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Cottage Clarity

Elliott Elliott Norelius Architecture

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  • Jon D. Woodward & Sons
  • Brian Vanden Brink

Project Status



3,000 sq. feet





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Project Description

On Site
Cottage Clarity
A Maine Summer Home Shows Shingle Style In A New Light.

If one were to designate an official residential style for the New England coast, Shingle style would have to be a front-runner for the title. Originating in the 1880s, the style has enjoyed such a robust revival since the late 20th century that it bids fair to join the Cape, center-hall Colonial, and bungalow as an ageless, perennial American house type. At first glance, this new vacation home on Maine's Down East coast looks like another well-executed variation on the classic theme. It has the balanced, asymmetrical massing, the broad-shouldered main roof and mix of dormer shapes, the cedar shingles on walls and roof. But the longer one looks at this building, the less it looks like a straight-ahead Shingle house. Absent are the heavy, painted trim assemblies, the massive columns, and the palatial scale also typical of the breed.

The detailing is almost Modernist in its simplicity. Step inside and the matter becomes clear. In this spare, restrained interpretation, architects Libby and Matt Elliott have distilled Shingle style to its essential elements without betraying its spirit, producing something reassuringly familiar yet also refreshingly new.

The Elliotts are uniquely qualified to produce such a design. Their firm, Elliott Elliott Norelius, is stylistically ambidextrous, rendering traditional building types and Modernist originals with equal facility and conviction. Both threads of their work show a deep sensitivity to the natural environment and architectural history of coastal Maine. “It's a big dialogue in our office,” Matt Elliott says. “How do you fit in where you are without just copying? It's always a struggle.” A Modernist reinterpretation of Shingle style settles that question rather neatly. “It is one of those buildings that let us incorporate both sides of our office in one building.”

But the formula emerged as much from client interest as from the architects' philosophical debates. Tired of the constant upkeep on the old farmhouse that had been their longtime summer home, the owners had found a fine shorefront lot that seemed to call out for a Shingle-style house. But, while they wanted a house that acknowledged the “cultural history” of the region, Elliott says, “They didn't want it to be this pretentious Shingle-style house. They wanted it to be more casual, almost stripped down.” In browsing through a book on the style with their architects, “The images they kept coming back to were the carriage houses and the kitchens in these big Shingle-style mansions.” The carriage-house scale fit their needs, and the utilitarian aesthetic—the simple millwork, slate sinks, and exposed steel beams—suited their taste. Avid art collectors, the owners wanted their summer place to be as much a backdrop as a showpiece, Elliott says. “We also felt that when it was stripped down it would be a better showcase for their stuff.”

Here, however, stripping down is more than a mere process of subtraction. At the first floor, service and circulation spaces line up neatly along the inland-facing wall, while the major rooms—kitchen, dining, and living rooms, a guest bedroom—open onto covered porches and a meadow-like yard that stretches down to the shore. The architects ordered the first-floor plan around an exposed structural-steel frame that serves as a link between the Shingle-era utility buildings that inspired the house and the Modernist buildings that followed them (see “Framed Art” sidebar). “The rigor of the plan sort of came from the steel frame,” Elliott says. The profile of the I-beams and the frame's bolted connections also add a bit of visual interest at the wall/ceiling juncture. Onto that structural—and thematic—framework, the house hangs elements drawn from both Shingle and Modernist vocabularies, which blend in a surprisingly natural way. The pickled fir beaded-board ceilings are a classic cottage touch, as are the kitchen's slate countertops and nickel cabinet hardware. The bright-finished mahogany stair rails, vanities, and accents are an unmistakable reference to the wooden sailing yachts native to these waters. Eight-over-two double-hung windows also bow to tradition. But the openness and strict rationality of the plan are straight out of the Modernist playbook, as are the tasty, low-fat trim details. Windows and doors get by without casing. Porch columns are black-painted steel pipe; roof brackets at the second-floor porch, painted steel plate.

Ideas like those look great on paper, but projecting them in three dimensions takes a builder with the skill and patience to work through details that have never before seen the light of day. The Elliotts knew just the guy. Peter Woodward comes from a long line of Maine housewrights (see “Close to Home”). He grew up five miles from this site, taking apart and rebuilding classic old buildings. He knows and admires the way the old-timers built. But he also spent a little time up the road at the University of Maine, studying mechanical engineering, and he's game for the more individualistic houses that make up more and more of his company's job list. Woodward points out the crown molding he steam-bent for the fascia of the curved covered walkway to the garage and the casing-free interior door frames, whose jambs he fitted only after the rough openings had been wrapped in gypsum board, both easier drawn than built. But while he is happy to discuss the challenges of realizing the Elliotts' very particular vision, he is equally focused on the nuts-and-bolts performance of the building. Vacation homes may enjoy the easy life when their summering owners are in residence, but they must fend for themselves through the winter. And the open stretch of salt water that makes this site so appealing in the warmer months can deliver a load of off-season abuse. “In the winter this place gets pounded,” Woodward says. “Not much snow, but wind and rain,” a real test for windows and the integrity of the building shell. Along the coast, sites also tend to be ledgy, wet, or both. To handle a high water table, Woodward ran footing drains both inside and outside of the foundation, and he reports that the basement stayed bone dry during the wettest fall in memory.

Which is all to the good. Because a design that looks this good and works this well merits a quality build that will see it through many decades of use. The longevity of successful architectural styles can be interpreted as an effect of natural selection; the fitter ones stick around and, by influencing later buildings, reproduce themselves. The oldest Shingle-style cottages up and down the coast are now well into their second century and far outnumbered by their architectural descendants. This new house, which infuses the lineage of the first-generation originals with the new blood of Modernism, looks like an adventurous young branch on the old family tree.
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