By Virginia M. Wright
Photographed by Erin Little
From the September 2016 issue of Down East magazine
For years, Ken and Sylvia Reiss vacationed in Sylvia’s native Scotland, but when it came to building a retirement retreat, they wanted a more practical location for hosting children and grandchildren. “Scotland was not a good idea, but we wanted a place that felt like it,” Ken says. “So we began to look in Maine.”
The couple, who live in Darien, Connecticut, half the year, found their refuge high on Dog Point on Vinalhaven, the island lobstering community 15 miles off the coast of Rockland. Quarried more than a century ago, the hilltop’s hewn granite shelves and basins have grown velvety with mosses and mountain cranberry, creating a natural rock garden that has needed little encouragement from the Reisses since they cleared away some of the spruces and built their home nine years ago.
The west-facing views are spectacular. With its three-sided, multi-windowed facade, the house feels like the bridge of a luxury cruise ship crossing The Reach, the channel between Vinalhaven and Greens Island. From the water, though, it’s a classic coastal cottage with weathered shingles, so humble it nearly fades into the rocky highland. “We wanted it to be as unobtrusive as possible,” Ken explains. “One thing the locals didn’t need was a statement at the top of the hill. We wanted the house to look like it had been here forever.”
The Reisses designed the place themselves, letting their perch guide them: They began with that west-facing facade, arranging five big windows on either side of a fireplace, which was built with granite from the property by Warren mason Mark Stambaugh. The vista is the focal point of an open floor plan comprising the living, dining, and kitchen areas. The walls are paneled with shiplap pine — short and rough pieces run horizontally under the vaulted ceiling’s gables, long and smooth pieces run vertically below. Sheetrock has been kept to a minimum because the Reisses’ past experience with another seasonal home told them it doesn’t perform well — nails pop and paint peels — when subjected to extreme temperatures.
Tucked behind the kitchen on the house’s east end are three bedrooms on two levels.
The house is simply decorated with framed nautical signal flags, vintage prints, maps, and ephemera — the fruits of the antiques business that the Reisses ran for several years after they retired, he from magazine writing and advertising, she from teaching. Sylvia’s decorating masterpiece is the bathroom papered with vintage Saturday Evening Post covers featuring Norman Rockwell’s visions of small-town America. All are captivating, but one is particularly apt for a house on Vinalhaven: That’s the August 20, 1955, cover, simply titled “Lobsterman,” in which a red-headed mermaid peers between the slats of a wooden trap slung over the shoulder of a pipe-smoking old salt. It’s as if that stooped lobsterman has been trudging up the hill from Carvers Harbor all these years and finally found his way home.