Thrifty (But Nifty)

The smart look of Polly Peters and Bear Blake’s 187-year-old Mount Vernon home owes to clever reuse and a generous coating of white paint.

By Virginia M. Wright
Photographed by Megan Jones
Our style is $2.98 decorating,” Polly Peters announces unabashedly, her eyes twinkling behind owlish glasses. “We’ve never had a new sofa. We’ve never had a new chair.”

Peters, petite and energetic at 88 (“A year and a half and I’ll be 90!” she says, flexing her muscles), and her husband, Ted “Bear” Blake, a lanky and reserved 79, are showing me around their early-19th-century Greek Revival in the Belgrade Lakes town of Mount Vernon. Nearly every piece of furniture and oddball artifact in this house’s 10 rooms was either found at an antiques shop or cobbled together from the parts of disparate objects.


Consider the kitchen island: it’s made from a well-worn cabinet, discarded table legs, and the rough-hewn boards of a fence that was collapsing onto the yard when the couple bought the place five years ago. And that tall, narrow cupboard where the cookbooks reside? It’s an old chicken roost. “It took me a year just to clean it out,” Peters confides, “but it was worth it.”

This may be $2.98 décor — make that $15 in the case of the island — but it is neither shabby nor affectedly quirky. In fact, the rooms reflect the elegant sense of style that Peters developed over four decades as a purveyor of “high-class junk” (her curio shop on Portland’s Brackett Street was so popular that the massive old building, now vacation apartments, is still called the Polly Peters House). “It trained my eye,” she explains. “I had to help people decide where they were going to put their things.”


Restraint is one of the secrets to the couple’s sophisticated interiors: they love their junk, but they don’t clutter their rooms with it. Another secret: white paint, and lots of it. A pale monochromatic palette dominates throughout the house. The dining room is even painted exclusively in shades of white, from the ceiling to the floor. The table and chairs wear a brushy, super-white coat of shellac-based primer that shows off the richness of the ruby seat cushions and the luxuriance of the centerpiece — a silver bowl brimming with silver ornaments.

The craftsman behind much of the improvised furniture and fixtures is Polly’s son, Judd Derbyshire, who gives new purpose to things like a vintage floor ashtray (now an end table) and a lamp (now a candelabra). Blake, an accomplished watercolorist, created most of the paintings of houses and landscapes in Portland, Mount Vernon, and Italy.

Years ago, Peters and Blake chose the $2.98 way of life, and they’ve had fun collecting and transforming bric-a-brac. “We made up our minds that there were things we could do without — we could have a good time and be our own bosses,” Peters says. “What do they say? ‘Man is rich in proportion to what he can leave alone.’ It’s true.”

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Virginia M. Wright

Virginia M. Wright is the senior editor at Down East.