Modern History

An 18th-century home in Wiscasset is filled with contemporary design elements and textural art.

By Melanie Brooks
Photographed by Erin Little
From our February 2015 issue

John and Lari Washburn live in the oldest two-story dwelling in Wiscasset. Built in 1763 on the site now occupied by the landmark Nickels-Sortwell house, it was moved down the street to its current location in 1805. “People say it took 90 yoke of oxen and a barrel of rum,” Lari says.

The couple moved to Maine from Chicago 12 years ago. “We weren’t looking for an old home, but when we saw this house, there was an instant, emotional feeling of rightness,” says Lari, a painter and textile designer. “My husband thinks this house chose us.”

What appealed to the couple then remains one of Lari’s favorite aspects of the house: the light that pours through the windows, especially in the front rooms. The scarcity of drapes throughout is intentional. Lari’s studio is a remarkable place for her to paint, illuminated by natural light from windows on three walls.

Adjacent to the studio is the couple’s home office, which is filled with books on cooking, home design, and other creative ventures. A vibrant Moroccan rug brightens the hardwood floor. The living room walls and furniture are neutral tones, as Lari is drawn to colorful, textural accents, like pillows and throws. “We love punches of color — especially warm reds and pinks,” she says.

The Washburns’ collection of mid-century modern lamps and furniture allows them to marry their home’s antique details with their affinity for modern design. The juxtaposition is apparent as you ascend the main staircase: the 250-year-old steps have been worn to a gentle curve by countless footsteps, while the walls are adorned with abstract artworks.

“If I had filled this house with antique furniture, it would have been a caricature, a cliché,” Lari says. “John and I wanted something clean and modern — something people wouldn’t necessarily expect.”

The Washburns have done significant remodeling, including rebuilding both chimneys, always with an eye toward preserving the house’s historic character. Original paneling covers one wall of each of the bedrooms, and many of the iron door latches and hinges are centuries old. They have tapped old-house carpentry experts Pownalborough Restorations, of Alna, for many of their projects, including improving the energy efficiency of the interior doors and a floor-to-ceiling kitchen renovation.

“We’ll continue to work on it,” Lari says. “I don’t think it will ever be over.”