At Home on the Cliffs
This time, at least, there were no raccoons. The last time Maine-based interior designer Anne Cowenhoven worked on Cragmere, a historic house in Cape Neddick, Maine, it was 1997, and the new homeowners had to take about 25 raccoons out of the house. “It was derelict when they bought it,” she says of Liz and Chris Crane, the English owners at the time. Several years previously, she had also done a room in the home for one of the early Museums of Old York show houses. “I had a raccoon in it [then], too,” she remembers.
Most recently, Cowenhoven was back in Cragmere for its current owners, who purchased the landmark home in 2009. “Cragmere was the second house we saw in our search, and then we went and saw a few dozen more homes,” says one owner, a sculptor; his partner works in finance. “We were always drawn back to the quality and the history of that house.” They were also attracted to the light and the location. The current owner describes the “bold Atlantic views” visible from almost every room and the sunlight that sweeps throughout the house. “The energy inside the house is such a good, content energy,” he says. “You can feel that there’s been a lot of love. It feels like a home, not a house.” He also thinks that he and his partner are just the fifth owners in the home’s 100-plus year history.
George M. Conarroe, a prominent attorney and successful real estate developer from Philadelphia, built Cragmere in 1895 as a summer cottage. Architect Antoine Dorticos, a student of noted Maine architect Francis H. Fassett, designed the house. Dorticos, who came from Cuba at 18 years of age, worked as an instructor at the Maine Charitable Mechanic Association and as a French teacher at a Portland high school. He is known for other homes along the Maine coast, including cottages on Peaks Island, Great Diamond Island, and Chebeague Island. In total he did 21 projects in Maine and later, others in Arizona, says Virginia Spiller, librarian at the Museums of Old York in Maine.
Cowenhoven came to the current owners via a recommendation from the previous English residents who had her incorporate many floral fabrics and bright colors. Despite the contrast in styles between the old and new owners, the men trusted Cowenhoven’s design aesthetic. “Anne really brings a lot to the table, but she really works with your direction and taste,” the owner says. Another familiar face on the project was Brian Sleeper of Period Design Restoration, who says he met the two men during a property walk-through with both sets of owners. Business cards were exchanged, and he was back to work on Cragmere again. “So around 12 years later, Anne and Brian were both back to the house. It was a good collaboration. We let them know what we wanted, and they took that and made recommendations. Both Anne and Brian took that to the next level.”
One of the men’s major interests was in showcasing their collected pieces of art, which range from traditional nineteenth-century seascapes to contemporary figurative pieces. “We wanted neutral hues in the house so the artwork would bring in the colors,” the owner says. “Anne was instrumental in working with us on the color palette.” That palette includes beiges and grays that complement their paintings and sculptures. The neutrals also harmonize with Tibetan rugs, which the owners collected.
Cowenhoven says she did not frame the décor around the artwork. “They [the owners] wanted me to design it in a way so that they could move the art constantly,” she says. “Every time I go there, the art is in different places.” For the owner, that is part of owning paintings and sculptures. “When you live with art, you place it in ways you can view it every day,” he says. “It’s living in your space with you. So we move art—different seasons, different times of the year, we enjoy viewing different pieces of art.” The two men had previously lived in Kittery Point, where the owner says, “It didn’t feel like the art fit.”
Beyond showcasing their collected artwork, the two men were seeking a sophisticated style. Alabaster sconces and chandeliers were ordered from Spain. “They took eight months to come in, but they were stunning.” Cowenhoven says.
The Cranes, presented in the late 1990s with a house that had been neglected for years, began major renovations on the property. “It was quite the undertaking, and they really did a fantastic job,” Brian Sleeper of Period Design Restoration says. “I did a complete renovation. It was seasonal at best—there was no insulation, no heat.” In addition to replacing many of the home’s utilities, they added radiant heat throughout the floors and turned the attic space of the third floor into a family room, including steel beams for support. The work was so extensive that it ultimately received a Maine Preservation Award in 1999 from the Maine Society for Preservation.
The new owners went further in updating and preserving Cragmere. They replaced all the decking with ipe, a hardwood from South America that is so dense it is also known as ironwood. Sleeper says some 2,000 square feet of decking was replaced and fitted against the home’s existing stonework, a project involving incredible craftsmanship. “That porch and deck area is unbelievable,” he says. The owners also reshingled the house, sanded the floors, and painted throughout the home. More significantly, they did away with a large storage building that did not suit the style of the house. Instead, they erected a new garage and separate guest house/studio, complete with stonework designed to match Cragmere, on the site of the previous building. “That was the biggest improvement for that property,” Sleeper says. “It looks like they were always there.”
Beyond the renovations and redecorating of the last two decades, many of the period details remain. An inglenook next to an original stone, wood-burning fireplace still stands in the foyer, near original stair rails. “It’s got one of the best entry foyers I’ve ever seen,” Sleeper says. “It goes 25 feet up, there’s a chandelier hanging down—you walk in there, and it’s just jaw-dropping.” Much of the original bead board is present, and plaster walls present picture railings that also help with displaying the owners’ artwork.
Cowenhoven, who says her grandfather built houses in the time period of Craftsman and Shingle-style homes, believes Cragmere is a mix of the two styles. Cowenhoven says, “It’s transitional,” she says. “It’s not as harsh as a Craftsman, not as aesthetic as a Shingle.”
That is an idea echoed by Spiller, the librarian. The interior is more Craftsman style, she says, with plain woodwork stained dark brown and contrasted with textured plaster. But features of the home typical of the Shingle style include rough stone, a Romanesque entry arch, a bowed veranda, and a bell-shaped roof, although the latter has since been replaced, Spiller says. Brickwork and floor timbers remain exposed. She describes the stone and wood used in Cragmere as representative of Dortico’s overall architectural style, something easy to recognize in his other buildings. “He’s considered a master of the Shingle style,” Spiller says. “He uses the central core of stone and wood atop a great porch, and a unifying gambrel roof that pulls that all together,” she says.
History lessons for the current residents are not far away: A nearby neighbor used to summer at Cragmere with her family, and the last owners also remain in the area. And if Cragmere looks similar in appearance to other local buildings, it is no coincidence. When George Conarroe passed away, his wife Nannie had St. Peter’s By-the-Sea Episcopal Church and the Ogunquit Memorial Library built as memorials to him, using the same stonemason that built Cragmere.
Despite the storied history, the 5,100-square-foot home is not ostentatious, says Sleeper, the builder. Many people are surprised at the place when they visit. “It’s easy living,” the new owner says. “It’s very open for a house built at the turn of the century.” Most of the ceilings are 10½ feet high. “It’s much more livable than people expect it to be.”
While Cragmere originally had some 100 acres, it lost much of its land in the second half of the twentieth century and now sits on 1.4 acres. The house was very specifically situated in 1895. “When they built it, they positioned it so you get a view of Boon Island lighthouse and the Nubble lighthouse—it’s pretty unique,” says one of the owners, who worked with Eric Fernandes & Sons of Eliot, Maine, to incorporate more native plants into the landscape. “We tried to create the theme of the era, adding hydrangeas to the coastal aspect of it, as well as junipers, roses, and beach roses,” Fernandes says. “We were trying to add to the style and era of the home.”
The two owners are overseeing the heritage of Cragmere, Cowenhoven says, an idea repeated by the owners. “We really consider ourselves stewards of both our artwork and our home,” the sculptor says. “When you have it, you take care of it for the next owner.” With Cragmere, they seem to be doing just that.