Firm Foundation

Scrapping plans to renovate a cherished Maine cottage meant working even
harder to re-create its character with salvage materials and new construction.

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Fireplace- Firm Foundation

Brian Vanden Brink

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For Pat Burns and Elizabeth Spaulding, the road to owning coastal Maine property began more than a decade ago, when they were dating. A scenic drive led them to a state park, with views of a distant headland cloaked in evergreens and jutting into the sea. "That point was so remote and beautiful," says Pat, "we had to find a way there by car." The couple set out on a maze of back roads. When they crested a hill and saw the open ocean shining through the trees, they were met with a second surprise. "Just when we realized we were on the point we'd been looking for, we saw a 'For Sale' sign on a tree," says Elizabeth. They hopped back in the car, returned home, called the owner, and hatched a plan to make the 1-acre property theirs.

The one-story, 1,800-square-foot house hovered a breathtaking 75 feet from the high-tide mark. Surf pounded the rocky shore, and a mile out, shoals harbored seals at low tide. The 1960s house, built as a winterized cottage, nestled in a gentle rise of old-growth trees. "We painted the walls and sanded the floors when we bought it―minimal changes," says Elizabeth. "We went on weekends to get away by ourselves or with family and friends. After two years, we loved it so much, we moved in full time."

For 10 years, Pat and Elizabeth used the house to its maximum potential, accommodating as many as 30 people for holidays with beds, couches, and sleeping bags. Quietly, though, they envisioned a renovation that would make everyone more comfortable.

The couple began saving magazine tear sheets for inspiration. They noted how they might modify the rooms to engage the seasons' changing light and the view of the sea through back windows. Inveterate antiques collectors, they tailored their selections to rustic furnishings with original paint finishes to emphasize the home's cottage aesthetic. They even stockpiled salvaged parts such as doors, windows, and flooring from old Maine buildings to use in what was shaping up to be "our new old house," says Elizabeth.

The decision to launch the work came when Pat, a former marketing executive, retired early. But almost immediately, his renovation plan hit a snag. Portland architect Rob Whitten, alongside a contractor, examined the infrastructure and realized it was problematic to save, as so little was plumb. "Spending money on labor in order to save on material costs didn't make sense to any of us, including the zoning code officer―who is typically all for retaining these old coastal cottages," Rob explains. Before disappointment hardened into a decision to tear down the rugged little rancher, Pat expressed everyone's thought: "I wish we could just take it down and save the parts," he said. His son Todd, a builder, seconded the notion. Within three weeks, they dismantled the house by hand and divided the pieces. Some would become a part of the new construction, while others went to projects or businesses dealing in recycled materials. "Even the insulation got recycled in an attic in town," says Pat, who joined the building process every day.

The new construction is both stronger, with hurricane-resistant collar ties, and bigger, by 30 percent. With a second floor and a crow's nest of bedrooms, the home grew out of the old foundation and honors its best attributes, with improvements.

Like its predecessor, the new home uses timber framing and orients to the ocean. A chimney that once obscured the view now anchors the building's core and feeds two Rumford fireplaces. Salvaged antique mantels add character to the first-floor rooms. The morning room's tall ceilings and eastern exposure take advantage of summer light. Lower ceilings in the adjacent "wicker room" make the area cozy in winter. (No wicker in the wicker room, though―the name remains from an earlier incarnation.) Twenty windows saved from the demolition of a 19th-century meeting house frame a screened porch in the lee of an oceanside deck. "We've learned which windows to open to get cross-ventilation and just the right level of ocean roar," says Elizabeth.

Through the original picture windows, Pat says he can look both ways along the coast and see two significant points that led them to this spot: the state park where they first saw their homesite and the place where he proposed marriage to Elizabeth. "We never took our eyes off the prize to live here," he says. "It was an organic effort from start to finish, and our way of honoring what's basic and honest around us."

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