Down East 2013 ©
By Joshua F. Moore
Creativity, more often than not, is a solitary affair. Composers, painters, writers — each toils alone. And yet on tiny Pratts Island, on Southport’s western shore, over the past four years, dozens of Maine’s most talented craftsmen have been gathering, at times literally elbow-to-elbow, to create one of Maine’s most spectacular new homes. The result, a 17,884-square-foot oceanside complex situated on 5.69 acres of granite ledge, is proof that creativity and collaboration are not, in fact, mutually exclusive.
“When I talk to the other people who were down there, they say it was a dance — you had to learn how to dance with the electricians, and the carpenters, and the painters, and the video guys,” says Dan Ucci, whose East Pittston-based Ledge Hill Creations served as the mason contractor for the project overlooking the Sheepscot River. “But once everybody learned to dance together, everybody worked together.”
The inspiration and motivation (not to mention the significant funding) behind this creative endeavor came from a fifty-eight-year-old bachelor named Paul Coulombe. The CEO of White Rock Distilleries in Lewiston, maker of the popular Pinnacle line of liquors, Coulombe says he considers himself to be a liquor marketer more than a liquor manufacturer. He wanted his dream home to be an expression of creativity: both his own and that of his master Maine craftsmen. “This house is a creation, and I love the creative aspect of things,” Coulombe said during a recent tour. “I knew that I wanted to be heavily involved in the project.”
But he also recognized that he couldn’t possibly gather all the right “dance partners” for a project of this scale himself, and so he turned to Steve Malcom, who has been building homes in the Boothbay area since 1976, and Malcom’s Knickerbocker Group. “Steve had the most extensive crew, the most in-house architects, and he had the sophistication, knowledge, and experience to build my dream house,” says Coulombe, who also maintains homes in Cape Elizabeth and Bonita Springs, Florida.
In the 1,421 days that elapsed between Malcom’s first meeting with Coulombe and the day last June when the builder handed the homeowner his front-door key, a metamorphosis happened on Pratts Island. Instead of being just another job, the project evolved into a point of personal pride for each of the craftsmen who crossed the wooden, one-lane bridge onto the island, population twenty-one. “Because we were pushing the envelope on all the trades, people were excited to be involved,” Malcom says. “They became invested in the project, where they were interested not just in their own piece, but in all the other things going on. Nobody wanted to be the weak link.”
Practically from the moment you drive onto the wraparound cobblestone driveway, the dedication and skill that went into this project is apparent. The post-and-beam barn, which Coulombe says he built “to store summer toys” (he only plans to use the property seasonally), and a collection of arcade-style video games for visiting children, features joinery appropriate for the finest living rooms. In the 3,250-square-foot guesthouse, where Coulombe lived over the course of four years during his weekly visits to the job site, granite trim brings the surroundings inside and contrasts wonderfully with the house’s white-painted cottage style. And finally the “boathouse” — actually a 2,440-square-foot garage with a full apartment upstairs and an exercise room downstairs — hides one of the property’s many surprises. Its basement contains all the utilities for the property, a dizzying array of heating and plumbing lines that connect to the main house through a full-headroom, concrete-lined tunnel that ensures Coulombe and his guests (he had clients and friends scheduled for sleep-overs every summer weekend this year) will never be disturbed by the sound of a boiler kicking on in the middle of the night.
In a property replete with superlatives, it seems unlikely that the 8,770-square-foot main house would top the rest of the estate, and yet from the front doorstep it becomes apparent that this building represents the pinnacle of craftsmanship on the site. “Veneer work is pretty standard, but around the stairs we were tying in capstone details and even cutting the little mouse lights into the stone,” explains mason Dan Ucci. “If we had an eighth of an inch gap, the guys would sweat over it. It’s not often you have the chance to put your skills to work in that kind of a setting, and it was that attention to detail that got people excited to go to work.”
Pass through the front door — like all the others on the property, it and its jambs are slightly curved — and into the foyer, and there’s no denying that you’ve entered a higher level of fit and finish. Twin staircases draw your eye up past a crystal chandelier Coulombe discovered in France, yet both Malcom and the homeowner himself take pains to point out smaller details that are no less impressive, such as the way the bannisters tie into the multi-faceted molding at the top of the stairs. (This single bit of easily overlooked joinery took seven hours to complete, the builder says.)
Beyond, the eight tons of Portuguese limestone surrounding the fireplace and the intricate moldings rimming the living room almost succeed in distracting a visitor from the main attraction — the bold Atlantic crashing literally just a handful of steps beyond. Ensuring that the living room would flow seamlessly, without a step or other transition, out through the wide patio doors and onto the granite ledges was the single most important factor in the entire house, Malcom says. “I had always envisioned that anyone who built a house on that lot would step from the house right onto the stone terrace, the ledge,” he says, noting that his civil engineers were extra-careful to make sure they toed, but did not cross, the shoreland setback line. “That’s where it all started.”
And yet the project hardly ended there, due in large part to the owner’s ever-expanding enthusiasm and dreams. “Paul had a fairly extensive program, and he kept wanting bigger and bigger spaces and more elbow room,” Malcom says, adding that working around restrictive covenants on the property was a significant challenge. Footings for the raised “cabana,” for instance, had already been poured when Coulombe purchased a neighboring two-acre parcel, allowing the cabana to be relocated (and a 1,874-square-foot caretaker’s cottage to be built).
Interior details, too, kept getting more elaborate: Instead of a flat ceiling in the master bedroom, Coulombe requested a double-arched overhead that he’d seen in Versailles, the lofting of which required a specialized CAD device available only at Bath Iron Works. Every bathroom features wall-to-wall marble. Each bedroom is paired with its own sitting area, complete with a full bar and television and sun porch. “You know, I don’t watch TV, but I thought it was important for my guests to have the option of a TV,” Coulombe remarks. “People tend to gather around bars — they’re comfortable around them. And I do sell liquor for a living!”
Hallway walls took on a faux finish that resembles velour, while the study’s ceiling looks like actual leather to all but the most trained eye. “This was Paul’s dream home, and he wanted it to be everything that he wanted — his favorite colors, with rich deep tones,” says Tracy Davis, of Portland, whose Urban Dwellings interior design firm was one of the first subcontractors on the site. “The fine details were extremely important to him, but this house is not ostentatious from the exterior by any means. It’s really luxury that is built on quality and craft, versus garish statement.”
Though Coulombe refuses to consider just how much such details added to the overall cost of the project — “It’s still shocking to me how much this house cost,” he admits — knowing that he got the best out of Maine craftsmen was worth every penny. “Steve told me once that I made him a better builder,” Coulombe says. “And that’s really what it’s all about.”