This Cape Porpoise Fish House Is an Icon. But of What, Exactly?

A Maine fishing village grapples with beauty, community, and authenticity in the Instagram era.

By Brian Kevin
Photographed by Benjamin Williamson
Opener mosaic featuring these Instagram photographers
From our December 2019 issue

If you’re active on Instagram and you follow Maine-y hashtags like #mainelife, #mainething, or #thewaylifeshouldbe, then you have seen it. If you happen to follow the hashtag specifically for #capeporpoise, then you have seen an awful lot of it, as there have been times this year when photos of it have made up nearly half the top results of the more than 10,000 #capeporpoise-tagged images posted to the popular photo-sharing social platform.

The first time I saw it was last December, when Down East staff photographer Benjamin Williamson came back from a photo assignment in Cape Porpoise, the postage-stamp harbor village often described as “the quiet side of Kennebunkport.” It was a natural-shingled, colonial-shed–like structure suspended on stilts over — and perfectly reflected in — the glassy waters of a low-tide Porpoise Cove. Behind it blazed a chorus-of-angels sunrise, with rows of ochre, saffron, and lavender stretching from the waterline up through the clouds. Golden light shone through parallel windows on the building’s longer sides, while a row of lightning rods on the roof seemed to genuflect to the sky. It was the kind of scene that prompts iPhone-toting observers to hashtag their photos #thewaylifeshouldbe

“Wow,” I said to Ben. “What is that?”

What I didn’t know then was how many people have had a hard time answering that question.

In the year since, I’ve talked to a dozen or so Instagrammers whose photos of the place have amassed hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of views, almost none of whom were sure just what they were photographing. Meanwhile, between the two people who know the most about the structure — its owner, who built it, and his neighbor, whose granddad once owned the parcel it’s built on — there is disagreement and, frankly, bad blood over just what the building is and is not.

Ben theorized it was some kind of “party pad.” In the months that followed, he and I noticed it appearing more regularly in our Instagram feeds, where it was referred to as a “stilt house,” a “barn on the water,” and a “love shack.” Then, as shots of it became even more ubiquitous, Instagram posters took to calling it “the Cape Porpoise fish house,” “the often-photographed fish shack,” or simply, “that building.”

“I’m not sure if this is someone’s home, boathouse, or business (can you imagine what they could charge for a wedding here?),” one Instagrammer wrote in his caption, “but it looks like one of the most peaceful spots in the world to sit out the zombie apocalypse.”

Indeed it does. But Maine is rotten with idyllic-looking places where one might take refuge from the undead. I can think of a magazine that’s published photos of them every month for 66 years. This place seemed to come out of nowhere and go startlingly viral. I wanted to know why. So I opened my Instagram app and started sending direct messages.

I met photographer Robert Dennis in Cape Porpoise on an unseasonably drizzly day in February, at a restaurant called Musette. Until three years ago, it was called The Wayfarer, a diner that had been open for 60 years, serving eggs to fishermen in the mornings and a good haddock chowder the rest of the day. Musette still has the chowder — it actually still has The Wayfarer’s sign, hanging above its lunch counter — but it also has avocado toast and a lobster roll on brioche and overall just feels a bit swankier than the place did a decade or two back. The same can be said about Cape Porpoise as a whole.

A former Boston-area financial advisor, Dennis has lived since 2011 on Langsford Road, a dead-end street overlooking Porpoise Cove and, on the cove’s far side, the Cape Porpoise municipal pier, where the daily catch of the year-round fishing fleet has been the town’s economic lifeblood for most of its 350ish years. These days, tourism gives it a run for its money. Where Langsford Road meets Route 9 — the summer tourism artery — “downtown” Cape Porpoise consists of a 100-year-old former firehouse called Atlantic Hall, a gift shop in a barn, a scatter of restaurants, the fisherman-owned Nunan’s Lobster Hut, and Bradbury Brothers Market, the village’s only source of groceries and primary source of gossip since 1944, as well as its post office.

The many faces of the Zuke fish house.

Dennis started spending summers in the twin seaside vacation towns of Kennebunk and Kennebunkport — and obsessively photographing them — back in the ’80s. He’s done a popular Kennebunks coffee-table book, and, since the 1990s, he’s been the primary photographer for the regional chamber of commerce. He adores the Bushes and has often photographed (at a distance) their Walker’s Point estate, the epicenter of the Kennebunks’ WASPy prestige. He has no beef with the commercial bustle and summertime tour buses around central Kennebunkport’s Dock Square, but he always knew that if he moved full-time, he’d want to settle 2 miles up the road, in comparatively tranquil Cape Porpoise.

“I’m passionately in love with the place,” he told me, “and one of the reasons is because it’s so beautifully scenic at all seasons of the year and times of day, but also because it’s so quiet.”

Near as I can tell, Dennis is patient zero for the Instagram virality of the structure that sits basically in his backyard, in a tidal marsh along Langsford Road. His street is dotted with former “fish houses” that the Kennebunks are known for — waterside wooden shacks where fishermen once stowed and mended wooden gear and traps, maybe sold a few lobsters. Dennis has been shooting such shanties for decades, including one that formerly stood on the site of the current Instagram phenomenon. After our lunch at Musette, he sent me some undated photos of it: its shingles were weathered to brownish, its windows boarded and roof slightly bowed — the ugly duckling to the current incarnation’s swan. It collapsed during a storm in the early ’90s.

Most of the town’s remaining fish houses are dilapidated or have been converted to other uses — vacation cottages, for instance. It’s just one of the changes Dennis has observed through his lens. He goes almost nightly to the pier to shoot the sunset and the lobsterboats, and he says there are fewer of the latter than in his photos from 20 year ago. “I guess lobstermen passed away, or it’s not economical for them to live here anymore,” he said. “It’s no question there are fewer full-time people living here than there used to be.”

A lot of nice new homes have popped up along Langsford Road since the old brownish-shingled fish house collapsed, and some modest older Capes remain, but fishermen don’t occupy either of them. “It’s all rental people,” Dennis said. “I don’t see them more than a couple weeks of the year.” 

So when a local builder named Bob Zuke started erecting a new Langsford Road fish house in 2016, Dennis was intrigued. And once the building’s exterior was completed, he wasted no time getting a sunrise photo. 

Dennis posted his first Instagram shot of the Zuke fish house on February 19, 2017, with the caption, “Sunrise this morning!”, followed by a mess of hashtags. By year’s end, he’d posted four more shots of the new structure, most of them with another, converted Langsford Road fish house, a striking red one, in the foreground. His posts the next winter had three times the hearts as his early ones (a heart is the Instagram equivalent of a Facebook “like”), and they were widely shared by accounts like @newengland_igers, which has 53,000 Instagram followers, and, well, @downeastmagazine, which has 87,000.

Dennis posted his first Instagram shot of the Zuke fish house on February 19, 2017, with the caption, “Sunrise this morning!”, followed by a mess of hashtags.

This summer, Dennis said, he sometimes stepped out to find four or five people standing off Langsford Road, photographing the Zuke fish house — far fewer than come to visit the lobster shack a few doors down, he points out, but still. Of the Instagrammers I talked to, more than half said they came to Cape Porpoise to shoot the fish house after seeing one of Dennis’s shots. Many of the rest name-checked someone who then told me they had first seen it in Dennis’s photos. When I told him this, Dennis seemed bewildered. It’s “nutty,” he said, to imagine someone driving to Cape Porpoise in the middle of the night just to photograph this fish house at dawn.

“When it first went up, I wasn’t a big fan — I didn’t think it was all that picturesque. But the more I worked around it, I found there were a lot of creative ways to take a photo,” Dennis said. “When it’s reflecting in the water, it does present a pretty attractive sight. I guess people think it sort of exemplifies Maine.”

As I would learn, though, not everyone thinks this.

It didn’t seem nutty to Steven Perlmutter, of North Andover, Massachusetts, to get up in the dark and drive to Cape Porpoise to shoot the Zuke fish house at sunrise. He did so in March of 2018 after seeing Dennis’s Instagram posts.

“So many of the iconic locations in Maine have been photographed forever,” he said. “This is one of those more obscure things that, once a few people get wind of it and see a beautiful shot, it’s like, ‘Hey, cool, I can go do that too, and I’ve never photographed it before.’ Everyone has done Nubble, everyone has done Portland Head Light, everyone has done Jordan Pond, you name it.”

That’s the culture of Instagram, for better or for worse, said Dave Dostie, of Augusta, who has likewise made the pre-dawn drive — you see a shot you like, you want to try it, maybe put your own spin on it. 

“In the last several months, people have taken to it even more, from what I see,” he said. “As photographers, we’re not typically drawn to things that have that newish look, but this particular fish house, I’ve just seen so many phenomenal photos of it.”

“People do drive down there just to get that shot,” said Beth Currie, of Sarnia, Ontario, who’s been coming to Kennebunkport seasonally long enough to remember the old structure on the same site. She posted her first pic of the new one last January, with a caption that read, “To me, this fish house looks like it’s been in this place for years!” It got more Instagram hearts than anything she’d ever posted before.

“It looks like that house was put there for the purpose of taking pictures,” said Isaac Crabtree, of Greenville, who made the trip to Cape Porpoise in July to shoot it with his drone. “It’s like Portland Head Light — that lighthouse was built for taking pictures. I didn’t know the fish house was new when I saw the photos. I thought they must have done some work to it, but in my head, when I saw it, it evoked these older pictures of fish houses on stilts. It was like they built this as the quintessential building, like they were honoring all those old ones people get nostalgic about.”

No one, I suspect, is more delighted to read these comments than Bob Zuke, who, with his wife, Linda, took me out to their fish house one afternoon in September. The tide was high, and there is no boardwalk to access the building — putting one in requires permits the Zukes don’t have. I had no boots, so I took off my socks, rolled my jeans to my knees, and squelched in my sneakers through calf-high water to a wooden ladder that reached the fish house door.

“I like my stuff to look old,” Bob declared, as we picked our way through the marsh grasses. “I like to build stuff that could be 100 years old.”

Bob, who is 57, started building stuff professionally when he was 18, starting his own roofing and construction company when he was 22. Before that, as a high school kid in nearby Biddeford, he worked part-time as a sternman on a lobsterboat out of Cape Porpoise Harbor. When the boat would pass the old brownish-shingled structure — ramshackle, then, but still standing — Bob said he would point to it and proclaim out loud, “I’m going to own that someday.”

Not that he ever wanted to fish — both his and Linda’s families go back generations in Maine, but neither are fishing families. He was, he told me, just “an odd duck” who, even as a kid, was preoccupied with owning real estate and fixing things up. These days, he does plenty of both, and you can’t drive for long around the Kennebunks or neighboring Arundel, where the Zukes live, without spotting a sign proclaiming ZUKE in large, blocky white letters on a truck or at a project site.

Winter scenes from around Cape Porpoise.

Bob and Linda welcomed me into the fish house like I was a neighbor dropping by for coffee. Bob is a gregarious, sturdy guy with a crew cut who jokes in a respectable Maine accent about wearing the same white work shirt and Dickies every day. He could be cast as a lovably gruff blue-collar dad in a ’50s sitcom. Linda, 53, is equally warm, if quieter than her booming husband. She’s an owner and controller at an auto dealership her father founded, and she’s active on boards and committees around the Kennebunks, including as a trustee at the Kennebunkport Conservation Trust. (Full disclosure: While chitchatting in the fish house, I learned that Linda has sat on the planning board for a Kennebunks festival that Down East has sponsored.)

On the inside, the one-and-a-half-story fish house marries rustic and snazzy much as it does on the outside — it’s like somebody’s upscale summer cottage. The walls are made from weathered fir planks Bob salvaged from a Drake’s Island cottage he worked on more than 20 years ago (he has a tendency to hoard such things). The oak trim and flooring were leftovers gifted from a client whose house he worked on more recently. The reupholstered furniture belonged to a cousin. Paintings by local artists — mostly colorful folk-art seascapes — adorn the walls, and a beautifully carved wooden whale hangs from the ceiling of a kitchen area that wouldn’t look out of place in a stylish homes magazine (stove-free, as there’s wiring and lights but no power unless the Zukes hook up a generator).

“Everything in here comes with a story, most of it’s salvaged, and it all comes from the state of Maine,” Bob said proudly.

On one side of the open-concept first floor, next to a pair of bay doors, stood a couple of sawhorses next to a workbench scattered with tools. This area, Bob and Linda said, will be the shop for their lobsterman kids to stash and work on their gear. The Zukes have three adult sons, the youngest of whom, Wyatt, is a welder. The older two are fishermen. Julian, 24, started apprenticing with local lobstermen when he was 10 and got his first boat at 14. Joe, 22, is a student at Maine Maritime Academy. When I showed up at the Zukes’ house that morning, Joe was out front, loading traps into a pickup truck. Julian was fishing offshore, his charts spread all over the dining room table.

Most of the Cape Porpoise fleet fishes year-round.

It’s thanks to his sons that Bob fulfilled his teenage dream of owning the fish house. The Zukes bought the parcel from a lobsterman, Robert O’Reilly, who had owned it — along with the former building and its post-collapse remnants — since 1986. In 2008, O’Reilly applied for a building permit from the town of Kennebunkport to build a replacement structure on the site, and the permit was granted, stipulating that any replacement would be limited to water-dependent uses, consistent with Cape Porpoise’s traditional working waterfront. O’Reilly’s attempts at construction started and sputtered, and his permit was renewed twice before being transferred to the Zukes when they bought the property in 2016. They renewed the permit, envisioning a first-class space that Julian and Joe — who, like most of the village’s fleet, don’t live in Kennebunkport — could use instead of trucking their gear to Arundel or elsewhere. 

“I paid $200,000 for like an eighth of an acre of mud,” Bob said.

“And a permit,” Linda chimed in. 

“It looks like that house was put there for the purpose of taking pictures. . . . It was like they built this as the quintessential building, like they were honoring all those old ones people get nostalgic about.”

“Everybody thinks it’s a house we’ve built out here,” Bob went on, “but it’s not a residence, and I’d never want it to be one.” He’d also never be permitted to build one over coastal wetlands — or, in all likelihood, any other project that wasn’t a marine commercial building replacing a marine commercial building.

The Zukes said they’re wading through the permitting process to put in a wharf, so their kids can tie up their boats. In the meantime, Bob said, some neighbors have given him a hard time for putting up a structure that seems, well, a bit elegant for a working building. But even the saltiest lobstermen appreciate a nice place to sit and snack, Bob said. What was he supposed to do, hang sheet metal on the sides and tie a blue tarp to the roof?

“When you’re used to doing quality work all the time, it’s just what you do,” he said.

Both Zukes told me they fear a day when Cape Porpoise loses all its fishing-village character, as they think Langsford Road largely has. They see their fish house — however spiffy, however perched above sensitive marshland — as an effort to restore a piece of it. 

“Conservation, to me, is not only about a view or making a path to walk on,” Linda said. “Conservation is about heritage, and it’s about a way of life.”

Bob worries about a day when Bradbury Brothers, the town market, can’t stay open all year for lack of year-round residents. This summer, he went to Stonington, Maine’s top fishing port by landings, and he told me it reminded him of the Cape Porpoise of his youth.

“Because of all the lobsterboats?” I asked. 

“Because the people there mow their own lawns,” he said.

The Zukes are proud that their boys are among a handful of Cape Porpoise fishermen under 30, but they wonder what those demographics might mean for the future of the fleet. 

“If the commercial fishery were to go away, then what is this?” Bob said, gesturing out the open bay doors at the shore. “It’s just going to be a shell, no local color, no local flavor. People will come here just to see the same thing they left.”

They may still come to see the Zuke fish house, of course. Bob and Linda said they’re constantly pulling up on Langsford Road to find someone snapping a photo. Paintings of the building, by local and visiting artists, fill a whole wall of Linda’s office at the dealership. “It’s just a great compliment to what it is and where it is,” Bob said.

Gary Eaton sees things differently.

Eaton is the Zukes’ neighbor on Langsford Road. He owns that striking red former fish house that Robert Dennis — and swarms of Instagrammers since — used to frame shots of the Zukes’ building. And if photographers or painters are drawn to Langsford Road, he told me on the phone, it’s because of the cove’s natural beauty, the chain of islands at the harbor’s mouth, and the white pillar of Goat Island Light silhouetted against the sky — not because of the Zuke fish house, which inhibits that view. Eaton, with some other neighbors who’ve publicly echoed him, thinks it shouldn’t have been built and ought to be demolished, and he’s spent much of the last two years approaching town committees and officials, state agencies, and newspaper editorial pages to explain why.

Buoys adorn a shed on Cape Porpoise’s Paddy Creek. The Church on the Cape dates to 1857, and its steeple to 1902. 

Eaton is 64 and grew up on Langsford Road. His granddad moved to the neighborhood from Nova Scotia, fished a while, then started a wholesale lobster business that Eaton’s dad eventually took over. In his childhood, his grandparents lived two doors down and his aunt and uncle up the street. “It was fishermen and lobstermen and everybody knew everybody,” he said.

He worked summers with his dad and loved being on the water, but he didn’t want a life in fishing. So he moved out west in his 20s and has bounced around since, mostly working in the energy industry. He never got back much, but in recent years, he’s been spending summers in Cape Porpoise. He and his wife sailed up this year from their home in southwest Florida. They’ve worked on the family’s red fish house — “gentrified into a clubhouse,” Eaton joked, with a bar and nautical memorabilia. His 96-year-old mother’s house is still a few doors down, but his grandparents’ place was sold and “McMansioned,” he said, like many other houses on his street. His aunt and uncle’s house was demolished and replaced with rental units. Eaton said he doesn’t know much of anybody on Langsford Road anymore.

He has multiple criticisms of the process that allowed for the Zuke fish house, and these can bog down a bit in legalese. Eaton emailed me a 20-point summary, with many attachments. Concisely, he argues that the town of Kennebunkport violated its own ordinances — first, by repeatedly renewing a building permit for the lobsterman who sold it to the Zukes, and secondly, by renewing that permit when the Zukes bought the land, without review from the town’s planning board. (In an emailed response, Kennebunkport’s director of planning and development essentially wrote that Eaton misreads the ordinances.)

The whole tenor of the town now and the fabric of it . . . it’s just a whole different thing now, and I didn’t realize how good it was.

What’s more, Eaton insists, the whole narrative of the site once hosting a fish house was ginned up to boost the “working waterfront” cred of permit applications. His grandfather sold the property, structure-less, to a neighbor in the 1920s. The building that went up afterwards, Eaton says, was only ever used for boat storage, never to facilitate lobstering. He has testimonials supporting this. (The Zukes, for their part, point to old postcard images showing what they say is a fish house and wharf on the site before Eaton’s grandfather owned it. Robert O’Reilly, who sold them the site, has claimed he used the former building for his lobstering business before its collapse in the early ’90s.)

Eaton is aware that his arguments defy quick summary. “If you’re just picking pieces from all this,” he told me gingerly, “it can make me look like an utter ass when you piece it together.” 

So for the record, Eaton does not strike me as an utter ass. Or even as some NIMBYite with an axe to grind. Like the Zukes, he laments a loss of cohesion on Langsford Road and around Cape Porpoise — but he sees the permitting of their fish house as a symptom of a heedlessness that’s driving it. Atop his more granular misgivings is an overarching one: that what the Zukes really want is a recreational hangout, plush and Instagram-chic, and that their sons — who could get by fine without a fish house, like most every lobsterman — are the “loophole” by which they’re obtaining it. 

“The whole tenor of the town now and the fabric of it, how people interact, it’s all different,” he told me. “When I come back here — and the Zuke issue is part and parcel of this — it’s hard for me to accept what’s gone on.” He paused. “It’s just a whole different thing now,” he said, “and I didn’t realize how good it was.”

The Zukes didn’t want to talk much about Eaton or others who object to their fish house. What little they had to say was tinged with an old-school Maine skepticism of those who’ve gone “away” and then come back complaining — Eaton, born and raised in Cape Porpoise, committed the cardinal Maine sin of relinquishing his birthright, his native status.

Their reactions also seemed tinged with hurt. At their home, the morning I visited, the Zukes showed me a photo album with shots of their boys as teens and tweens. (Bob is “not on the computer,” he said — never mind Instagram — so he likes having photos printed in albums.) Linda pointed to an old picture of her sons, just kids, wearing full oil gear and standing on the deck of a fishing boat. 

“There they are,” she said wryly, “our ‘loopholes.’”

Gary Eaton looks at a building over the water and sees a symbol of the forces transforming his community. The Zukes look at the same building and see a symbol of resistance against those forces. I can’t say which side is right. I can say that both seem genuine in their love of Cape Porpoise and their hopes for its future, and it saddens me to see them at odds — because all across Maine are towns like Cape Porpoise that need voices as passionate as theirs.

In June, I brought my sons to the Cape Porpoise pier on a Sunday morning to watch the annual Blessing of the Fleet, a centuries-old tradition in maritime communities. We sat cross-legged as a robed Episcopal minister read from Psalms, offered a prayer, then sprinkled water on the pier while relaying his blessing, fishing boats bobbing behind him. 

I took a picture of that last part, and naturally, I posted it to Instagram. I added a caption with a line I liked from the benediction. “For all who draw pleasure from the beauty of the sea,” the minister said, “bring us all to the harbor of light and peace.”

May 2024, Down East Magazine

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