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The New Sanctuary: Inside a Curator’s Haven on the Coast of Maine, Ikea Kitchen Included

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The New Sanctuary: Inside a Curator’s Haven on the Coast of Maine, Ikea Kitchen Included

July 22, 2019

The church on the corner of Cedar and Brewster Streets in Rockland, Maine, might seem to passerby like any other old New England church (were it not for the black paint). But there’s something quietly revolutionary going on inside: a remodeled artists’ haven masterminded by artist and curator Donna McNeil, with four bedrooms—three intended for working artists, and one for herself.

The building has old roots in Rockland. “The space began life in 1851 as the Cedar Street 2nd Baptist Church, built by Hiram Berry, a master carpenter and owner of a lumber company,” McNeil reports. “Later he would become a Civil War general killed by enemy riflemen during the Battle of Chancellorsville in Virginia on May 2, 1863.” The church was sold to Christian Scientists in 1913 (“they added the balcony and altar”), then to the Salvation Army in 1962. When McNeil found the building in the summer of 2017, many of the nuts-and-bolts of the renovation had been done by then-owner Peter Davis. “He did all the essential-but-not-pretty remodeling: insulated windows, blown insulation, zoned heating, ceiling fans,” she says.

But it was McNeil, with the renovation of her 1865 townhouse in Portland under her hat, who did the rest of the interiors herself: painting, then adding a striking black kitchen, eccentric furnishings sourced everywhere from New England to Japan, and works from Maine artists, all set against the building’s soaring ceilings and carved wooden detailing. “As a person without family, I wanted to welcome in community,” McNeil says. “Working in the arts, it was natural that I would have creatives using the space as they envisioned. I’ve had a cello performance, a book reading, a sound installation, a sculpture exhibit, and dance.”

Even when quiet, captured on an October day by Maine-based photographer Greta Rybus, the space looks like a gallery of the most artful sort. Join us for a look.

Photography by Greta Rybus for Remodelista.

The church, painted black, on a corner in Rockland. Sometime over the course of the building&#8
Above: The church, painted black, on a corner in Rockland. Sometime over the course of the building’s long history, the spire was removed.

McNeil did much of the painting—a palette of blacks, whites, and the occasional swath of color—herself. “I like California Paints colors and many of them are that, but honestly, it’s whatever I have a visceral response to; I look everywhere.” The exterior, she says, “is a form of Rust-Oleum; Onyx is the color. It was aluminum sided along the way and I couldn’t afford to re-side it.” McNeil now lives here full-time, letting out her place in Portland.

Stepping into the church, with bedrooms to the left and right, and the main room straight ahead.
Above: Stepping into the church, with bedrooms to the left and right, and the main room straight ahead.
 The main room, formerly the church sanctuary, is painted entirely white and appointed sparsely to amplify the expansiveness. The ceilings are
Above: The main room, formerly the church sanctuary, is painted entirely white and appointed sparsely to amplify the expansiveness. The ceilings are 21 feet high, and the main room alone is 1900 square feet. “The floor is three coats of oil-based enamel—what a job,” McNeil says.

The room is arranged loosely in four areas: the newly installed kitchen (at right), the Gothic-esque stage area, a living area (at left, just out of frame), and a long, central dining area, made of church pews found in the building that McNeil painted herself. In the center of the table are two three-pronged metal candlesticks. “So fabulous—they seem to be brutalist from around the 1920s or 1930s, is my guess; found at Flea-for-All in Portland,” McNeil says.

McNeil installed a kitchen in the center of the main space, framed by the windows. Though it looks like a high-end kitchen system, it&#8
Above: McNeil installed a kitchen in the center of the main space, framed by the windows. Though it looks like a high-end kitchen system, it’s actually black Ikea cabinetry with countertops from Lowe’s. “I wanted it to convert easily to a ‘ bar’ for the public events,” McNeil says.

The black wall-mounted lights are “super cheap task lights from Amazon;” the black standing lamp is the Hektar Floor Lamp from Ikea.

The urn-like alabaster lights on either end of the island are from Antiques on Nine in Kennebunk, Maine, and the stools are from CB
Above: The urn-like alabaster lights on either end of the island are from Antiques on Nine in Kennebunk, Maine, and the stools are from CB2.

Of the art throughout the space, McNeil says: “I’ve worked in the arts for my entire career—primarily in the visual arts, and much of that as a curator. I have work from friends, mostly, and a few purchased pieces. All of them are Maine artists.” As for the source of the arrangement on the pedestal: “Thievery! The arrangements come from nature. I don’t buy anything.”

 The stage area, fronted by a pew McNeil bought from a family in Ellsworth, Maine, and flanked with antique brass candlesticks. At the top of the stage is elaborate pierced molding.
Above: The stage area, fronted by a pew McNeil bought from a family in Ellsworth, Maine, and flanked with antique brass candlesticks. At the top of the stage is elaborate pierced molding.
Fall light on the gallery-like walls.
Above: Fall light on the gallery-like walls.
The deconstructed living area is set apart by a rug, and fitted with an Eero Saarinen Womb Chair (&#8
Above: The deconstructed living area is set apart by a rug, and fitted with an Eero Saarinen Womb Chair (“reupholstered in vintage Knoll fabric to retain authenticity,” McNeil says) and a vintage blue Danish chair. The wonky floor lamp is an Italian Murano glass design from the 1950s.
From the stage, looking back through the main room to where the bedrooms are.
Above: From the stage, looking back through the main room to where the bedrooms are.
Above L: A cast-iron chair with a velvet seat pairs with a 20th-century Italian mirror (found at Pillars Antiques in Freeport). R: Twin animal skulls above a bedroom door are also from the Portland Flea-for-All.
Just off of the entryway, a Dutch door leads to a small bedroom, the first of four.
Above: Just off of the entryway, a Dutch door leads to a small bedroom, the first of four.

“The portrait is a friend of mine’s great cousin, Clarissa Pear. She is possibly of the same period as the house,” McNeil says. “The child’s chair I don’t know much about, but I fell in love with it, tucked away in an antique shop in Fairfield, Maine.”

 &#8
Above: “I designed and made the daybed after a visit to Marfa, Texas, where I was inspired by Donald Judd,” McNeil says. “Unlike Judd, I added the metal strip finishing.” The grey blanket is the Faribault Plus King Blanket from CB2.
McNeil painted the interior of an open closet a surprising butter yellow.
Above: McNeil painted the interior of an open closet a surprising butter yellow.
One of two bathrooms, with beadboard wainscoting and a well-loved sink. &#8
Above: One of two bathrooms, with beadboard wainscoting and a well-loved sink. “The mask is Balinese, brought back by a friend—it oddly looks very much like him,” McNeil says. “The portrait I loved because she’s so determined and yet so beautiful. It’s a pastel from the 1950s, found in an antique store in Camden.” The antique gold-and-black mirror is from a shop in Belfast.

McNeil also added a second, large bath with a freestanding soaking tub, one of the few major changes she made to the building, in addition to the new kitchen.

The second bedroom on the ground floor.
Above: The second bedroom on the ground floor.
Above L: On a stair rail are “ladies’ powder boxes, made from the first plastic precursor to Bakelite.” Above R: McNeil’s trademark hats and boots are displayed on the stairs.
Upstairs on the landing, looking into the third bedroom.
Above: Upstairs on the landing, looking into the third bedroom.
A green-hued bedroom is fitted simply, with a painted iron-frame bed that McNeil found for $75 on Craigslist. She uses the small niche in the wall to display ceramics or dried flowers.
Above: A green-hued bedroom is fitted simply, with a painted iron-frame bed that McNeil found for $75 on Craigslist. She uses the small niche in the wall to display ceramics or dried flowers.
A moment of quirk: three mix-and-match plants grow at the base of the bed.
Above: A moment of quirk: three mix-and-match plants grow at the base of the bed.
This room is McNeil&#8
Above: This room is McNeil’s own. “But I love that no one really knows—no ‘master’ bed,” she adds.

Here, she added a surprising play with scale: a large-scale bed in a room with a petite footprint. “The bed is a standard online purchase, but what’s good about it is how the lines mimic the shape of the room proportionally almost exactly, creating a room-in-a-room effect,” she says.

At the foot of the bed is a black lacquer Chinese armoire that McNeil found in Lincolnville. &#8
Above: At the foot of the bed is a black lacquer Chinese armoire that McNeil found in Lincolnville. “I placed a mostly black photograph on top which reflects the Burmese offering boxes on the top of the chest,” she says. “It’s a nice vision to wake up to.” That, she adds, and “the beautiful tin ceiling that sends me cherubs and griffins and cornucopia from the sky.”
Looking down at the main room from the second-floor overlook.
Above: Looking down at the main room from the second-floor overlook.
The long table, set for dinner. McNeil currently has one artist tenant: &#8
Above: The long table, set for dinner. McNeil currently has one artist tenant: “My housemate is a young artist who is engaged in an ongoing project centered around the idea of the ancient faith-based idea of ‘radical hospitality,'” she says. “Every two weeks we—she, really—invite the entire community in for bread, soup, and cake.”
Above L: A detail of the filigree moulding. Above R: McNeil in her characteristic style.
McNeil outside her rehabbed sanctuary.
Above: McNeil outside her rehabbed sanctuary.
An etching of the building&#8
Above: An etching of the building’s earliest incarnation, as the Cedar Street 2nd Baptist Church.

More artists and makers reinventing their spaces on the coast of Maine:

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