Celebrating Big Skies
Preserving the soul of a home and celebrating the history of Maine's offshore communities on Lanes Island.
Twelve miles from the mainland, overlooking the Lanes Island Preserve, stands a grand white house named Rockaway. Neoclassical corner boards flank the front steps, and two tall spruces stand guard nearby, towering over a gabled roof and reaching toward the sky. If the day isn’t too misty, you can see the house, perched on its hill, from the Vinalhaven ferry. It’s a welcoming sight, particularly if you happen to catch a glimpse of Rockaway during the summer months, when it is decked with colorful hand-sewn flags that flutter in the wind. It has stood on that picturesque waterfront plot since 1857, and with any luck, it will continue watching over Carvers Harbor for many years to come.
Philip Conkling and Paige Parker are the current inhabitants of Rockaway, but the couple view themselves more as stewards of the house’s legacy and land than its owners. They do not live in the house full-time (they have a year-round residence in Camden) but instead use it as a family gathering space, a beloved vacation home, and a rental property. “My late father-in-law bought the house in the 1960s,” explains Conkling. “He was a pilot, and one day he was flying over the island when he saw the big white elephant of a house.” He recognized the house’s innate elegance from above, and he knew he had to learn more about the island residence. At the time, the former ship captain’s home wasn’t in good shape (Rockaway functioned as an inn for several decades, and hundreds of tourists have walked through its halls), but that didn’t deter Dick Morehouse. “He was an architect and a Depression-era guy, and the idea of coming and working all summer was so exciting for him,” Conkling says. “That’s what we did for all the years he was alive.” Later, Conkling and his late wife, Jamien Morehouse, spent every summer on Lanes Island with their sons, caulking windows, painting walls, sanding floors, building trails, and working in the Zen garden. After Jamien died in 1999, Conkling remained close with his father-in-law, and when he married Paige Parker in 2000, Dick Morehouse stood with his new “surrogate daughter” at their wedding. Theirs is a blended family, one that merged graciously and with an abundance of love.
While the house is available to rent, it has not been scrubbed of personality, like many rentals are. There is evidence of family life in every room. In the children’s room, there is an oil painting of Conkling’s four sons on the wall (the work of local artist John Wulp) and a collection of colorful flags that Jamien cut and sewed. “We have a tradition of waving in people on the ferry with watermelon flags when they are coming to visit, and on the Fourth of July the whole house is decked out in banners,” Conkling says. “Jamien was a flag and banner maker, and the island is a great place for whipping flags and celebrating big skies.” In the 18 years they have been married, Parker has left her mark on the house, too. “It’s a nice amalgam of Paige’s taste and mine,” Conkling says. “I like a country feel, a little bit European and French,” Parker adds as she ladles out servings of hot, creamy fish chowder. We’re eating lunch at their kitchen table, which is covered in a salmon- colored floral tablecloth. Nearby, a cat washes its paws before padding slowly out of the room.
Later, as we tour the house, I spot the cat again, sunning itself on a bed upstairs in one of the many small but well-appointed rooms that make up the second story. Even this part of Rockaway, with its long hallway and rows of 11 bedrooms (a holdover from the days when the house was a proper inn) feels homey and warm, thanks to the landscape paintings that adorn the walls, the soft quilts that cover the beds, and the retro charm of cushioned wicker chairs and Shaker-style nightstands. This is where “the boys,” as Conkling still calls them, stay when they come to visit with their wives and kids. The extended Parker-Conkling tribe is huge, and when I ask if they ever have a full house at Rockaway, Conkling laughs. “All the time,” he says. “Especially in the summer.”
Owning an island house has been a boon for the family. It’s given them a space to gather, a space to remember their lost loved ones, and a place to create new memories. “When the boys were growing up, there was no TV out here,” Conkling recalls. “The fun they had was the fun they made. It’s remarkable how internalized that sense of adventure gets when there is supposedly nothing to do.” His sons grew up collecting raspberries and blackberries from the property, which they would sell to tourists in downtown Vinalhaven. “They would come home proud to make a dollar or two,” he says. These days, there are grandchildren to think of, so every year they host “Camp Rockaway,” which involves games, lobster bakes, and plenty of kid-friendly activities. “It’s a magic thing to have this big space for the kids to be learning and playing and bonding,” says Conkling.
The island has also been a great source of inspiration for both Conkling and Parker (Parker is a graphic designer and an art director, and Conkling is an editor and a writer, including for this magazine). They are passionate about sharing stories of Rockaway’s history—an entire room is devoted to pictures of the house in its various stages of development, from sea captain’s mansion to inn to vacation home. Over the decades, additions were added and removed, stories built and torn down. The couple views what stands today as something sacred, well worth preserving. Even when it comes to little things, like choosing new decor or painting a wall, Parker says, “We have to be sensitive. I don’t want to erase the history of this place. We made it livable and up to date, but we want to do that without disrespecting the soul of the house.”
Conkling has spent much of his life exploring, studying, and celebrating Maine’s many island communities. The founder and former president of the Island Institute, based in Rockland, he knows better than anyone the beauty of these offshore communities, the small unexpected joys of island living. His time on Lanes Island, he says, has changed the way he thinks. It’s given him a greater appreciation for the natural world and his connection to it. “When you live on an island,” he says, “you feel close to the weather, because you are. You feel a smaller part of the universe. The island also gives you a sense of possession over your world, even if it’s temporary, even if you are only there for a day. You can walk around an entire island, seeing the same things from different perspectives. You see nuance, and you get a more balanced view of things.” He looks at his wife for a moment. “Aside from Paige, I would have to say my other muse is Lanes Island.” A house with soul, an island muse, and a garden filled with memories—for Conkling and Parker, there is no place like Rockaway.