Mount Desert Island, Maine, is so idyllic in summer that its most prominent town, Bar Harbor, was originally known as Eden. Picturesque century-old summer “cottages” dot the shore, recalling the island’s cachet with Gilded Age industrialists. “There were some charming — and slightly eccentric — houses built at the time,” says architect Anthony Barnes, and this 1890s cottage, with its stone-walled first floor, half-timbered upper stories, and pagoda-like roof, certainly qualifies. But a steam-age floor plan, an accretion of hodgepodge additions, and years of service in the bed and breakfast trade had left it badly in need of renovation.
Barnes and builder Mark Sweeney, of Ellsworth, Maine–based Classical Endeavors, collaborated on returning the building to single-family use while doing justice to both its history and setting.
In legal parlance, grandfathered nonconforming sites are referred to as “privileged,” Barnes explains. “Much of remodeling houses on the water is about preserving that privilege, and this house was profoundly privileged in that location. The corner of the deck is actually below the high-tide mark. You could never build a house that way today.”
Despite its prime perch, however, the existing building failed to close the deal. After enjoying a sublime water view from the parking area, Barnes says, “you walked in, and you were trapped in the belly of the house. The kitchen was completely internalized, surrounded by rooms. You really didn’t have that invitation to go outside.” Peering through two-foot-thick stone walls, the kitchen’s two small windows offered only pinched views of the water; the dining room windows pointed away from the shore at a wooded uphill slope.
Working largely within the building’s existing footprint, Sweeny’s crew added a new dining room and “coffee bar” that link the kitchen with the existing living room in a sequence of sunroom-like spaces oriented toward the water. Wide new arches in the stone walls improve circulation, ease indoor-outdoor access, and channel light and views into the building’s core.
Upstairs, the surgery was even more extensive. “We completely changed the second-floor plan,” says Barnes, who consolidated three suites into an expansive master suite and a secondary suite with its own bath. The master suite spreads along the water, offering open vistas of Frenchman’s Bay and its many islands.
A box bay with an arched “chapeau de gendarme” roof, centered on the main gable end, broadens the view while providing shelter over the home’s main entrance. Topping the dining room addition is a study whose crossing gables echo the pagoda theme of the existing roof and make the room something of a coastal observatory.
Designing an authentic luxury kitchen for a 19th-century house presents a conundrum: in that Upstairs Downstairs era, one simply didn’t hang out or entertain among the pots and pans. Barnes’ solution to the generation gap is this neat piece of historical fiction, which wraps period-appropriate materials and motifs around a thoroughly contemporary plan.
“I think a classic white kitchen is almost ageless,” says Barnes, who specified white or off-white for the painted cabinets, marble countertops, and subway tile backsplashes. A wide, raised-panel vent hood lends a hearth-like aspect to the cooking area, while the refrigerator’s position — tucked beneath the open staircase — allows it to fade into the background. The stained-cherry island recalls an antique farm table; pillowed limestone floor tiles further the upscale-farmhouse theme.
But under those period trappings beats the heart of an multifunctional 21st-century kitchen. The island organizes the room, mediating between an area for circulation and casual dining and the cook’s “protected” zone. The latter constitutes the cockpit of the house. From there, an oval window, glazed with wavy restoration panes, peeks through the living room to the entry door.
Access to the outdoors may be the highest value of all in contemporary architecture, and the kitchen offers that as well. “If you’re standing at the [island] sink,” Barnes says, “you look out through the stone walls, through the French doors, and you’re in the garden.”
Above & Beyond
Pagoda-like curved roofs are integral to the home’s picturesque cottage style. But a roof structure based on an inverted arch presents distinct challenges. “Trees don’t grow that way, so you can’t cut that kind of rafter out of a single log,” Barnes points out, “and that’s not the way forces are resolved in a structure.”
The original builders had scabbed together the main roof’s rafters, supporting them at mid-span with knee walls that ran the full length of the roof. After 130 years, Barnes says, “there were some very saggy knee wall conditions, which caused problems with sagging floors.” To square things up, Sweeny’s crews replaced the knee walls with a pair of Vierendeel trusses, which convert the distributed roof loads into a series of point loads that are then transferred to the foundation via columns buried in partition walls.
For the roof over the living room, Barnes designed a set of king post trusses that support a ridge beam and built-up plywood rafters. The ceiling planes are flat rather than curved, Barnes notes, but the trusses’ arched bottom chords make reference to the pagoda theme. “This was a very affordable way to get some cathedral space inside and capture the spirit of the original roof,” he says. That spirit shows most fully in the master bath, where, Barnes says, “we restructured the roof so you could see that little pagoda shape from the inside. We made it a little temple.”
Written in Stone
Granite gives the house much of its character and grounds it to its rock-bound site. But the original masonry went perhaps a step too far, walling off light and views from the building’s interior.
Barnes’s plan loosens that stoney embrace while celebrating the material itself. Jeff Gammelin of Freshwater Stone, in Orland, Maine, broke three new openings in the existing walls, capping each with a rough keystone arch. “All three are slightly different,” Barnes says. “We wanted you to be fully aware of your passage through that wall.”
Finished with plaster elsewhere in the house, the stone here is fully exposed. The transition is revealed at one of the kitchen arches, where the plaster recedes gradually, as if timeworn, to reveal the masonry beneath it.
Barnes and Gammelin collaborated on two additional homages to the stonecutter’s art. In the dining room, their compact granite-block fireplace presents a rustic-but-restrained counterpoint to the delicately cased arches that flank it.
The new living room fireplace pulls out all the stops. “It’s what I fondly call the ‘Fred Flintstone fireplace,’” says Barnes, who specified granite slabs of the kind once used in foundation walls. The massive lintel still shows marks from the stone drill. “It’s a beautiful stone,” he says. “The way [Gammelin] fit it together is almost Machu Picchu–esque. You could hardly jam the proverbial knife blade in the joints.”
—Bruce Snider is senior contributing editor at CUSTOM HOME and RESIDENTIAL ARCHITECT, sister publications of REMODELING.