Fresh Start

Fresh Start

Seasoned renovators find solace in a riverfront Cape — and a sledgehammer.

Michelle Peele Alna garden

ABOVE A slate patio overlooks 18 acres in Alna, expertly tended by homeowner/floral designer Michelle Peele and her carpenter-husband, Ed.

The day after closing on her Alna Cape, Michelle Peele drove to the empty place with a sledgehammer and laid waste to one of the bedroom walls. “It’s kind of like everything’s real raw — you’re sad because you left something that’s done and was beautiful,” she says of the Wiscasset lavender farm where she and her husband, Ed, previously lived and operated a wedding venue. Beyond the therapeutic benefit, the burst of aggression did wonders for opening up the space between the living area and master, making room for a sliding barn door. 

Of course, there are smarter ways to take down drywall, as Michelle well knows. A licensed contractor, as well as an interior (and a floral) designer, she’s renovated or built 23 homes, 15 of them her own. (At this point, Ed trusts her eye so much he didn’t bother to look at the Alna house until after they bought it.) But sledgehammering is her ritual. That’s because with every move, she worries she’s made a mistake — that she’s lost something she’ll never get back. The hammer helps her cope. “You throw your whole self into a new project and you don’t have much remorse for very long,” she says. “You don’t have time to think about it.”

Nineteen years ago, this hands-on approach got Michelle and Ed through hell. They had designed a house in Southern Pines, North Carolina, that, Michelle says, “was custom-built to be our forever home.” But the night they moved in, one of their three daughters was killed in a car accident. “I was like, how can I stay here knowing that she put the brick sidewalk in?” So they began looking for a fixer-upper and found China Grove: a former plantation home listed on the National Register of Historic Places that had been abandoned for years. She and Ed quit their day jobs and threw themselves into renovating the circa 1790 Federal-style place. “I just worked fast and furiously until I could get through the grieving process,” Michelle says.

ABOVE A seasape by Portland’s Henry Isaacs coordinates with kitchen cabinets painted Farrow & Ball’s Pigeon. BELOW The home’s original pine framing pops against whitewashed living room walls.

LEFT TO RIGHT In the front yard, gardens brim with clematis, hydrangeas, lilacs, and mountain laurel. Michelle and Ed, shown with pups Abby and Mason, have renovated 15 houses together (and stayed married). Hygge & West wallpaper enlivens the mudroom.

BELOW In the front yard, gardens brim with clematis, hydrangeas, lilacs, and mountain laurel. Michelle and Ed, shown with pups Abby and Mason, have renovated 15 houses together (and stayed married). Hygge & West wallpaper enlivens the mudroom.

That was a dozen or so properties ago. Rehabbing houses “might have been one thing at one time — a vehicle to help myself, my husband, my family heal,” she says. “Now it’s become what we’re good at. We’re seasoned.” When Michelle discovered the Alna house, she’d been looking for a quieter alternative to the farm, which the couple bought to be closer to their youngest daughter in South Portland (our photographer for this piece, Meredith Perdue). She liked the 1986 Cape’s party-friendly, timber-framed open plan, its 18 acres overlooking the Sheepscot River, where she grows dahlias, peonies, and hydrangeas for her floral design business, and its enormous basement workshop for Ed, who in retirement gigs as a carpenter. “Her way of looking at properties is, what is it now and what can it become?” Ed says. “And can we work on it together to get there?”

In Alna, as before, the answer to the second question was “yes.” The two aggrandized the design by sledgehammering another wall — this time between the kitchen and living room — swapping bulky upper kitchen cabinets for streamlined bracket shelves, and replacing a pair of doors on the river side of the house with enormous casement windows. “There’s something about the tide going in and out,” Michelle says of the new view. “It sets the rhythm for your life.” Clean, modern neutrals on the walls and furnishings make the space welcoming for a diverse array of floral clients, family, and friends. 

So how long will they stay? “At some point in time, maybe I’ll be 87, like [the home’s former owner] Mrs. Martin, and I won’t want to entertain anymore,” Michelle says. “Then this won’t be the place for me. But where will be? Are there two places between now and then? Is there one place? No place? I don’t know. Something would have to jump out at me.”

ABOVE Sunlight and river views infuse the dining area, outfitted with a table and chairs from Wiscasset’s Island Teak Company. In the master bedroom, a brass West Elm bed echos the arrangement of beams and picks up their golden tones.

ABOVE The Peeles removed beefy cabinets that encased the chimney, which is now punctuated with a hemlock mantel and an acrylic by Trish Deerwester.