Our Maine Ruinlust
Essay by Adrian Blevins | Photos by Lauryn Hottinger
“What we seek, at the deepest level, is inwardly to resemble, rather than physically to possess, the objects and places that touch us through their beauty.” —Alain de Botton, The Architecture of Happiness
My husband Nate and I came to Maine 15 years ago with three kids and three cats to live in a 1905 folk Victorian rumored to have been ordered off the Sears and Roebucks catalog. At the time, all we really needed was as much space as possible within shouting distance of Colby College, where I’d come to teach. As my mother likes to say of her own travails refurbishing houses, we didn’t have two dimes to rub together when we pulled into our new driveway on Dalton Street in Waterville. The Sears house had five bedrooms and sat on a double lot on a dead-end road. It filled up with light once we removed the shaggy box elders that leaned against it like cowboys against a crooked fence. But there was not enough insulation in the walls, and a shambles of a woodstove sat heaped in the kitchen like a defunct factory in a field of hummingbirds. In fact, the whole kitchen was in shambles—a full-on catastrophe—of doors and windows. And what few cabinets we did have seemed to have been made of plywood for Hobbits. And why had someone been so heartless as to rip out the tin ceiling of one corner of that room to repair a leak in the only bathroom in the hall upstairs?
Now, there are babies in this world without enough food to eat. There are sick vortexes of plastic bits in every ocean on earth and a dwindling population of fish and more or less a thinking problem infecting our current politics throwing the lack of empathy that lets babies starve and waters perish effectively off the radar in favor of all kinds of distracting inanity such as who marries whom. And so I struggle with the part of myself that will spend money I don’t have and goodwill I can’t spare on paint the color of linen in an eggshell sheen and on antique dressers—wallpaper steamers, ceramic tile, walnut flooring. I wake up in the middle of the night reprimanding myself for not renouncing every mahogany table and oil painting in my possession in order to live in a trailer on a little hillside somewhere where I might exist in better harmony with my own values, as we like to say sometimes in the academy when we’re feeling guilty about our privilege.
Yet Nate and I did gut that kitchen in Waterville, spending whole weekends, vacations, and tax refunds bringing it back to life. Nate made a kitchen island out of two-by-fours the top of which we covered with copper we got from Biddeford for $300 (feeling we’d started a trend). We put the bathroom plumbing up in the joists where it belonged and bought new ceiling tiles to replace the missing ones. We removed six layers of wallpaper from the stairwell, and re-tiled the bathroom upstairs.
And so from room to room of that old Sears house we went, stripping and painting and cursing a tad and removing and adding and cursing again until, at the end of seven years, we had done everything in our power to invigorate it and were thus compelled by the certifiable craziness of our ruinlust to move into the house pictured here with its 4,000 square feet and five bathrooms on a plot of seven acres smack-dab in the middle of a huge nest of almost 1,000 acres of forest managed by Maine Woodland Owners in the Georgia Fuller Wiesendanger Wildlife Protection Area.
I love this house in East Winthrop for its architectural beauty. I love how that beauty soothes and eases a mostly fretful me. But for obvious reasons, this huge house that the original owners unironically named “Olympus” also embarrasses me, so I spend half my life justifying it, quoting Thomas Jefferson’s idea about the differences between the beautiful and the sublime or Alain de Botton’s more recent musings cohering our emotional aspirations to our buildings in The Architecture of Happiness.
Or I narrate as best I can the long and interesting life of the woman who had Olympus built in 1957—the iconoclastic Hope Weston with the working-class mother from Fairfield and the wealthy father who worked for the Bank of China in the Philippines until he was beheaded by the Japanese at the end of the Second World War. Hope is so resilient, I say. She’s still alive at the age of 104! And she has such a sense of humor, I say, pointing to the festive wallpaper in the upstairs guest bathroom. Or, tapping my finger on the wall of glass comprising the back side of the house: Hope understood passive solar before passive solar was a thing! And: This siding in the breezeway is California redwood!
It’s true that the Maine woman who designed the house here in East Winthrop used an uncharacteristically worldly imagination, sense of humor, and uncannily earthbound love of nature for her plan. It’s obvious she had a better than average understanding of what architects call “site location” to have had the instinct to point the glass side of a glass-backed house in the northern woods of Maine toward the sun when everyone else was covering up windows with bricks and boards to keep the cold out. Each morning I watch the sun rise over the pine and birch trees in the direction of Mount Pisgah, I think of Hope’s farsightedness—of her willingness to dream big in concert with the seasons it’s also obvious she understood better than average when the azaleas, poppies, dogwoods, and lupines bloom each spring. Hope must be a real-life Snow White, I think when woodpeckers and chickadees flit around the 10-foot feeders dotted all around the backyard.
But Hope was in her mid-90s when Nate and I bought her house, so there was an ungodly amount of bramble and all kinds of other weedy mayhem choking the blueberry bushes out. And the septic system was long gone. And the roof—all 6,000 square feet of it—would have to be replaced. And the Eisenhower-pink carpet in the kitchen could make a mostly fretful person dizzy. And there was green shag in the party room downstairs that had to go. And the house’s low-voltage electrical system that was popular for about two minutes during the late 1950s was a mostly incomprehensible blunder involving something called relays that nobody alive in Maine today seems to have the first clue how to fix.
But Hope’s house is still beautiful and I love it because it is this outrageously oversized thing made by a woman in an American time that is long gone and will not—and probably should not—return. Hope’s house is beautiful because it reminds me in its unwarranted optimism of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. It’s beautiful because it makes space for azaleas and dogwoods and deer and foxes and turkeys and any other wild thing I might name save a boar. And Hope’s house is beautiful because, like too much in America right now, it was in ruins when we bought it—because it needed my husband and me to see and understand what it had been and could be. Hope’s house was and is beautiful because it was and is an exquisite burden of a broken thing. Like each one of us and every school and town and city all the way up the ladder to all of America and the whole earth itself, Hope’s house was and is beautiful because it is an impossible dream worth believing in and aching for and working on.