made two deceptively simple adjustments that enhance the home's relationship to its surroundings. First, with the help of Portland landscape architects Mohr & Seredin, they elevated the structure three feet above the original site to further emphasize the view. Then, though the home appears parallel to the curving road that hugs the bluff between it and the sea, they turned it just slightly northward so that it faces Ram Island. "That changed the whole personality of the house," says Whitten. "It gave it a sense of detachment."
Which is not to say that the house is unaware of its context. Quite the opposite, in fact. The architects drew heavily on the history of Delano Park, which, situated just next to Fort Williams and Portland Head Light, is one of Maine's oldest planned communities. In 1885, five Portland businessmen bought what was then Delano Farm with the intention of creating a summer colony. A few years later, they'd created thirty-nine house lots in a hilly, wooded setting where well-to-do Portlanders could take in the sea breezes, picnic on the rocky bluffs, and paint the scenic vistas.
Among the Brush'uns, as the gentlemen artists were known, was John Calvin Stevens, the architect responsible for the graceful Shingle Style cottages that dot Portland, Prouts Neck, and the islands of Casco Bay. Stevens designed at least eleven homes in Delano Park, including the cottage and carriage house that originally occupied the lot on which the Florida couple's home now stands. Though the cottage is long gone - a history of Delano Park says it's unclear whether the structure succumbed to fire, was torn down, or was relocated - the new owners were certain that they "didn't want to shock the neighborhood," as the wife puts it, with their new construction. "There's such a history here," she adds. "I think Delano Park calls for something reminiscent of that style."
Fortunately, Whitten is a fan of the Shingle Style, Stevens' work being one of the factors that brought the newly minted architect to Portland in 1976. Whitten and Stephens' early sketches, featuring what Whitten describes as "a long veranda porch with a wonderful gazebo on the end" hit the mark remarkably well; what stands on the property today - a white cedar-shingled structure with a porte cochere that refers to the original Stevens carriage house - is virtually identical to those initial drawings.
Inside, the home is calm and uncluttered, reflecting the easygoing nature of the owners, who are unpretentious about the original art and antiques that decorate the space. The interior wall across from the screened porch is papered with nautical charts of locations the owners have explored, with Portland Harbor front and center. The kitchen, too, takes its cues from nautical design, with a profusion of drawers for storage in addition to a handful of cabinets. "It's smaller than you would think a kitchen would be in most houses this size, but it's set up to be open to the rest of the house," explains Brian Stephens.
Perhaps most surprising for a couple so devoted to the sea, the master bedroom is located at the back of the house with views of the flowerbeds (and the putting green). The periwinkle walls provide a touch of serenity, not to mention a reference to the water just yards away. And, if you listen closely when the windows are open, you can hear the babbling of Delano Brook, which trickles through the north side of the property.
Upstairs, two bedrooms and a small sitting room provide ample space for guests, not to mention incredible views out the front of the house. Even the spacious bathrooms are designed with ease of use in mind, with double sinks and separate enclosures for both the shower and toilet. Across the portico, on the second floor of what the architects have dubbed the carriage house but the owners call simply the garage, additional guest quarters have recently been constructed. The gambrel roof provides plenty of usable space, and the built-in trundle bed is just right for the couple's "trundle-sized" grandchildren.
Given such attention to detail and context, it's no wonder the wife reacted as she did upon visiting the completed home for the first time two years ago: "I walked in and smiled," she says with obvious understatement.