This Home Was Not Built In the 18th Century, But It Sure Feels That Way

The history-buff owners of the reproduction Gambrel Cape had it constructed in 1983.

Bob and Carol Lebeau had the reproduction Gambrel Cape painted in Benjamin Moore’s Cottage Red.
The reproduction Gambrel Cape is painted in Benjamin Moore’s Cottage Red.
By Jesse Ellison
Photos by Rachel Sieben
From the Summer 2023 issue of Maine Homes by Down East

Stepping inside Bob and Carol Lebeau’s Newcastle home feels like entering a portal to the 18th century. From the rustic wooden beams displaying dried flowers to the elaborately stenciled walls and floors, battered cupboards bearing pewter and yellowware, and stern oil portraits lit with candles, nearly every inch of the place is an homage to early American life. So much so, that reminders of modern times — a blinking modem, a digital clock, a microwave tucked into a corner, even Bob’s fleece vest — feel almost jarring. “We try to hide the new things as much as possible,” he says. “But sometimes, you just can’t.”

It comes as a genuine surprise, then, to learn that the Lebeaus’ brick-red Gambrel Cape was built during the Reagan — not Washington — era. In 1983, when Bob, a career salesman, was transferred to the midcoast from the couple’s native Massachusetts, they looked for an old house to buy, but everything was either too expensive or needed too much work. So they purchased a four-and-a-half-acre plot down the road from the 1808 St. Patrick Roman Catholic Church, the oldest active Catholic church in New England, and the Damariscotta Mills fish ladder, where alewives have been harvested since the 1700s. Bob asked Brooks handyman Gary Chard, whom he’d met through a customer, if he’d be interested in building a house for the couple. Chard replied with a shrug “and something like, ‘I don’t have a problem with that,’” Bob says. The Lebeaus sketched out a design, loosely based on a reproduction Cape they built in Massachusetts, on a napkin, and told Chard that, above all, “we want people to walk in and say, ‘This is an 18th-century house,’” Bob says.

Clockwise from top left: Dried gourds and strings of dried acorns and cranberries decorate the summer-kitchen fireplace, painted in Benjamin Moore’s Tavern Ochre; an antique punched-tin foot warmer (hot coals were placed inside) and an early-1800s pewter candle mold rest on the hearth. A new door fitted with an antique window leads to Bob and Carol Lebeau’s Newcastle “summer kitchen,” decorated with antiques and bunches of dried black-eyed Susans, hydrangeas, lavender, sage, and thyme from their garden. Bob and Carol Lebeau in the garden. The couple matched their antique bird’s-eye-maple bed with fabric from a bygone Boothbay Harbor shop. A Portland artist painted Alna and Newcastle as they might have appeared 200 years ago on the staircase walls. 

Soon after, Chard asked the couple for $1,000 to buy a 1750s barn. He then spent a year dismantling the structure and using the flooring, beams, and boards from the walls and ceiling to assemble the core of the Lebeaus’ home. “He had the work ethic of a Mainer except that he was actually from Connecticut,” Bob says, recalling how Chard cut the massive beams on his Brooks property with a chainsaw, towed them on a flatbed to Newcastle, then flagged down a truck driver with a cherry picker on Route 1, whom he paid to help him hoist them into place. In a side entrance with a dining table that the couple refers to as the “summer kitchen,” an Augusta mason assembled a fireplace using period-appropriate thin bricks.

Clockwise from top left: In the kitchen, a circa 1860 dough box (bread dough was kneaded in its interior compartment) stands in for an island atop a canvas floorcloth Bob painted; the hutch hides a small fridge. (There’s a larger one in the basement.) An antique dining-room cabinet displays dried pineapples in terra-cotta pots. The couple’s bedroom features a circa 18th-century fireplace wall with a panel depicting a pastoral scene they had painted. Reproduction furniture in flamestitch fabric and collections of antique portraits, pewter, and wooden bowls fill the living room. 

Over the ensuing decades, the Lebeaus have leaned further into their historical predilections, enlisting a Portland artist to paint quaint village scenes in the style of 19th-century painter Rufus Porter on the staircase walls; layering wooden planks over drywall between the beams; swapping reproduction furniture for antiques sporting their original worn paint; and installing a 10-foot-long, 18th-century paneled fireplace wall in the living room and a smaller one in their bedroom. For a while after they moved into the house, they lived with white walls, but Carol couldn’t stand them, telling Bob, “you’ve gotta come up with something.” Using brushes and rags, he applied a 50-50 latex-paint/water wash in rust, green, and gold shades to create a mottled, aged look. Then, inspired by a trip to the circa 1804 Stencil House at Vermont’s Shelburne Museum, he stenciled walls, floors, and canvas floorcloths in early patterns.

Now retired, Bob volunteers as a docent at the 1754 Chapman-Hall House, in Damariscotta. Sometimes, he and Carol also host tours of their home. On these occasions, he says, the most common response they hear is “Geez, I didn’t know this old house was up here!”

May 2024, Down East Magazine

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