Composing A Dream House
When Maine’s best design talents converge on a Portland home, creativity flows, sparks fly, and classical music lovers benefit
- By: Sara Anne Donnelly
Photograph by Darren Setlow
Ed Gardner is showing waves of houseguests he’s never met before how his dream shower works. The current audience gathers in the center of his master bath, rapt, while Gardner presses a keypad on the inside of the glass enclosure. Beads of water rain from a square ceiling jet and patter delicately onto the tile below. A woman passing in the hall pokes her head in to watch.
“The shower’s wonderful,” someone says.
Gardner then presses another button to activate several body jets built into the side of the shower. The jets are placed over a small black bench, where they cut into the vertical spray and double as back and shoulder massagers.
“Oh, my gosh, water from every direction,” says the hallway onlooker.
This high-tech “iShower,” designed by Lynne Maxfield-Cole of Decorating Plus, fits in Gardner’s 1920 slate-and-stone cottage because Maxfield-Cole balanced the bathroom innovations — which also include a small keypad over the sink programmed with lighting arrangements like “relax,” “morning,” and “night,” and speakers built into the wall over the tub that play music from Gardner’s iPhone — with antiquing effects like an exposed stone wall. The result is a cutting edge room that is one of Gardner’s favorites.
“We went way over on the budget in the bathroom and every penny was worth it,” says Gardner. “Because, you know, this is our home.”
The futuristic bathroom is part of a massive redesign for charity that transformed sixteen rooms in Gardner’s five thousand square-foot, Tudor-style home into the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s latest Designers’ Show House. The thirteenth PSO Show House involved nineteen central designers; one project manager; two-dozen area craftsmen, artists, lighting experts, and contractors; nearly six hundred tour guides and other volunteers; ten months of planning; and about 2,500 visitors who toured the house, bought furniture and knick-knacks right out of its rooms, and attended garden seminars on subjects like dinner etiquette and floral design. The 2011 Designers’ Show House was sponsored by supporters inside and outside the design community, such as Whole Foods, Prime Motors, Wright-Ryan Construction, the Hatcher Group, and Down East. It grossed about $63,000 in ticket sales, about half of which will go to expenses like legal and moving fees, publicity, and insurance. For one month in autumn, the James C. Hamlen House at 149 Western Promenade was the epicenter of what show house co-chair Harper Lee Collins believes is one of the largest charity events in the city by volunteer count. At the core of the effort is a unique collision of some of the area’s best creative talents that sometimes made for dramatic sparks.
“This would have been a great HGTV show,” says Vanessa Helmick of Fiore Interiors, who designed the house’s foyer, staircase, and upstairs hall. “It would have been great to show people what these designers do working on a short time-frame.”
Indeed, putting some of the industry’s most ambitious creatives in one pressure cooker did create reality-show turf tension. For example, most of the rooms in the 2011 Show House were connected to at least one other room, which meant dust still swirling from late construction in one room could make it impossible for a designer to bring in finishing touches like rugs and curtains next door. Designers rushing to finish structural work sometimes left materials, tools, and even toilets sitting in other designers’ rooms, also bottlenecking progress. Some designers said cursing during the frenzied installation was common. One designer said that in previous Show Houses some particularly competitive designers tried to sabotage others' work by stealing tools and materials. This year, some designers were able to finish their spaces only hours before the doors opened to the public.
“I said to my husband, I don’t think that I’ve ever physically worked so hard in my life,” said Jan Robinson of Jan Robinson Interiors, the designer of the master bedroom who rushed to sew the room’s window treatment, cushions, and bedding before the opening. “For three days, I didn’t sleep.”
But despite the drama and the personal expense — even with Gardner’s $85,000 investment in the Hamlen House redesign, designers still invested tens of thousands of dollars each on materials — some of the area’s biggest names in design still line up to vie for a spot in a PSO Show House. This year, Collins and her board received twenty-six proposals for the fifteen spots.
Gardner and his partner Steve DiMuccio moved out of the Hamlen House for three months so the show house could be stripped and re-imagined. This included rebuilding the kitchen floor using wood from the attic, installing new lighting, hand-painting intricately detailed walls, importing furniture and appliances, and making sure every detail down to plants and knick-knacks was placed perfectly. All to create a brand-new interior that looks as if its owners have just stepped out to run an errand. At the end of the fund-raiser, anything Gardner hasn’t bought or approved of is taken back out, the house is repainted a neutral color, and the owners’ original belongings are returned to their proper place. The clock strikes midnight and the dream house turns back into, well, just a very nice house.
But while it lasts, the dream house certainly inspires. Kim Cralick, a New Jersey hobbiest decorator who toured the Hamlen House, bought an antique nickel and iron lily-pad inspired table from designer Helmick’s hallway. She also plans to try some of the house’s design techniques, like the fading purple walls in the study designed by Brett Johnson of Maine Street Design Co.
“I actually think I want to go home and paint a room a darker hue, a guest bedroom,” Cralick says. “Most people shy away from [dark walls] but it lends a cozy atmosphere to that room so that’s kind of a surprise.”
For Cralick, stumbling upon the Show House while visiting town was a lucky opportunity.
“Just to see this old house and the architecture you get up here,” she says. “I just love show houses, to get ideas and to see the different kind of furniture and just get inspired by the color and designs.”
- By: Sara Anne Donnelly