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The New New England: A 1754 Cape on Spruce Head in Maine

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The New New England: A 1754 Cape on Spruce Head in Maine

October 6, 2017

Last September scrolling through Instagram feeds from my native Maine, I was struck by a small compound of houses on the craggy island of Spruce Head. Three buildings stood facing one another in a small clearing in the woods in a way that somehow evoked old New England: families living in clapboard houses amid rocks and black spruce. “The idea for the compound was both out of the necessity to house our growing family, and for the aesthetics that multiple buildings in close proximity creates,” says the builder, Anthony Esteves, who has been working thoughtfully on the project for over three years. “In early New England, buildings rambled, and it was common to have many structures on a property. It’s like the adage: big house, little house, back house, barn.” The little house, one could say, is the charred-black structure Esteves calls the Soot House, which he built from scratch and where he now lives with his wife, Julie O’Rourke, who has a children’s clothing line, and their young son, Diogo. Just a few paces across the field stones is a charming Cape, originally built in 1754, which Esteves restored with an eye, in part, for history, and where his mother now lives. (The barn is in the works: Esteves is building a timber frame out of hemlock which will serve as the family’s library.)

Esteves is not an architect or a builder by training—he studied sculpture at RISD—but he applies an artful approach to the work: There is something sculptural about the white walls, the stairwells, and the way the coastal light comes through the windows. “My building process is very similar to my studio practice,” he says. “I think of it as a process of refining from broad strokes to finer and finer levels of detail. I think of my work as the combination of many details that make up the whole.” Join us as we look inside the Cape (and stay tuned for a tour of the Soot House, forthcoming on Remodelista).

Photography by Greta Rybus.

The Cape, outside.
Above: The Cape, outside.

“The Cape was originally built in 1754, just south of here, and was dismantled and reconstructed on the island in 1999 by a gentleman named Frank Tichy,” Esteves says. When the Spruce Head property was purchased, the Cape was the only building in existence on the lot, complete with the basics: a new foundation, plumbing, and wiring.

In renovating the exterior, Esteves took inspiration from the scrubby Maine landscape and from New England, where he grew up: “The landscape is part of the concept from the beginning,” he explains. “With this project, the compound is on the top of an island. The ledge, or bedrock, is granite and in many places is exposed. Blueberry, bayberry, and spruce are in abundance, along with many types of wildflowers, moss, and lichens. My process here involved uncovering and removing a lot of foreign material. Around the homes I took a Scandinavian approach and used crushed stone to define the natural and built world.”

The farmhouse-style kitchen.
Above: The farmhouse-style kitchen.

Inside, Esteves took care to maintain the original 1700s details: “The hand-hewed frame, the flooring, sheathing, doors, and front windows, as well as chimney bricks,” plus “interior details such as the mantel, beadboard, and wainscoting panels.” In other places, he strayed slightly from history. “My goal was not to restore the Cape to its exact historic standard,” he says. “Rather, the aesthetics are informed by the range of styles within early American homes.” Case in point: the Cape’s farmhouse-influenced kitchen. “I can say with certainty that I have touched every inch of that house,” Esteves adds.

In the kitchen, light filters in through the original paned windows.
Above: In the kitchen, light filters in through the original paned windows.

Esteves chose a mix of white Carrara marble and butcher-block countertops for the kitchen, and sourced an apron-front sink from Kohler Dickinson. The artful glass cloche is French, found at antique shop Marston House on the Maine island of Vinalhaven.

In another corner of the kitchen, copper pans hang from iron wall hooks affixed to the timber rafters.
Above: In another corner of the kitchen, copper pans hang from iron wall hooks affixed to the timber rafters.
One side of the kitchen is lined with peg rails. The round baskets beneath the island store clean dish towels. The wooden stools were another Marston House find, and the wire baskets were sourced from Trillium Soaps in Rockland, Maine, which also sells a selection of housewares.
Above: One side of the kitchen is lined with peg rails. The round baskets beneath the island store clean dish towels. The wooden stools were another Marston House find, and the wire baskets were sourced from Trillium Soaps in Rockland, Maine, which also sells a selection of housewares.
Esteves lights a fire in one of the original fireplaces, which has the original cast iron doors. An antique copper bucket sits alongside.
Above: Esteves lights a fire in one of the original fireplaces, which has the original cast iron doors. An antique copper bucket sits alongside.
The dining room, with black spindle-back chairs and original wide-plank flooring.
Above: The dining room, with black spindle-back chairs and original wide-plank flooring.
Esteves made one major change to the house: moving and rebuilding the main staircase. &#8
Above: Esteves made one major change to the house: moving and rebuilding the main staircase. “Building it from scratch meant we could include the classic New England turn in the beginning of the stairs,” he says. It’s painted in Benjamin Moore’s Apparition.
A vignette of locally farmed and foraged flowers by Molly O’Rourke, Esteves&#8
Above: A vignette of locally farmed and foraged flowers by Molly O’Rourke, Esteves’s sister-in-law, who owns floral and event design company One & Supp.
The living area. Throughout, Esteves painted the walls in plaster and old-fashioned milk paint, with trim in Benjamin Moore&#8
Above: The living area. Throughout, Esteves painted the walls in plaster and old-fashioned milk paint, with trim in Benjamin Moore’s Apparition. The couch is a John Derian design for Cisco Brothers, sourced from Trillium Soap.
Another corner of the living area, with finds from Marston House and Lisa Tichy.
Above: Another corner of the living area, with finds from Marston House and Lisa Tichy.
Beside another fireplace, a black bench from Windsor Chairmakers in Lincoln, Maine. The print is by Maine artist Anna Hepler.
Above: Beside another fireplace, a black bench from Windsor Chairmakers in Lincoln, Maine. The print is by Maine artist Anna Hepler.
A built-in hutch, painted gray, holds objets d&#8
Above: A built-in hutch, painted gray, holds objets d’art and a dried hydrangea blossom.
In the entryway, more peg rails.
Above: In the entryway, more peg rails.
Plaster niches are a surprising detail in another stairwell.
Above: Plaster niches are a surprising detail in another stairwell.

On the niches, Esteves says: “I addressed that area of the house first and built a new staircase to the spare bedroom/studio. I added the small shelves and the barrel arches in a traditional way, with wood lathe and plaster. When I created that space, I was looking at a lot of old religious spaces. I wanted this space to feel removed from the rest of the house—an area for retreat—knowing that my mother was planning to use the room for meditation.”

In Esteves&#8
Above: In Esteves’s mother’s studio, a narrow table from Restoration Hardware holds objets d’art.
The four-poster bed in the master bedroom is from Windsor Chairmakers in Lincolnville.
Above: The four-poster bed in the master bedroom is from Windsor Chairmakers in Lincolnville.
In a narrow bedroom, Esteves preserved the under-eaves cabinets, which his mother uses to store spare blankets.
Above: In a narrow bedroom, Esteves preserved the under-eaves cabinets, which his mother uses to store spare blankets.
The bath features marble tile and a freestanding bath beneath the original casement windows.
Above: The bath features marble tile and a freestanding bath beneath the original casement windows.
Afternoon light.
Above: Afternoon light.
The view of Penobscot Bay.
Above: The view of Penobscot Bay.
The exterior is traditional New England, modified: Esteves sourced roof shingles from Ben Butler, a local sawyer, but &#8
Above: The exterior is traditional New England, modified: Esteves sourced roof shingles from Ben Butler, a local sawyer, but “used a thicker Eastern white cedar shingle at five-eights of an inch, instead of the traditional half inch. We still hand-drove all the nails and used runs of zinc, spaced evenly, to help prevent mildew growth,” he says.
The small family compound. &#8
Above: The small family compound. “The goal is to have the landscape return to an open field of low-bush blueberries and saplings, with small paths like deer trails,” Esteves says.

Stay tuned for a tour of the Soot House, across the way; forthcoming on Remodelista.

More on the rocky coast of Maine:

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