Down East 2013 ©
Paul Rovinelli, principal of H.P. Rovinelli Architects on Newberry Street in Boston, has had the good fortune to work for the heirs to a great Wall Street fortune for many years. He has renovated cottages for them on Cape Cod and designed homes in Boston’s swank suburbs and on Maryland’s horsey Eastern Shore. Here in Maine, Rovinelli created an elegant vacation home on the Blue Hill peninsula commissioned by the matriarch as the family’s summer retreat.
Rovinelli calls the clean, spare, cedar-clad home “abstracted Shingle Style,” its elemental forms inspired both by traditional Maine seaside cottages and vernacular coastal buildings. The great, six-thousand-square-foot house sits out of public view in a back meadow on some 250 acres along a secluded cove.
“The style of this house is very close to what I love to do,” says Rovinelli. “I had a lot of freedom with this house.”
The architect’s design freedom was in large part a function of his client’s busy life elsewhere. The owner, a suburban Philadelphia resident in her late seventies and a longtime Blue Hill summer resident, was kept busy with the demands of the family business, her family’s charitable foundation, and a large equestrian center she operates in Maryland. Rovinelli initially designed a long, low house along the cove, but when he showed his client the plans, she balked.
“She did not want that house,” says Rovinelli. “She knew there are plenty of summer days in Maine that are not that warm and the nights are cold. She wanted the house to be warmed by the midday sun and to have a view of the water.” His client also requested that the kitchen be relocated so that she would be able to see the water while eating breakfast.
Rovinelli went back to the drawing board and came up with a winner. The revised plan described a cruciform structure with a three-story stairwell at its intersection.
The two most distinctive elements of the design are a living room and screen porch separated by a stone hearth with a see-through fire back and a boxy tower with roof deck that provides water views over the treetops. Screened slots beneath the eaves of the pitched-roofed porch give the house an airy look and feel. In fact, the house is rather playful in a restrained, genteel way. The driveway, for instance, flows like a moat beneath one ell of the building and leads to a detached garage.
As the lady of the house has seven adult children who have children of their own, a premium was placed on sleeping quarters. The house features one bedroom suite on the first floor, five on the second floor, and a bunkhouse above the garage.
“The reason for a house that large,” says Rovinelli, “was to have a place to gather everybody for family events.”
The architect says the house “is built like a piece of furniture.” Understated and superbly crafted, it was built by Hewes and Company of Blue Hill. It features red birch floors and white plaster walls throughout. All of the interior doors, windows, and woodwork are African mahogany. The woodwork is set flush with the walls with notched reveals — a tricky bit of carpentry that adds to the elegance and simplicity of the interior. As the second floor bedrooms are along a single-loaded hallway, transom windows facilitate airflow.
The crux of the building is the stairwell, with mahogany board walls that mirror the mahogany stair risers. The free-floating stairwell platforms and the solid copper balusters add dramatic notes to the otherwise reserved interior.
The exposed rafters in the living room and all of the cabinetry are of Douglas fir. Builder Michael Hewes says tensioning the stainless steel cables that brace the roof rafters was “like tuning a piano.”
From the outside, the handsome house looks as though it were to the meadow born. Noted landscape architect Patrick Chassé, of Boston and Bar Harbor, specified native and natural plantings, and there is so much stonework that two stonemasons had to be hired to complete all the work.
Jeff Gammelin, of Freshwater Stone in Orland, built the granite and fieldstone fireplaces. Dennis King of Hancock built the stone walls — ledge rock laid in random ashlar patterns — that give the house the appearance of standing atop a stone pier.
Befitting a house that sits empty much of the time and must be ready to receive guests at a moment’s notice, the materials — cedar shingles, lots of hardscape — were chosen to be weather-resistant and low-maintenance. “She didn’t want to paint anything,” says Paul Rovinelli of his client.
The refined, sedate lines of the house bear a resemblance to those of the Berkshire estate Rovinelli designed for Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, but Rovinelli says they have more in common with the work of another architect he admires.
“I was looking at buildings by Edward Larrabee Barnes,” he says. “I was thinking of the buildings he designed for the Haystack School.” Barnes brought his minimalist approach to traditional structures to bear not only on the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts on Deer Isle, but also to the August Heckscher House on Mount Desert Island and the Visual Arts Center at Bowdoin College in Brunswick. He used vernacular building forms such as sheds, barns, and factories in designing modern architecture that emphasized the essential over the ornamental. “Reduced” and “abstracted” are the words Paul Rovinelli uses to describe both Barnes’ work and the vacation house he designed on the coast of Maine.
Michael Hewes, the man who built the home, says simply, “It really is a work of art, that house.”