Preserving a Tiny Cottage in Maine Helped One Busy Couple Unwind
Van Loan Cottage in Bar Harbor is the perfect respite for Greg Denison and Patricia Garner.
Greg: Pat and I first visited Acadia National Park together in 2008, and it just kind of clicked with us. It’s the perfect combination of nature and civilization, where you can have a good meal and a bottle of wine at the end of a day of hiking or biking. After we went back for the third time, we started thinking about getting a place nearby in Bar Harbor, which is a classic New England kind of town.
We saw this modest little summer cottage, and thought we could justify buying it. It was maybe 100 yards from the ocean and had been preserved for 80 years. How often do you get a chance to buy something like that? The surrounding neighborhood was beginning to gentrify, and several of the smaller, older homes had been razed and replaced by new construction or unrecognizably remodeled. This one seemed at risk for a similar fate.
We live in southern Wisconsin in a brick house that was built recently, but we developed a love for old buildings while remodeling a tiny condominium in a 1912 Illinois Bell Telephone building in the Chicago Loop several years ago. The cottage seemed like a small enough project that we could actually take it on.
Pat: When you look around Bar Harbor, there are all kinds of million-dollar restorations, but you don’t see the average guy’s summer place. They did a lot of stuff by hand here. When we decided to buy it in October 2015, I saw all the work that was going to go into it. I told Greg that this was his Christmas present and his project [laughs].
Greg: We purchased the property “as-is,” which meant we had to sort through 80 years’ worth of stuff, including a big pile of old correspondence. All of that hand-me-down stuff turned out to be a great blessing, revealing a little about the family and helping us preserve the character of the place. The home dates from 1936 and was originally owned by three siblings from Philadelphia: Seth, Fluer, and Dorothy “Dido” Van Loan. They preserved their names for posterity on a plaque on one end of the cottage.
Seems like Dido was quite something in her day. She was awarded two grants to study art abroad during the Great Depression, and her work was widely shown in galleries from Philadelphia to New York. We think she used the loft in the cottage as a summer studio, because a lot of her art was tacked up there—local scenes of lobster boats and rolling hills and lakes.
Pat: There’s a long upper wall where we have several of them hanging as a modest gallery to preserve her legacy.
Greg: It took two and a half years for the renovation to be completed, so we’re very happy now! We planned on spending $25,000, but it ended up being closer to $50,000. We were lucky enough to find a talented and patient local builder, Michael I. Wilder. We tackled the cottage first, asking Mike to bring it up to code but to otherwise return it to the way it was when the Van Loans summered there.
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It is a post-and-beam building, and several of the posts were rotten. The beams, floor, and part of the roof were sagging. The back wall of the kitchen was filled with decades of squirrel and mouse droppings, so Mike had to create replacement kitchen cabinets in his shop. He replaced the cedar siding shakes as needed, re-shingled the roof, and re-glazed the windows.
Local lore has it that Seth built the garage himself from salvaged materials. Because the cottage has no proper bedroom, just camp-style beds in the main room, we reworked Seth’s hand-built garage into a master suite. In keeping with the amateur design-build scheme, I designed a rough floor plan using a simple iPad app called QuickPlan 3D and sent Mike pictures I found online and in magazines. Part of the fun was seeing how things turned out after Mike translated my vision through the filter of his experience and Yankee ingenuity.
Most of the furniture and knickknacks came with the property. The main living areas of the house are open, with no dry wall, and the Van Loans used the beams as shelving for various collections. Combing through local antiques shops to supplement the accumulated items became a favorite rainy-day activity during our visits.
We also tweaked the yard a little to make it more usable. By the new back door of the garage, we excavated a small seating area and built a pergola, and added a fire pit and a small lawn. We also put in a few native plantings to give the yard and the screened porch a little more privacy. We left the rest of the yard in a natural state, seeding it with native fern and wildflower seeds from the Maine-based Wild Seed Project to augment the existing native plants. Some parts of it feel almost like a transplanted corner of Acadia National Park.
Pat: Now that we have the cottage, Acadia feels like home. It’s a relief to go to a place where you have this beautiful scenery and all these activities and don’t feel like a stranger. I’m a general surgeon and Greg’s a radiologist, and even when I’m off, I’m still getting calls about patients. If we took vacation at home it wouldn’t be a vacation; I’d end up going into the hospital. When we go to our Acadia home, it’s a real vacation.
Greg: It’s such a time machine. We got a TV for the place, but we never watch it. You just want to sit down and have a cup of coffee or a glass of wine on the porch. It’s impossible to downshift in our normal life, but coming here helps us do that.
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