On the Beach
On the windswept spit of land separating Biddeford Pool from the Atlantic Ocean, houses are perched in a row like gulls on a boardwalk railing. But unlike the gulls, which come in more or less uniform feather and beak styles, these houses vary widely - one-story 1940s cottages to angular contemporaries to traditional shingle shacks on stilts.
Designing a new house in such a visible spot can be tricky. It should fit in yet have its own identity, be striking yet not ostentatious, respect traditional styles but avoid cliché, as well as conform to the many regulations concerning construction on fragile dunes.One elegantly designed, finely crafted, and eminently livable beach house in Biddeford Pool is a superb example of what happens when all goes right. And it's all the more surprising when you learn it was the fruit of long distance communication: the owner was in Boston, the architect in St. Louis, and the builder in Biddeford.
A recent transplant from St. Louis, the owner had been searching for a second home, preferably on the water and usable year-round yet not more than two hours from Boston. Going south to the Cape or Rhode Island was quickly ruled out: murderous traffic, especially from the northern part of the Hub where he lived. He had visited Maine twice on weeklong vacations and been captivated by Camden and Owls Head, yet practicality prevailed. A five-hour return trip in weekend traffic would have meant he couldn't use the house as often as he wanted.
"One Sunday," he says, "I was in Kennebunkport and got on this Route 9 thing through Cape Porpoise, which I never really knew existed." A detour brought him to Biddeford Pool, where some months later he found the solution: a nondescript, aluminum-sided ranch house on a 50-by-110-foot oceanfront lot.
"It was an obvious teardown," his architect, Lawrence Myers of Myers & Yanko, LLC, recalls. The site's charms, however, were bursting out all over. There were spectacular views from not just two but all four sides, plus fifty feet of ocean frontage just beyond the dunes. The existing house hadn't incorporated the views into its design, but the owner and architect were excited by the possibilities of a new house that could. Because of shoreland zoning rules, though, any house would have to be built on the original footprint.
Unlike some prospective owners who change their minds seemingly with each shift in the southern Maine breeze, this owner, a retail marketing executive, had no doubts about the home's design. "I wanted the house to be very open downstairs, to have room areas but not a separate dining room or kitchen," he says. "I wanted lots of glass to take advantage of the water views on both the ocean and the Pool side, especially at high tide. But I also wanted to maintain some sense of privacy because the houses here are so close together." He also required porches, white trim on the outside like an older seaside house, and wood inside so the home wouldn't seem like a new drywall house. Three bedrooms and two-and-a-half baths would make it comfortable for overnight guests, and a garage would provide off-street parking.
His choice of an architect based more than a thousand miles from the job site, a person who had never designed a beach house before, was more logical than it first appears. Myers had created the owner's much-photographed St. Louis home, an inventive Greek Revival city house inspired by the verticality and classical details of buildings by New Urbanist Leon Krier. "I trusted working with him, and he knew what the inside had to feel like," the owner explains, noting that the beach house's essence boiled down to good windows, good ceiling height, and a lot of open space.
Theirs was not the typical client-architect relationship. Over the years, they had become friendly, and Myers had even scouted various Maine properties with him. For his part the architect says, "I already knew his taste, the art he'd collected, and his furniture. I knew he wanted an airy house, with as much light as possible, and simple, clean lines."
The architect and owner understood each other, so the next step was finding an equally tuned-in builder. Before the drawings were even finished, the owner had located Paul Brady of Brady Construction, Inc., by driving around Biddeford and checking out who was building what. The twenty-five-year-old company with long-established crews and extensive knowledge of waterfront construction was a standout. In the design phase, Brady's partner Renea Deighton's knowledge of the restrictions on dune and lagoon construction and the complicated approval process proved invaluable. Both owner and architect are full of praise for the local carpenters, who produced the custom millwork used throughout the house. "Maine contractors are very hands-on, very craft-oriented," says Myers, adding that he hasn't always found this quality in St. Louis.
Brady humbly attributes the success of the house to the owner's taste and the architect's designs, saying the former has "a great eye." Not that turning their ideas into reality was without its challenges. Building the detailed exterior in often harsh conditions was "like trying to build a piano outside," Brady says, since eighty-mile-an-hour wind gusts are not unheard-of along the southern Maine coast.
The result of such integration is a deceptively simple and relaxed house, shining through with subtle details. Bringing the outdoors in while at the same time creating a harmonious exterior design was one of the major challenges. Not surprisingly, windows play a major role in the 2,200-square-foot house. Two-over-two transoms above the ocean-side windows maximize the views in the front and back of the house, and are repeated in the smaller side awning windows that effectively skirt the adjoining houses. Upstairs, above-door transoms evoke an earlier age.
Repeating squares provide a graphic design element echoed in bookcases and cabinets, framed photographs, and in a stacked collection of antique wooden document boxes. Higher-than-usual ceilings - ten feet downstairs and nine feet upstairs - compensate for the compact footprint, giving the house an airy feeling echoed in the light maple flooring throughout. Clean, contemporary lines are softened by the painted but uncaulked planking used on upstairs walls and in the stairwell.
The granite of the seawall in front of the house inspired the fireplace surround, finished with simple, rough-finished granite slabs. The owner, who wanted to use local materials wherever possible, asked Brady to match the stone. The same granite was polished for kitchen and bathroom countertops, and left simply honed in the floor of the downstairs entryway. Granite bricks paving the garage apron extend the theme outdoors.
As he has settled into the house, the owner has added paintings by a number of Maine artists to his collection. A small, brilliantly colored Jane Ryan landscape hanging on a white wall could almost be another window. A John Santoro painting of an island, created in a single day for a "Fresh Paint" auction benefiting the nearby Wood Island lighthouse, captures the sea outside. Maine's winter landscape, which the owner was able to experience firsthand during last year's blizzard-ridden winter, is represented by a large Keith Oehmig canvas. In area antiques stores and flea markets, he's also picked up Maine paintings from the 1950s and '60s. His assured eye in art and architecture, it seems, has led him to the best of Maine.