Rustic at Heart
At the bottom of a peninsula, as a dirt road winds to its end, a house is perched on a granite bluff overlooking the shallow and protected bays off the rocky western Washington County coast. A rangy remnant of a late Victorian summer colony, the house would not likely be mistaken for a bungalow or cottage. Nor is it the sort of house with floors calling out for waxing, fine furniture demanding an appointment with a dust rag, or walls reminding you it's time for fresh paint.
Instead, the Harrington summer home of Andrew and Donna Sorensen is a cozy, unpolished retreat whose setting, as well as its construction and décor, sets the pace of life within it.No neighboring homes are visible from the wraparound porch, and there's no electricity available, though each year the Sorensons return to find wires reaching closer. There's no telephone, either, although cell phones have put the home within reach of the outside world.
"It's rustic — that's what we love about it,'' says Andrew Sorensen. "It's a 120-year-old house, and it feels it, and we love it."
Gas and kerosene lamps cast a golden light when evening comes, a gas cook-stove is used to prepare food, and an old woodstove in the kitchen is fired up to banish any late summer chill. When the water tank needs filling, the couple runs a generator, though Donna Sorensen says she tries to avoid the intrusion of even that necessary noise.
The Sorensens found their retreat thirty years ago. It was the third in a series of Down East getaways Donna says she never imagined they'd own. (She hails from Fitchburg, Massachusetts, and he from Joliet, Illinois.)
"When we married we were both graduate students, and we had zero money," Donna recalls.
At their 1968 wedding, however, the couple received $200 as a gift from an uncle, who had no idea of the ripples those funds would create. Earlier, Andrew had seen a magazine ad for a farmhouse and forty acres in Cherryfield. Without mentioning it to Donna, he cut out the advertisement and stuck it in his pocket.
As the honeymooning couple drove west through Washington County from Nova Scotia to Quebec, Andrew suggested a detour. "Let's just go through Cherryfield,'' Donna remembers him proposing. He then told her about the advertisement, and the young couple stopped to meet with the real estate agent. After asking to look at the property, Donna realized her husband had more than a passing interest.
The property cost just $6,500, but that was as far out of reach as if it had been ten times that amount. "The real estate agent asked, 'How much can you put down?' " Donna says, and the $200 check came to mind.
Returning to Middletown, Connecticut, where the couple lived, Andrew somehow persuaded a local bank to give him a mortgage, and an annual visit to the Washington County coast soon became a tradition.
Deciding they wanted to be on the water, the Sorensens eventually sold the farm and bought a place in Perry, overlooking Passamaquoddy Bay. Then they decided they wanted to be on open water, and in 1976 purchased this house in Harrington, a small town between Cherryfield and Jonesboro.
Over the years, the home became an anchor in their nomadic lives. Both academics — Donna studied chemistry and nutrition, while Andrew specialized in public health, medical sociology, and divinity — the couple spent years moving from state to state while climbing the ivy-covered career ladder. (While perhaps taxing, the peripatetic lifestyle eventually delivered a not insignificant reward: Andrew most recently served as president of the University of Alabama, and now is president of the University of South Carolina.)
"Because we moved a lot, going to Maine every summer was a rock for our family," Donna says. "It was always a wonderful family reunion."
The reunions took place in a space characterized by lots of vertical pine boards and, in places, exposed studs; four-over-four pane windows; and simple wicker and caned furniture. The exposed studs and back sides of clapboards betray the lack of insulation, but the Sorensens have turned that into an asset, with horizontal plain boards added to create bookshelves and nooks in which faded lobster buoys and other treasures scavenged from the beach are stowed. A fishing net cast across one of the bedrooms displays nautical finds. Old screen doors with fanciful scroll-saw filigree decorate a wall in a hallway.
The outside walls are covered with clapboards and, on the second level, staggered-cut cedar shingles, typical of the late Victorian period.
When the Sorensens' two sons were young, a trip to the Harrington home "was truly a vacation," as Donna puts it, with no computers, TV, or radio to distract from family time. These days, with the boys grown and a grandson added to the mix, the couple expects to put more of the home's four bedrooms to use.
But the rhythms of life on this spot are unlikely to change much with the times. "You're in bed by 10 p.m., the sun rises so early," says Donna. "There's only so many jigsaw puzzles and games you can play."
The isolation also creates time for introspection and the opportunity, as Donna says, "to have conversations you wouldn't have otherwise" while settled, as the family often is, on the screened-in porch.
In addition to the large screened-in area, the house also features a wrap-around unscreened porch, just right for a couple of rockers in late summer. The views, too, are spectacular, with the fir, spruce, and pine, in which the home is nestled, giving way to the water and, on clear days, all the way to Cadillac Mountain.
After an almost thirty-year relationship with the house, the Sorensens have grown comfortable with what it has to offer — and, equally valuably, the modern conveniences some would say it is missing. Still, they say, they wouldn't have it any other way.
"Why would I want to take a vacation and have all the same things I have at home?" asks Donna. "It's truly a different experience."