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FOR ABOUT 20 YEARS, Rose and Ron Dennis pondered the dramatic changes they wanted to make to their property on Blue Hill Bay in Maine. Ron’s family has owned a camp on the oceanfront land since 1954.
Several years ago, they moved that 28-by-30-foot wooden building across the road and winterized it. Then, in the fall of 2009, they broke ground for a robust and much larger contemporary house that they plan to move into permanently after the younger of their two daughters graduates from high school. The home was completed in May.
The Dennises had specific goals when they approached William M. Hanley at A4 Architects in Bar Harbor, Maine: uninterrupted ocean views, low maintenance, privacy, and energy efficiency. They also had a clear aesthetic in mind — a sleek and modern look with an open floor plan.
“Ron and Rose had a mature understanding of Modernism, and that drove a lot of the initial design,” says Hanley, the project architect. “We could have created a blob that was sinuous and undefined and flowing, but that wasn’t what they communicated. They like corners instead of curves.”
The resulting home is extraordinary in its openness to the sea, with floor-to-ceiling windows — essentially glazed walls — along the water-facing side. The effect is striking. You feel at the edge of nature and its volatile ocean, yet protected by stout glass. The windows are low-lead, which means tint-free, with exceptional clarity. “They are as clear as glass can be,” says Hanley. Intermittent framing elements add an asymmetrical quality to this south elevation.
The rectangular motif continues inside, but with a softer feel, owing to the warm, natural materials in flooring, cabinetry, and case goods made from clear, select ash, furthering the connection to the site, says Hanley. (Ash trees grow on the property.) A propane fireplace in the living room enhances the embracing effect, as does the one on the three-season enclosed patio, while a larger wood-burning fireplace on the ocean-side deck carries the warmth outside.
Chic furnishings and high-end amenities are a reminder that although close to nature, you are not roughing it. Yet the couple wanted to retain the sense of the family camp. To that end, the kitchen, dining area, and living space are contiguous and open. This core is at once expansive and intimate. Bedrooms — two guest rooms and the master suite — bookend the communal area.
A coastal property often presents a design conundrum, notes Hanley. You have to orient it between the road and the ocean, but much of the attention understandably goes to the water-facing side. The Dennis residence appears austere, almost industrial, from the curb. On the road side, the house “is more inwardly focused. You have to enter it through a series of layers,” says Hanley, who now has his own firm, WMH Architects in Northeast Harbor, Maine. These include a gate, interior courtyard, and foyer. “The house is very careful about how it reveals itself.”
Because visitors move through these spaces before reaching the central part of the home — where views of the sea stun with their beauty — entering almost has a peekaboo effect, says Rose. That aspect appealed to her and her husband, for design reasons as well as privacy. Says Hanley: “Their primary interest from the beginning was that the house not be a one-liner. You’ve got to get to know it over time.”
One fortunate and initially unforeseen feature is how surrounding trees’ shadows play on the house. “We started noticing that during construction. The sun is so low in winter, and there are a lot of mature trees on the property. Elongated shadows began raking across the elevations,” says Hanley. “We tried to hold onto that when we looked at siding products. We wanted a monolithic, planar material.” They chose 4-by-10-foot fiber-cement panels in three natural tones — pale gray, charcoal blue, and a subtle off-white — that make a perfect flat canvas for the shadows and pick up sky and ocean hues.
The house also uses solar and wind power. As landscaping is added, the exterior will soften and the house will settle into its surroundings. The couple are opting for native plantings instead of lawn, for sustainability reasons as well as ease. “We’re 20 minutes from Acadia National Park,” says Rose. “Which would I rather do, mow the lawn or bike the carriage roads?”
The 3,000-square-foot residence was designed to be primarily single-level living; only a combined office/workout room and a roof terrace are upstairs, above the master bedroom. “It’s a house we’re pretty confident we can grow old in,” says Ron.
“It’s just a joy to be here,” Rose adds. “We still pinch ourselves.”
Nancy Heiser is a writer and editor in Maine. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.