Bright by the Beach
A couple from Cape Elizabeth builds their dream vacation home on the sandy shores of Higgins Beach
Kelsey and Ryan Jackson weren’t planning to buy a house near Higgins Beach.
They had just sold their camp on the shores of Sebago Lake a few months before, but when they heard about this charming little cottage, they thought it was worth swinging by, Kelsey says, “just to take a look.” Kelsey’s uncle, a real estate agent, had mentioned that something special was coming up for sale. “We sold the Sebago house because we were trying to simplify our lives,” Kelsey explains. But when they saw the cottage, located on a marshy stretch of land in Scarborough just a short walk from the Atlantic, something clicked. “I fell in love,” Kelsey recalls. “I felt like it was a once-in-a lifetime opportunity, and we didn’t want to miss out.”
For both Kelsey and Ryan, the real draw was the yard. It’s rare to find a half-acre lot this close to Higgins, says Ryan. “Compared to what’s available down here, it’s a huge yard.” We’re sitting in the living room of their renovated beach house, and for a moment everyone pauses—even their two-year-old son goes quiet—to look out at the view. There, through large, square glass windows, we see their fence, their birdhouse, and beyond that, an open expanse of silvery water winding through thick yellow grass. Ryan likes to fish out there, and in the summer they take their older two kids out on paddleboards to explore the inlets and muddy shores of the estuary. They feel blessed to have found a space on the “quiet side” of Higgins Beach, looking out toward a large private estate where horses graze all summer long and planes take off and land. When they’re not watching planes, the family can wait for birds—piping plovers and sandpipers and terns—to descend on the wooden house.
They live full-time in nearby Cape Elizabeth, and the summer of 2018 was the first season they spent in Scarborough. It was, by happenstance, a summer of no screens. (Ryan, who set up the Apple TV, went away on a business trip for three weeks. “He was the one who knew how to use it,” Kelsey says, smiling. “But after a bit, the kids stopped asking for it. It was the best thing ever.”) As a result, they got to know the land exceptionally well. They also began to figure out how to use their new house—how to enjoy its small footprint, its sunny, open rooms.
“The biggest building challenge was figuring out how to expand as much as possible with the zoning logistics of the city, and how to fit a family of five in this little beach house,” says Karen Gallagher of Karen Gallagher Interiors in North Yarmouth. Gallagher had worked with the Jackson family before—“I love watching their kids grow up,” she enthuses—so she was excited to be brought on board with their newest project. At first, Kelsey and Ryan didn’t think they would be doing too much to the house, maybe knocking down a wall here or adding a bathroom there. But, as they began planning renovations, they realized they wanted to do a complete overhaul of the floor plan.
“It may not look like a lot,” Ryan says, “but logistically, we made some key decisions.” With the help of Walter Wilson of the Design Company and Bill Royal, a builder from Cape Elizabeth, the Jacksons created an open-concept kitchen that moves seamlessly into the living room, and reworked the upstairs so that each of their three kids could have their own bedroom. They decided early on to raise the ceilings to make the entire downstairs feel more spacious. To accomplish this, they exposed the wooden beams and floorboards of the upstairs, which Gallagher painted white. They also moved the kitchen so that they could maximize the view from the living room and created a small “corral” near the front entryway where the kids have cubbies for their beach gear and space for their sandy shoes.
While Ryan played a large role in determining how the floor plan would function, when it came to picking out finishes and furniture, the couple let Gallagher take the reins. “She almost knows what we like better than we do,” says Ryan. “We didn’t want to be walking around on eggshells,” Kelsey adds. “We like nice furniture, but we want to feel like we can live in it without tiptoeing around.” They have a dog and three young kids, and they didn’t want to worry about sanding hardwood floors. Instead, they chose to cover the downstairs with vinyl. “It’s pretty much commercial-grade manufactured flooring,” says Gallagher. “We knew they’d be carrying in sand daily.” The floors look exactly like gray-washed oak boards; they’re the color of driftwood and feel sturdy underfoot. The gray is a neutral backdrop for
the colorful patterns that Gallagher brought in as accents. “Too much white and gray is just too much,” she says. To liven up the kitchen and living area, she brought in blue-and-white patterned wallpaper to cover an accent wall and picked out a glass-tile backsplash that gleams like fish scales above the cabinets. “I thought that was gorgeous,” she says. “It hints at the ocean, but it’s not in-your-face.” The backsplash, Gallagher reveals, is one of the higher-ticket—and earliest-selected—items used in the home, sourced from Distinctive Tile and Design in Portland.
While the downstairs is decorated in shades of blue and neutrals (driftwood gray and sea grass yellow) the upstairs is far more colorful. “I know the kids well, and they all have their own unique personalities,” Gallagher says. “We didn’t want to put them in gray rooms.” Blake, the eldest, loves to be outside, so Gallagher found a wallpaper covered in black and white animal faces. “I knew it was perfect for him—it has so much personality.” To add warmth, she brought in bright orange textiles. (While the rug is abstract and unlikely to offend teenage sensibilities, Gallagher realizes that, as Blake grows, he may not want cartoon animals on his wall, so she made sure the wallpaper will be easy to remove. “They can take it off in five minutes,” she says.)
The nursery (for Connor, age two) is a bit more subdued, but Avery’s room shines with personality. Gallagher says the five-year-old is “sweet and spunky, so we needed a lot of color and fun.” She paired “hot colors” like pink and orange with lavender and sparkly silver and a white shag rug to tone it all down. There’s a barn board wall, sourced from one of Gallagher’s other projects, to provide “visual texture that doesn’t feel fussy.” Avery’s room, Gallagher says, “is a place she can grow in. It would work for a teenager just as well as a little girl.”
Perhaps Gallagher’s favorite part of the project was creating custom art for Kelsey and Ryan. “They commissioned me to make two paint- ings for them,” she says, “and that was so much fun for me.” When Gallagher isn’t working, she likes to unwind by painting. For the Jackson family, she made abstract scenes inspired by the landscape and the colors of the ocean: royal blue, turquoise, and light-catching gold. Like the house itself, with its big windows and spacious deck, these paintings were made to honor the fleeting joys of a Maine summer. “We live out here in June, July, and August,” says Kelsey. “No one wants to leave Maine in the summer. But out here, it feels like we’re on vacation every day.”