Proudly Modern

One couple’s determination results in a surprising house in rural Maine.

By Rachel Levitt | Boston Home |


[sidebar]In the land of clapboard Colonials, Capes, and shingled manses, one Washington, DC–based couple demanded a thoroughly modern house. Their ambitious plan was to build with concrete, steel, and lots of glass — materials as foreign to these shores as lobster to the Sahara. The wife brought a sophisticated, contemporary palette to local architect Bruce Norelius, formerly of Elliot, Elliot, Norelius. He was happy to draw up her contemporary home, but finding builders willing to part with basic wood framing would prove more difficult. The ambitious project took eight years, with a few fits and starts.

That’s not to say that the couple, who’d spent summers on this island in a rustic-modern cottage since 1984, would be deterred. They knew that building a sparkling modern residence hundreds of miles from an urban center wouldn’t be easy, but it would be worth it. And after spending nearly 10 years looking at “every property that came up,” the 36-acre former apple orchard with 980 feet of shoreline and jaw-dropping sunsets inspired them to hit the drawing board, obstacles be damned. They built a guesthouse on the property and lived there during the construction years, strolling down to the project every evening after the workers had gone.

Norelius perched the house high on the property’s granite ledge to get the best views and take advantage of solar gain during the winter. He designed the 4,400-square-foot building to lock into the land by nestling the lower floor (containing two guest bedrooms, a media room, and a tiny office) into the slope of the hill. The main level stretches from the forecourt out to the water and sky, past a shelf-lined library showcasing art glass by the likes of Dale Chihuly, past an open kitchen, and ending in a glamorous great room with 180-degree ocean views. The experience is enhanced by several generous wood decks, accessible through enormous mahogany sliding doors.

By comparison, the sleeping quarters above are downright cozy. “Our master bedroom has a bed, a view, and two dog beds. That’s all you need,” laughs the husband. Side-by-side bathrooms and walk-in closets keep clothes and grooming habits separate (the secret to a long, happy marriage, no doubt). This level also contains the wife’s small office, which doubles as a guest bedroom. “Having lived in large houses, we were very concerned that we only build rooms we would use,” says the wife. “We knew what space we needed, and we live in every room almost every day.”

One significant piece of the project is the staircase, flanked by cast-glass channels that filter the sunlight throughout the day and glow from within at night. Initially designed to be entirely clear glass, the proposed staircase was “beyond breathtakingly expensive,” says the husband. “And impractical,” adds his wife. “You could see someone cleaning it three times a day, with handprints and paw prints. So we said, ‘Try again.’”
The completed stairway is made of steel and sandblasted glass treads. Norelius found a metal fabricator — “basically a company that makes ship hulls,” says the husband — in Brewer, Maine, to painstakingly measure and construct the challenging assemblage. It was delivered through the lower level as a single piece and hoisted into place on steel girders. “I remember when they were lowering it in — the guy who’d done the measuring and the guy who’d done the fabricating — they were standing there holding their breath,” says the husband. “It clunked, the holes matched up. You could see in their expressions. They were thinking, My God, thank goodness!

Because the couple visited the work in progress daily, they were able to adjust its details mid-construction. “Bruce [Norelius] originally designed it with many more layers of things, like wood paneling and built-ins, but we all agreed during construction that the house needed to be peeled back,” says the wife. “As it went up, we started to see that the house was, to some degree, a backdrop for the view and the art, so we ended up with monochromatic porcelain tile floors and no wood trim.”

The couple also modified the layout during construction. “It was hard for my husband to imagine how the rooms would work,” says the wife. Because the house has an outside skeleton with no interior supporting walls, we could play with the spaces. I could make my kitchen twice as big, unhindered by structural constraints — until the plumbing went in, of course.”

Now, finally, the couple can enjoy their modern home. “I wake up, make coffee, and sit in the great room to read the Washington Post online,” says the husband. “The dogs go out, bark at the world, and let everyone know they’re still here.” 

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