A Whole New Level
Creative aspirations and family life spur a renovation and addition to a 1970s split-level home in Cape Elizabeth
One of the gifts of maturity is the blossoming of conﬁdence. A lot of experience has, it is to be hoped, taught us to be more thoughtful and less impulsive, so we assess risks more realistically and lay a solid ground on which to land. Paige Carter knows this well after embarking on an ambitious house renovation that meant taking some big risks to arrive at happy rewards.
Carter has made a highly successful career out of painting and selling canvas ﬂoorcloths, an age-old craft that harks back in this country to eighteenth-century colonists who began painting repurposed boat sails and deploying them as sturdy ﬂoor decoration. Until about three-and-a-half years ago, the largest ﬂoorcloth Carter could produce was 4′ x 6′. Having proven after 30 years that she could be a successful artist, she says, “I wanted to do larger work, so I needed more studio space.” This meant taking a not-insigniﬁcant ﬁnancial gamble.
Carter had already done some remodeling on her 1976 Cape Elizabeth split-level to make it more livable. She and her late husband, a cranberry farmer, had raised their kids on the Massachusetts bogs in a wide-open house, “So I brought the open-space concept with me,” recalls the 66-year-old painter. But split-levels of that era are notoriously cramped by the segmentation of the ﬂoor plan into many small rooms. With the help of Home Depot, the ﬁrst thing she did was to rip out the “orange kitchen with harvest gold appliances,” replacing it with whiter, brighter trappings; she also sledgehammered a wall to join the kitchen to the dining area. For her livelihood, she appropriated one of the bays in the two-car garage, walling it off as her studio. All went well for a few years. But the yen for larger and larger work grew, as did the art classes she gave in her studio to private students.
In 2016 she called in Harry Hepburn, the “burn” in the Portland-based Briburn architectural ﬁrm, which he established in 2012 with co-principal Christopher Briley (the “Bri”). “He had a much bigger vision for the house,” says Carter, one that required a more substantial leap of faith. Hepburn and colleague Alyssa Keating suggested appropriating the whole garage for the expanded studio and adding a perpendicular wing with a new garage, back stair, mudroom entry, and owner’s bedroom suite. This add-on would increase the home’s square footage from 2,002 to 2,989.
Hepburn’s vision extended to the main house as well. “The house was very inward-focused,” he says. “It didn’t take advantage of the possible solar gain or views of the ocean and Cape Elizabeth Lighthouse,” the beacon that stands just a stone’s throw away. So, Hepburn widened the apertures of all the ocean-facing windows but also tore down the wall between the living room and one of the bedrooms. The old dining room became a sitting area with a built-in bench, the living room was converted into a free-ﬂoating dining space, and a new ﬁreplace deﬁnes the south wall of the former bedroom, which serves as the new living room.
“I’ve always wanted to entertain my family and make this a home my kids could come back to with their spouses and children,” Carter explains. Now, with Hepburn’s conversion of three rooms—dining room, living room and bedroom—into one great room, the mother of two grown children has gained a much easier flow that can accommodate big family meals effortlessly and with much more room to breathe. Not only that, now Carter can look out over the wide expanse of coast and out to the lighthouse. “I feel like I’m alone here with the trees and birds,” she says.
Hepburn also reworked the rear spaces of the house. Just inside the doorway leading from the new living room to the back hallway were some steps up to a guest room on an additional level; next door to the guest room was the walk-in closet of the bedroom now converted into a living room, also some steps up from the back hall level. These had the infelicitous effect of conveying a sense of visual busyness. In all, notes the architect, the original house—not including the addition—had no less than seven levels. “This house had a very complex series on ﬂoor levels with stairs connecting them all,” says Hepburn. “There was no continuous ﬂow between spaces, making circulation a nightmare and aging in place almost impossible.” The step-ups into the back rooms are still there. But Hepburn erected a wall that concealed the level changes inside those rooms (the closet was converted to a laundry room). “The renovations and new additions simpliﬁed the horizontal circulation, bringing the master bedroom suite and all living spaces to one single level.” (Behind that stepped-up bedroom is where his firm designed a new owner’s suite occupying the top ﬂoor of the perpendicular addition; the new garage is below.)
The original bi-level steps inside the front door were redone using granite treads and a wood-topped blackened steel railing, which matched the new staircase at the other, newer entry and helped create consistency between old and contemporary structures. The reworking of the main steps also opened more overhead space, so that when tall people descend to the lower ﬂoor, they no longer have to cock their heads to the side to avoid bumping them on the suspended ﬂoor of the upper level.
To the right at the bottom of these stairs is the former two-car garage, where Carter can now make ﬂoorcloths measuring as large as 8′ x 11′. Acrylic exterior house paints, the resilient palette of her trade, line the walls around an enormous worktable. A trio of tall windows where the garage doors used to be now invite in a ﬂood of natural light for Carter to work by during the day. Hepburn also installed a ductless heat pump to keep the space comfortable during Maine’s seasonal temperature swings
The thing about risks is that once you start taking them, other risks suddenly appear less forbidding. That was the case with the re-landscaping project Carter decided to undertake while the addition was going up. The contractor building the project, Mike Monsell, has a twin brother named Brian who owns CA Monsell and Company, a landscaping and stonework ﬁrm based in Portland. Before Brian came into the picture, recalls Carter, she got around her property on “a very rustic pathway that could be quite dangerous.”
The land itself was sloped, with ﬂower beds tucked here and there or cascading down inclines. Slipping and falling, especially in snow and rain, were more serious risks that mitigated the added investment Carter decided to make to get it all right. “I had a lot of stonework done outside, which ordered the spaces of the gardens,” she says.
The entire house was also relieved of its dated, wide, blue-painted cedar shakes. Old and new structures were reclad in smaller white shingles, except for the section containing the new back stairwell, which Hepburn covered in natural cedar. The latter functions visually as a fulcrum joining separate buildings of different vintages. However, everything looks of a piece, as though the home was conceived that way from the beginning, with no evidence of the considerable chances Carter took to adapt the house more perfectly to the personal and artistic life she wanted to lead there.