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Home Decorating: Cape House in Maine

Home Decorating: Cape House in Maine
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Terry John Woods and Dale West extended their Vermont farmhouse sensibility to Down East Maine to create what they consider “the perfect summer home.”

The familiar things have their place here: a well-used table; an old cupboard, scraped and painted, awaiting a new round of memories; a scattering of reclaimed boards, smoothed and finished into something fine. They’re connections, these pieces–to family, to past gatherings, to the Vermont dairy farm where these cherished items once graced a generations-old homestead.

Over time, Terry John Woods, an interior designer, had turned that farm, in Shrewsbury, into something spectacular. But then came the call of the sea and, at the same time, decisions about what to do with his growing collections of antiques, furnishings, and folk art. He wanted to keep his year-round home in Vermont while looking for a summer place.

“I buy houses so I can save stuff,” Terry says, laughing.

He’s kidding–sort of. Truth is, about five years ago, his attention and many summer weeks were being pulled toward the Down East area around Machiasport, where he and his partner, Dale West, a writer and fundraiser, would eventually come to own this three-bedroom Cape atop a hill overlooking the water. It’s a different setting, of course, but this 190-year-old house, with its own history and scuffmarks, offered familiar ground for Terry’s things.

A quiet coastal town in Maine’s Washington County, Machiasport isn’t a place you just stumble across. Up you go: four hours northeast of Portland, past Rockland, Bucksport, and Jonesboro, before it comes into focus. The first naval battle of the American Revolution was fought just off its shores, and a century ago, fish and timber brought jobs and wealth here. But that time is long past. It’s been a struggle ever since to get those dollars back from a tourist run that often doesn’t advance north of Bar Harbor.

But in early 2006, that seclusion attracted Terry and Dale, native Vermonters who loved fixing up old homes and had a passion for undiscovered pockets of New England. “We were doing these little weekend getaways every month,” Terry says. “I was online looking at houses, and I found this place for $60,000 in Machiasport. I immediately made an appointment with the real-estate agent and told Dale, ‘That’s where we’re going.'”

They didn’t buy that house, but at the end of their stay, they succumbed to the agent’s pleading to show them a double-chimney shingled Cape that had just come onto the market. It was airy and light, and through a partial renovation job, the couple could see that the important details of the place–wood floors, plaster walls, wavy-glass windows–had been preserved. Built in the 1820s by a local furniture maker, it also offered a level of craftsmanship that Terry had rarely seen in a Cape.

“The high ceilings are practically unheard of, and the trim is incredible,” he explains. “The [trim’s] scalloped casing downstairs–that’s something you’d see in the White House.” There was also the unimpeded view of the Machias River. On the drive home to Shrewsbury, they agreed to buy the place for $110,000. Terry and Dale had found their summer house.

Still, it needed some help. A longtime Maine family had owned the property, before it had landed in the hands of an enterprising house-flipper, who’d gone through the hard work of ripping up the carpet and taking down the wood paneling that had plagued the place, before she’d run out of energy and put it back up for sale. What Terry and Dale had purchased was a place that had been scraped clean but still needed finishing.

“I remember heading up there, my car stuffed with tools and other things,” Terry says. “There was Sheetrock dust everywhere, and we had our air mattress to sleep on, and our white Ralph Lauren sheets. I’d get up in the middle of the night, the mattress had gone flat, the sheets were all dirty, and I’d just be lying on the floor thinking, ‘What did we just do?'”

Progress did come. Terry and Dale worked on one room at a time, refinishing and redecorating–doing it with a frugal Yankee’s touch and a style largely informed by the renovated Vermont farmhouse. They gutted and expanded the lone bath, anchoring its look with an old clawfoot tub Terry had found for cheap. In the kitchen, the new owners hit the restart button. Out went a decor that screamed of the 1970s; in came a new but chipped soapstone counter that Terry had picked up at a discount. Now it’s at home atop an old potting cupboard that once stood in his family’s greenhouse in Vermont.

“[The cupboard] is about the same age as the [Machiasport] house, but it looks like it’s been there forever,” Terry says. “I scraped it by hand, and under many layers of paint was this wonderful sage-green color. I took that color as a lead and used it as trim around the windows and backsplash in the kitchen.”

Even when they opted for new, Terry and Dale took care to hide the gleam. A pair of stainless-steel refrigerators, for example, were tucked into a box the owners built out of old doors. And, throughout the house, cupboards, including Terry’s grandmother’s old pie cabinet and another that his father once used to store tools, find their place here, while treasures such as a series of chipped pickling crocks and old wooden bowls add to the familiarity. Even the family barn has a seat at the table–or, to be accurate, is the table, made from boards Terry reclaimed from the Shrewsbury property.

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