Maine’s New Passion Projects
A couple of weeks before the reopening of the Danforth, a boutique inn in Portland’s West End, the first-floor rooms were filled with people at work. Dining room tables became makeshift desks and people sat at them hunched over laptops or sorting through paperwork. Bartenders cleaned and stocked shelves. Painters applied final coats of white to elaborate carved-wood detailing. A lampshade made of moss, like a piece of earth cut from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, sat on the newly polished floor, waiting to be hung.
Around the same time, on the other side of town, local artists and graduates of Maine College of Art were installing SWARM—a permanent two-story installation on the wall flanking the staircase leading from the lobby to the gallery of Portland’s new boutique Press Hotel. A few miles out to sea on Great Diamond Island in Casco Bay, designers and contractors were overseeing finishing touches on the Inn at Diamond Cove—a luxury resort transformed from old soldiers’ barracks at Fort McKinley.
Those of us who live in Portland are becoming familiar with the sounds of saws and hammers, the screeches and beeps of big equipment backing up. The putting up of signs, the opening of doors, the rolling of suitcases along sidewalks. As Portland becomes a more popular destination, all kinds (literally all kinds) of structures are being repurposed to creatively house visitors to our little city. And this isn’t only happening in Portland; up and down the coast, developers are making the most of Maine’s growing tourism industry. According to the Maine Hospitality and Tourism Alliance, in 2013 7.5 billion dollars in total tourist sales translated to 471 million tax dollars. The hospitality and tourism industry supported 88,585 jobs.
While such statistics are certainly of interest to the makers and managers of hotels, inns, and bed and breakfasts, day to day, these numbers boil down to a set of concerns that are far more qualitative. From bed linens to paint colors to hiring and training staff, these people know that a guest’s experience is the result of hundreds of small decisions and that the sum of these small decisions can make or break a new business. As small cities and towns along the coast become better known for their food and art scenes, hoteliers are taking special care to create spaces that reflect this cultural shift, while providing a relaxing stay experience for people who are looking to enjoy the natural beauty and off-the-beaten- path appeal of Maine. The number of visitors to Maine is on the rise, and so are people’s expectations. As Kennebunkport developer Tim Harrington puts it, “People travel for design now.”
At the Danforth, a 12,000-square-foot historic inn with nine guest rooms, co- owner Raymond Brunyanszki showcases a more modern design sense than you typically find in Maine. Not unlike his other Maine property, the Camden Harbour Inn, this newly renovated inn is a kind of homage to Brunyanszki’s experiences working and traveling abroad. When the Netherlands native first walked through the Danforth he was reminded of the Victorian-era architecture of Indonesia, and this reference served as inspiration for what would become Tempo Dulu, a Southeast Asian fine dining restaurant on the inn’s first floor. A perfectly serene seat at the Danforth Brunyanszki chose to highlight the property’s period details by painting the interior white and juxtaposing classic architecture with contemporary Italian and Dutch designer furniture and one-of- a-kind fixtures.
Perhaps the best example of his fastidious approach to hospitality is in the restaurant’s computerized lighting system, which is divided into six sections that are set to dim and brighten in relation to natural light patterns. “I wanted each table to feel like its own intimate island of light,” says Brunyanszki. This is precisely the kind of subtle detail that contributes significantly to the overall ambience of a boutique inn like the Danforth and might go unnoticed by the average traveler. But Brunyanszki does not necessarily expect the Danforth to attract the average traveler. His approach to hospitality is not so much about meeting expectations but exceeding them on his own terms, thereby establishing a whole new standard.
While a small boutique inn is inherently different than a hotel with 110 guest rooms, Michael Strejcek, manager of the Press Hotel, would agree that travelers are eschewing generic hotels in favor of places with distinct personality, that feel of a time and place. “The focus is on being unique,” he says. “Travelers want to be able to say something about the properties they stay in.”
There is plenty to say about the Press Hotel, which is located in the building that housed the Portland Press Herald— Maine’s largest newspaper—from 1923 until 2010. “We’re lucky that we don’t have to invent a history for this property. It’s already here,” says Strejcek. “It’s up to us to make the most of it.”
Developer Jim Brady and his team honored this history at every step of the building and design process, working closely with Portland’s Historic Preservation Board to achieve a newspaper-inspired look. References to the Portland Press Herald are all over the place, in the letterpress- inspired piece behind the front desk by local artist Matt Hutton, in the vintage- styled journalist desks in the guestrooms, and in the incorporation of books and antique typewriters in the decor. The Press Hotel showcases local art at every opportunity, hanging bold works by Annie Darling, Dietlind Vander Schaaf, and other local artists in the ground-floor gallery and throughout the hallways and guestrooms.
Situated on upper Exchange Street, surrounded by office buildings and landmarks like City Hall, this part of Portland has a different feel than the commercially oriented Old Port. Proud of its downtown location, the Press Hotel has been made with Portlanders in mind. The Inkwell Bar and Union Restaurant, headed by executive chef Josh Berry, are already becoming popular with locals. The hotel even initiated the creation of a public performance and art space on Federal Street, between Exchange Street and Market Street, to be put to use during events like First Friday.
The opening of so many new hotels in Portland has led to some healthy competition. Aaron Black, the general manager of the Inn at Diamond Cove, says that leading up to the summer months every hotel in town was “working hard to assemble the right staff,” which can be particularly challenging for seasonal resorts. A 20-minute ferry ride from Commercial Street, the Inn at Diamond Cove, a former military fort, has been converted into a resort with 44 deluxe guest rooms and suites offering couples and families a vacation experience within Portland city limits. “With very few cars on the island and all of the pebble beaches, it’s just a wonderfully quiet, very coastal experience,” says Black. Coastal, quiet: these are qualities designer Kim Deetjen played up in a “Maine seaside cottage” look that “integrates modern sensibilities while retaining key historic elements.” The sensible brick structure, striped with bright white columns, is freshened up with bold touches of color on the interior.
While the hospitality boom is especially evident in Portland’s dense downtown, hotels and inns are being spruced up all over the state—like the Norumbega Inn in Camden. When Sue Walser and Phil Crispo bought the extraordinary property in March of 2013, it had been vacant for almost two years. “There were a lot of Band-Aids to rip off,” says Walser. “What repairs had been done recently hadn’t been done well.” Thankfully, the Queen Anne-style home had good bones and a lot of character for Walser and Crispo to bring out in their redesign. Freshened up with light accent colors, period-appropriate antiques, and personal items—like Walser’s great- grandmother’s music box and a painting of irises that had hung in her Manhattan apartment before finding a home in the inn’s dining room—Walser and Crispo have brought the Norumbega back to life while at the same time creating new lives for themselves in Camden.
Crispo is an experienced chef who comes to Maine by way of Scotland, where he grew up, and the Hudson River Valley, where he was a chef instructor at the Culinary Institute of America. Walser’s background is in business and finance. While they had not worked as innkeepers prior to opening the Norumbega, their combined backgrounds work as an advantage. “We wanted to pick out things that we actually liked, not what we’re preconditioned to like,” Walser tells me. “It doesn’t matter what label it is, if it doesn’t feel like quality it doesn’t matter what it says.” This is the kind of individualistic, non-formulaic approach to design and hospitality that is changing the industry. In Walser and Crispo’s case, when you add all of those decisions up, the result is a homey but elegant addition to the stay options in perennially popular Camden.
Kennebunkport is another town that draws thousands of visitors every year, and has grown to accommodate the uptick in tourism. When Tim Harrington and Deb Lennon decided to renovate the historic Kennebunkport Inn a few years ago, they enlisted the help of local designer Louise Hurlbutt of Hurlbutt Designs.
Ralph Lauren was an inspiration for the inn’s new look, and that is evident in the clean white and deep navies on the walls, brought down to earth with touches of dark brown and gray. They also drew inspiration from Kennebunkport’s history as a shipbuilding town, lining the shelves and fireplace mantels with Asian artifacts, particularly blue and white porcelain, which sailors brought home to coastal communities like Kennebunkport from Japan. Hurlbutt references this history in Asian-inspired fabrics on pillows in the guestrooms. Modern art mixes with landscape paintings in salon-style frame layouts. And running throughout the space are fixtures and artwork and colors that imbue the place with a subtle nautical feel.
“You don’t want guests to forget where they are—in the heart of Kennebunkport,” says Hurlbutt. At the same time, she is keen on introducing guests to a version of Maine they might not have expected, where antique porcelain and modern art from the Corey Daniels Gallery exist side by side in a manner that both references the past and makes a statement about where Maine is going.
Back in Portland, seated at the Danforth bar below a milky lampshade with an arch- backed goldfish swimming at its center, Raymond Brunyanszki says, “People are super open-minded here. Portland feels very vibrant, very young. It’s growing very fast,” he says. “I love Maine. I have the opportunity to live just about anywhere in the world, to open a hotel anywhere in the world, and I chose to do it here.”