The echoes of the past spoke to architect David Morris,
of Caleb Johnson Studio, just as clearly as the voices
of his clients as he navigated a 21st-century revision
of this stately John Calvin Stevens–designed home in
Cape Elizabeth, originally built for former Maine Supreme Court Justice Joseph W. Symonds in 1908.
A renovation is not a blank canvas, obviously. Where do you begin?
Old houses are quite interesting because they already have a voice and a memory. It’s almost like you have a second client that definitely gets a say in what is about to happen. The first thing I try to do is to listen to the house, to listen to what it’s telling me to do—or not to do.
What was it about the house that the homeowners fell in love with?
I suspect it’s the same thing that I fell in love with when I first visited the house. It’s a pretty special building. It’s the scale of the rooms and the classically simple detailing. It’s the way that it’s perched on a ledge outcropping looking out over Cape Elizabeth. It’s the dappled light twinkling through the tree canopy and it’s the space that offered every member of the family a place of their own.
John Calvin Stevens designed so many homes in Maine. Is this the first one you’ve worked with? What did you enjoy most about it? Any specific challenges?
It is the first one that I’ve worked on and it comes with a certain amount of pressure to be respectful. I think that we did that. The house needed to work for a modern family with three children and so we had to re-imagine some of the spaces to achieve that. But on the flip side, we had to temper our intervention with a respect for the house and all the aspects that first appealed to everyone involved.
What did you honor in Stevens’ design?
He knew how to design a house and it would be foolhardy for me to think I could make major improvements to a house that, although tired, is just as beautiful today as it was when it was built. Realizing that was, in some way, liberating because I freed myself from any urge or expectation to greatly alter the house. I could focus on more localized revisions that would allow the family to occupy it in a modern way, where the kitchen is central.
The homeowners are especially taken with the amount of light the house lets in, which is usually found in more modern-designed homes. Is this a feature of Stevens’ homes?
I’ve been in several John Calvin Stevens buildings and there is something masterful about his buildings. There is a quality to the proportions of the spaces and the light that is truly wonderful. He knew how to design a room; the relationship to length, width and height is always correct and [even] without modern windows and expansive glass, the spaces I have been in have always felt bright.
Knowing when to leave things alone, like the foyer and stair, is a testament to you and John Calvin Stevens. As an architect, what determined this?
Pure respect. That stair is so grand, yet simple. We cleaned it up, added some modern lighting and let it speak for itself. You don’t have to change something to make it better. I also believe that restraint is much harder than gusto and to exercise restraint shows respect and self-control. You don’t have to change everything to show that you’re a good architect. Being a good architect can be just as much about knowing a good thing when you see it and then keeping your mitts off it.
As a lover of old buildings, what do you find most appealing about them in general? Do their qualities influence your approach to design?
I don’t know exactly what it is about them that I’ve always loved. It may be that I grew up in the South and I grew up around historic architecture. It may be the voice they have and the stories they could tell. I like that they’re not perfect and there’s no use expecting them to be; there’s beauty in that imperfection. It shows that they’ve lived and been lived in. I love that they’ve seen much more than I have and they’ve known more people than I have. And frankly, a beautiful old staircase will always, ALWAYS, steal my heart.
Old buildings often have a very clear sense of progression and of arrival. This idea that entry is important is something that I find extremely relevant to my practice. It’s the notion of providing a map for someone; they know where to go, they know where the door is. Having a gracious arrival is crucial to the way someone is introduced to and experiences a building.
Before houses had spaces like bathrooms, closets, laundry rooms, mechanical rooms—those spaces that can really mess up a floor plan—there was clarity to the organization of a house. I find that purity really beautiful and I try to find that in the houses I design. It can be challenging to achieve, as those very necessary spaces tend to get in the way. It’s a struggle that I will likely face and endeavor to solve for as long as I’m drawing.
It’s a very stately, grand house sitting proudly on a hilltop and yet it’s welcoming, soft and livable. How did you achieve this and yet stay true to the house?
It is certainly a grand house, although I was told that the owners don’t love to think about it that way and I found that interesting. The truth is that it’s a sizable house, however it’s an incredibly comfortable house and we really wanted to maintain that. Somehow the grand nature of it is secondary. When we conceptualized the house, it was clear that this was not a house meant for an “open concept.” We made the conscious decision to maintain as much of the existing fabric as possible and gave ourselves permission to improve connections between the spaces and between the interior and exterior. Particularly in the spaces surrounding the kitchen, we created larger openings between the rooms and carefully added new windows to improve the light and air.
“Enliven” is a word you use often to describe the renovation work you did. Can you elaborate?
Well, we decided that it’s difficult to improve upon Stevens’ design—no small feat. But what we could do was to breathe new life into it. It was like a campfire that has gone to embers and it needed people to blow on it and to breathe new life into it. It’s a risk in that you never really know if you’ve been successful until your clients move in to see if that fire is roaring again. We enlivened the beautiful and classic detailing with new color, new finishes and selective modifications that reflect the way we live today. This is especially relevant as it relates to the kitchen and how families use them in our era. We took a small and cramped series of spaces that were secluded from the living spaces and combined them into a large family kitchen centered by a 12-foot island that serves as the heart of the house.
You speak of your work on the house as blurring lines between old and new. How was this accomplished and where is it most evidenced?
I think in a renovation of this sort, the distinction, or lack thereof, between new and old is very important. In this house it can be difficult to see where we intervened in the house. Certainly, the kitchen, bathrooms and finishes are obviously new, but if you look at the organization of the house, the floor plan, you will likely have great difficulty figuring out where we reorganized or restructured the spaces. And frankly, I like it that way.
The adorned living room wall of window seats, trim, fireplace: Is this the original, as far as you know?
As far as I know, they are original. The windows in that space may not be original, but I believe the fireplace and surrounding seats are. At some point, there was a covered porch that wrapped that entire end of the house.
Was the kitchen a total renovation? Did you use the existing space?
The kitchen was completely renovated and the new space is comprised from a series of smaller former spaces. We enlarged it and added some larger windows to improve the light and air.
The mud room’s school lockers are so much fun and a great idea. Is there a back story to why they were used? Metal or wood? Do they solve a specific problem?
Every house in Maine needs a mud room and in this house the mud room is directly off the kitchen, but the back staircase is also accessed through that space. Since it’s so visible from the kitchen, which is a very communal space, we needed to find a way to provide closed storage in a manner that everyone gets their place.
The locker idea came from the fact the homeowners have three young daughters and it made sense to give them lockers. They’re wood and were made by Woodhull, our millwork shop. The homeowner found some vintage name card holders and they add some real fun to the space.
You also had a strong influence on the interior design choices, which like the house are not imposing but rather a calming, eclectic mix. How did you work with the homeowners to create the harmony?
I have to say that they placed a humbling amount of trust in us. I think we pushed them outside their comfort zones. They allowed us to experiment with colors and patterns that they may have not otherwise considered. For me, I love color, bold color, and I have the strong belief that you have to be confident in your use and application of it. The green in the living room was a real example of that trust. They didn’t ask, or force, me to make it an accent wall, but rather allowed me to go full bore and put that vibrant emerald on all walls. I think it was a real success. I think it shows confidence.
Caleb Johnson Studio
David Morris, project architect