Every Mainer’s Kitchen
Remodeling a 1949 cook space in Eastport became a history lesson for both the designers and the homeowner.
- By: Virginia M. Wright
Photography by Joyce Jackson
With their unpainted wood-and-glass doors and purple bases, Pamela Hanes’ kitchen cabinets had a whimsical appeal, but that didn’t count for much when she opened the drawers. “None of them were squared,” chuckles Hanes, who bought her antique Cape overlooking Passamaquoddy Bay in Eastport a dozen years ago. “You’d pull them open, and they’d fall out.”
Besides the cabinets’ operational flaws, Hanes’ kitchen suffered the shortcomings you’d expect from a cook space that was last remodeled in 1949: There was far too little countertop and, considering the room’s dimensions (just 12 ½-by-14 ¾ feet), far too much functionless floor and wall space. “It had its charm,” observes Patrick Mealey, who with his wife, Joyce Jackson, comprises the Perry design-build team of fineartistmade, “but it was out of place with the rest of the house. Pam wanted something more in keeping with the original detailing, which is Federal period, probably 1810 or so. The original kitchen would have been free-standing furniture, but that would not be functional for a modern lifestyle. Our goal was to give her a contemporary kitchen with a traditional feel.”
As the name of their business suggests, Mealey and Jackson each come to their work with an artist’s eye — he is a painter of bold abstract forms; she is a fine art photographer. They cut their teeth in old home restoration and renovation by painting houses in Long Island’s whaling port-turned-artists colony, Sag Harbor. Their trade has evolved to include designing and handcrafting kitchens, bathrooms, and, most recently, furniture that fuses their love of antiques and folk art with clean, contemporary lines. On their honeymoon eleven years ago, they ambled down the coast of Maine with the intention of turning inland toward Baxter State Park, but when they reached Stonington, they decided to keep heading Down East and ended up on the archipelago that is the small fishing city of Eastport. “It was love at first sight,” Jackson recounts. “Eastport had potential and plenty of old homes to work on.” The following year, they moved to neighboring Perry, where their 1890s American foursquare farmhouse on Boyden Lake became their first Maine restoration project.
Once one of the country’s busiest ports and home to a prosperous sardine canning industry — a forgotten facet that would be uncovered during the renovation of Hanes’ kitchen — Eastport has struggled economically for decades, but its nineteenth-century colonials, Cape Cods, Second Empires, and Queen Annes remind Jackson and Mealey of Sag Harbor, and they believe the city of 1,640 people has the makings for a renaissance as an artists’ colony and summer retreat. They aren’t alone: This Old House online calls Eastport, with its relatively affordable waterfront properties, one of the best places in the Northeast to buy an old home.
Pam Hanes’ trim little Cape is a Maine classic, with white clapboard siding, a chimney on each end, and a paneled front door painted dark green and framed by sidelights. Not visible from the street is a contemporary rear living room whose abundant glass affords sweeping views of Passamaquoddy Bay and the province of New Brunswick beyond.
“The house was quite different when I first bought it, but the basic good bones were there,” says Hanes, who divides her year between Maine and Colorado. “First, I ripped up a lot of old carpet and linoleum and redid the hardwood floors. Then my daughter and I removed the drop ceilings —there were drop ceilings everywhere. We pulled out anything that didn’t belong.”
Last summer it came time to tackle the kitchen, and Hanes followed the restoration’s progress from Colorado as Mealey and Jackson blogged about it on their Web site (www.fineartistmade.com). They started by prying the cabinetry from the walls and removing fiberboard paneling, acoustic ceiling tiles, and crumbling plaster that had been held together only by wallpaper (it was a 1949 Bangor Daily News comics section stuffed into the wall for insulation that dated the kitchen). There emerged the wainscoting of a first renovation performed when the plumbing was modernized in the 1890s, and underneath that, the nearly two-hundred-year-old, hand-planed beaded baseboard and chair rail of the original kitchen. Rather than cover these artifacts yet again with the new cabinets, Mealey used them to create aprons for two large windows that had been installed about a decade ago, thus lending them a bit of the house’s historic character.
To complete the look, he altered stock molding to replicate the Cape’s antique trim. “Some of it is sad because when you have things that have survived so long you hate to pull them out,” Mealey says. “But we’re not doing a museum restoration. We’re trying to make a place where someone can live her life, and our work has to be sensitive to that.”
Because of a stovepipe hole and, on the floor below it, the outline of hearth, Mealey and Jackson were not surprised to find the remnants of a mantel behind the Sheetrock and paneling on the kitchen’s east wall; however, the brick beehive oven, its firebox cemented shut but cast iron door intact, was unexpected. The find spurred them to reexamine their plans, but ultimately they decided a restoration was not in the cards: The space was the only logical spot for Hanes’ new state-of-the-art propane range. “So,” Mealey says, “we closed it back up with the pieces of the mantel in the wall. Someday if someone gets ambitious, there will be some suggestion of what to do.”
Once the plumbing, wiring, lighting, and ventilation were updated, Mealey and Jackson started building the cabinets, setting up a workshop in the dining room and on the lawn, from which they occasionally were treated to the sight of whales breaching in the bay. “It’s easier in terms of custom work — and all old homes are custom — to do the work onsite,” Jackson explains. The room’s relatively small size dictated the cabinets’ simple style, and the couple resolved the previous kitchen’s problem of dead space by building a cupboard around the refrigerator, taking cues for its design from the butler’s pantry at the Woodlawn Museum, an 1827 estate in Ellsworth. They dealt with the slanted floors, a common symptom of house settling, by varying the height of the toe kick, an accommodation made virtually undetectable by the deep cabinets.
With pine box drawers and poplar fronts, the cabinets are painted white and topped by earth-hued Corian, which resembles smoky slate. The Empire-style walnut knobs, stained a rich, dark brown, were an inspiration that came to Jackson as she lay in bed thinking about the kitchen’s details. “I’d thought oil-rubbed bronze knobs would be eye-catching with the Corian, but in the middle of the night I’m thinking, ‘In this nice old house, you’re going to touch those knobs and they’re going to be freezing!’ ” Empire knobs, which survived on some of the other rooms’ closets, she realized, would be a better fit.
From a shop in Connecticut, she found dark antique brass reproduction turns, also similar to those elsewhere in the house, to secure the cupboard’s doors. Their circular shape echoes that of the knobs, and together they make pleasantly asymmetrical accents.
Which brings us to that forgotten piece of early Eastport: Peeling away a house’s layers tends to bring out the historians in Mealey and Jackson. More often than not, they end up digging into old texts, and Internet resources like ancestry.com help them see what they can learn about the building’s previous occupants. Pamela Hanes’ house was no exception, not least because one of those past residents signed his name in big cursive letters on a parlor beam: George A. Burnham. Jackson’s research turned up a 1919 Maine history that tells the story of Portland canned food entrepreneur George Burnham’s effort to create a sardine industry with the plentiful herring of Passamaquoddy Bay — a full decade before Julius Wolff, widely regarded as the pioneer of Eastport’s sardine industry, canned his first sardines in 1875. Burnham even traveled to Europe to study the French’s sardine canning methods, but, “he wasn’t successful,” Jackson says.
“He couldn’t perfect a method of drying the fish in Eastport’s damp climate.” Burnham eventually gave up and returned to Portland, where he and Charles Morrill started their famous cannery, best known today for B&M Baked Beans. “When you look at the local history, there is no mention of George Burnham, only Julius Wolff,” Mealey says. “But it was Burnham’s idea. He spawned the sardine industry in America.”
Hanes was delighted to learn about her home’s niche in Eastport history, but she’s even more pleased that she now has a kitchen that is up to date while evoking the spirit of her old house. Not that she is a stickler for tradition: This summer Mealey and Jackson will be back to renovate her bathroom, and it will be frankly contemporary.
- By: Virginia M. Wright