From the top of Mount Battie, an 800-foot rise just outside the seaside town of Camden, Maine, you get an astounding view of the Penobscot Bay. Out of breath, my fingers stained from the trailside blueberries I’ve greedily gobbled on the climb, I can see the constellation of hundreds of islands in the bay.
There’s wasp-waisted Isleboro, with its wealth of summering Scientologists; Vinalhaven and its artists; and crescent-shaped North Haven, one of the few Penobscot islands with a year-round community, beloved equally by Elizabeth Bishop, Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, and the tonier likes of the DuPonts. I’ve been spending a week or two in mid-coast Maine each summer for many years now, visiting my wife’s family. "We should go out to North Haven," I tell her each year. "Ride the ferry, maybe rent some bicycles." I recently got my chance, though it wasn’t quite in the manner I’d imagined.
Christopher Campbell, a Portland, Maine–based architect, waits dutifully for us at the 9:30 a.m. ferry despite the whipping wind and flurries of February snow at the terminal in Rockland. Dressed in a bright red woolen hunting jacket and three layers beneath that, he ushers us onto the boat he’s ridden hundreds of times in the process of building Bobbie Callahan and Ed Hayes’s summer home on North Haven. Campbell is no stranger to building in cold climates, having practiced in New Haven, Connecticut, and Boston before setting up shop ten years ago in Portland. "I keep moving up the coast," he quips. "I plan to expire in Nova Scotia."
As we approach North Haven, Campbell points out the huge summer homes favored by some—recently erected 20,000-square-foot colonials that loom massively even from the water. He then points to the plot where Callahan and Hayes spend their summers and to their clean, modern wedge of a house, all but invisible behind a grove of pines. Despite Campbell’s love of "proud buildings, those that aren’t afraid of being what they are," the Callahan-Hayes abode is happy to fly beneath the radar, quietly nestling into a seaside hillock, eschewing the architectural fanfare of a vanity summer home.
Hayes, now retired from the furniture business, proposes a secondary reason for the staunchly modern house keeping a low profile: "We didn’t want to upset the natives." Around 350 people live on North Haven year-round, and they’re fiercely proud of their island. And though the local architecture tends toward white clapboard siding, painted shutters, and a never-met-a-gable-I-didn’t-like aesthetic, Hayes’s unusual house has got some fans. "The plumber, the electrician, both of whom live here, made a lot of jokes about this house. But they’ve come back to the finished product and said, ‘You know, I kinda like it.’"
Callahan, a psychoanalyst, calls North Haven "a powerful place" and has been coming here since she was a child. After ten years of living in Asia, she returned to the States in the late 1970s and, wanting some security in a time of transition, she purchased a house on the island in 1978 for $30,000. She and her family have been using it ever since, but with five children, seven grandchildren, and a passel of guests descending on them each summer, she and Hayes wanted to maintain their long-standing relationship with the island and design a house from scratch.
Though it may not strictly adhere to the local aesthetic, the house takes its cues from a humble and prevalent form of local architecture: the boat barn. "We wanted the essence of a New England barn," says Callahan. "The house is like a sculpture, a piece of jazz, like a riff on barnness." The couple had initially planned two structures on their land, but when Campbell delivered exactly what they had imagined, the desire to build the second evaporated.
The wedgelike shape of the house, the red prefabricated steel frame glimpsed between the slats of two-by-eight-foot pine siding, and the roll-up firehouse doors on the seaward facade all owe a debt to the working buildings of Maine. "The idea was to make a little red barn that’s not a little red barn," says Campbell. A little red barn some 100 yards from the house attests to the architectural sympathy.
"When looking at New England working buildings," Campbell says, "one of the first things that you notice is the builders’ comfort with a strong, simple geometric presence on a landscape. You notice a lack of fear over large expanses of siding, coupled with a strong rhythm established by the windows; the eaves and edges are close and clipped tight to the building."
"The fantasy with this house," he continues, "was that someone had built a boathouse and then abandoned it. You go to some of these old structures in Maine and think to yourself, I could live here. You know, this really isn’t far off from livable."
Livable is all relative for summer houses. And though any visitor to "Vacationland" will tell you July is divine, proper Mainers are quick to add, with a shade of hardier-than-thou disdain, February is not for quailing city slickers. The goal then was to design a house whose debt to the local vernacular extended beyond aesthetics. "A maintenance-free house," Callahan crows before Campbell interjects, "There’s no such thing!" "Alright," she says, chastened, "maintenance-free until Ed and I die. Then we let the kids worry about it."
That the house needed to be a haven for summertime relaxation as well as a hurricane-proof shelter equipped to go untended through the punishing winter months was a tall order, but one Campbell ably filled using both local materials and regional know-how. The metal frame and wood panels that line the interior were constructed in a barn on the mainland then shipped out by barge. Work crews took lobster boats out to the island each day; the spiral staircase from the main room to the master bedroom was fabricated in a Maine shop; and the granite in the foundation is from Mosquito Mountain near Bucksport. The doors are from Bristol and the builder, Scott Pearson, whom Campbell frequently praises to the skies, is a homegrown Mainer.
A common trick in Maine working buildings is to continue the roofing material, often slate, down one side of the facade. Campbell opted for copper instead, knowing that even a sliver exposed to the sun will heat up, melting accumulated snow, and that as the material slowly acquires its green patina, it will perfectly mirror the lichen on the surrounding pines.
Though Campbell thinks of the house as an expression of modern architecture filtered through a specific place, he doesn’t want to hem himself in: "This building succeeds not because it’s overtly regionalist but because it’s thoughtfully, gently so—just as it’s not overtly a prefab or manufactured house, a superinsulated home, a hurricane shelter, or any of the other things it happily, modestly does."
Back inside—we’ve been tramping around in the snow, investigating the house from all angles, climbing down icy steps and embankments to the rocky beach below and observing how from the road the house appears more like a snowy rise in the landscape than some Martian bit of modernism—Callahan has put together a simple lunch. As I reenter the house I’m struck by the simplicity of the interior.
The house is one massive room that opens into the kitchen with a spacious master bedroom above and an attic-like sleeping nook for either grandchildren or the abnormally short. The nook is heated in part by the pipe of Callahan’s Aga stove from the kitchen below while the rest of the house relies on radiant heat in the floor beneath the dining table, a wood-burning stove, and individual heating units.
The couple aims to someday spend much more time here—an impossibility for summer homes designed with only fair-weather use in mind—though even now their visits come as late in the season as Christmas. "The house was built for the last phase of our lives," says Callahan. "But we couldn’t do it until we knew what the last phase would be."
As the couple prepares to pass the rest of the weekend snugly ensconced in their New England fantasy, and our trio races to catch the last of three daily ferries back to Rockland, it seems that their understanding and enjoyment of that phase grows only clearer.
Aaron writes the men's style column "The Pocket Square" for the San Francisco Chronicle and has written for the New York Times, the Times Magazine, Newsweek, National Geographic and others.