In the movie Downsizing, a man played by actor Matt Damon literally shrinks himself to fit into a smaller but more luxurious home, neighborhood, and life. The decision to minimize is aspirational, the very opposite of a downgrade.
Recently, Soozie Large did a similar thing—minus the actual shrinking. She sold her 3,647-square-foot, five-bedroom, four-bathroom West End home and bought a much smaller, beautifully appointed condominium in Portland’s East End.
Soozie and her husband, Wendell, lived in a historic John Calvin Stevens–designed home for most of their marriage. They met while living on Peaks Island and even had a stint on a farm in Standish (“Which was fun for about a minute,” she quips), but otherwise, her life seemed rooted in the West End. They raised their daughter, Nellie, there and Soozie assumed she would stay for good. Then, in April 2018, the unimaginable occurred—when Wendell, an attorney and partner at Richardson, Whitman, Large & Badger, died suddenly.
Soon after, Soozie sold their home and bought the 1,665-square-foot condominium on Munjoy Hill. She held an estate sale and parted with “almost everything,” she says, moving into her new space strictly with the essentials, “just my bed and the art.”
A longtime printmaker, Soozie has turned her attentions in recent years to ceramics. On a cabinet, a row of her colorful ceramic whiskey cups is displayed, while perched on a side table is a figurative piece—a dapper rat by the name of Rupert—looking as though he leapt out of the pages of a fairy tale.
“Everything looks so much cleaner and brighter and more lovely in this environment, which is such a delight,” Soozie declares.
Her ties to the local art community run deep. Soozie studied at Maine College of Art and ran a frame shop and art supply store with her mother on Exchange Street in the Old Port for many years. She has a ceramics studio at Running With Scissors, a communal workspace in East Bayside, and works on her prints at The Peregrine Press in the Bakery Studios in Portland’s Arts District.
She and Wendell were avid collectors. As we walk through her new home, Soozie points out favorite art pieces that Wendell bought or that they acquired together. The clean, loft-like space of the combined living/dining room/kitchen makes a perfect backdrop upon which to showcase their collection. The long white walls give her home the feel of an intimate gallery.
Soozie shares the two-bedroom, two-bath residence with her housemate, Ann. Susan Grisanti, the editor and publisher of this magazine, developed and sold the three-unit condominium complex. Grisanti was excited to restore and ultimately improve an antique building rather than build anew.
“The project is special and unique from many other condo developments,” says Grisanti. “We invested in restoring an old building and made it like new and ready for the next century. Not the most cost-effective way to do things—but it’s a labor of love for me to restore these old buildings.”
Soozie’s duplex is situated on the top story of a traditional three-family building from 1895—a type once plentiful to the area. But time, age, and teardowns have done away with many such residences. General contractor Asa Gorman of Asa Gorman Builders in Portland headed the project and acknowledges the changing face of Portland’s East End.
“The reality is, once you’ve torn something down, the type of building that they built 150 years ago isn’t necessarily the most practical building to build now. [It takes] a bunch of care to redesign, to give the advantages of a brand-new building with some of the quirks and character—it’s a delicate balance. Everything you do has to come up to a higher standard because you’re working within the constraints of an existing building. What you get in exchange is something that just looks right. It looks correct in its neighborhood and will be durable for the next 150 years.”
The building interior was taken down to the studs and structural changes were made—the removal of a second staircase and the strengthening and straightening of supporting beams. The living quarters were designed from scratch with interior design choices made by Grisanti.
“We tried to respect the simplicity of the traditional style,” says Gorman, “but also use contemporary materials that enabled us to visually lighten the structure—paring it down to the minimum.”
Paring down and lightening are words that come to mind when I think of Soozie’s downsizing evolution. But while it may sound in sync with the zeitgeist, with seemingly everyone in the world thanking their belongings and letting them go—she balks at the mere mention. “Don’t even,” Soozie says wryly. “I got to the point where I thought if another person says, ‘Have you ever heard of Marie Kondo? Does it bring you joy?’, I’m going to just go out of my mind,” she says with a laugh.
Whatever her process, it is clear that Soozie has retained only the most precious and necessary objects, to make room for creativity—her own and that of the artists she admires.
A modern steel staircase with bleached-oak treads leads to the “tree house,” a rooftop perch with enough space for the daybed Soozie slept in (“like a bird,” she says) when she first arrived. A glass door opens out to a balcony with an unimpeded view of Casco Bay. An avid gardener and beekeeper, Soozie plans to transport the bee boxes from her former property and grow things in planters the bees will like. On this clear day, you can see three nearby lighthouses: Spring Point Ledge, Bug Light, and the Portland Head Light beyond.
Taking in the expanse of sky and water, the horizon looks bright and limitless, and it is easy to see why Soozie began the next stage of her life here. What transpired here is less downsizing or even minimalizing, with its suggestion of sterility—which this vibrant home is anything but—but rather a distillation of experience and memory, a clearing away to make space for more light and color. In fact, though her home may be smaller in size, it would not be a stretch to say that Soozie Large is living larger than ever.