Quieting the Mind

Words by Debra Spark | Photos by Irvin Serrano

A Bath renovation revitalizes a cottage and its owner.

Builder: T.J.’s Woodworking, Interior Designer: Tracy Davis, Landscape Designer: Soren DeNiord, Hardscape & Installation: Coastal Landscape, Decorative & Historic Cobblestone: Dan Uchy

The dressing room’s trunk holds vintage quilts made by several generations of women in Davis’s family. “It has traveled with me everywhere,” says Davis. She found the statuette, which reminded her of a dressmaker’s mannequin, and the wool rug at Brimfield Antique Flea Market, which is held three times a year in Massachusetts. She chose this charcoal sketch for this space because it is of a woman taking off her shirt.

The dressing room’s trunk holds vintage quilts made by several generations of women in Davis’s family. “It has traveled with me everywhere,” says Davis. She found the statuette, which reminded her of a dressmaker’s mannequin, and the wool rug at Brimfield Antique Flea Market, which is held three times a year in Massachusetts. She chose this charcoal sketch for this space because it is of a woman taking off her shirt.

“For me, this story is about how you work with what you have,” Tracy Davis says of her home in Bath. The statement suggests paucity, and Davis’s purchase story is initially about what she could afford. Ten years ago, just when Portland’s prices were starting to rise, Davis was longing for the stability that a home represents. She’d first come to Maine from Ohio in 1991 after meeting a person who told her “glorious stories of fun and friendship, schooners and adventure.” But by 2008, she was thinking, “It is time to grow up and buy a house.” She was divorced, living in Portland’s West End in a 426-square-foot apartment without parking. If she needed to get something from the basement, she had to go outside and around the corner for access. A new owner was turning the building into condos and her apartment was listed at $240,000. That seemed too much for such inconvenience. She knew Bath as a charming, private community, so found a small, early-20th-century home there instead. Although the house was divided into two separate apartments and cost more than she wanted to spend, she bargained till she eventually had a price that would let her put money back into the house.

Davis liked this George Nelson Bubble Lamp from Design Within Reach, because “it was white and floated and hovered.” Also, it “didn’t create a visual distraction in the room.” The chairs were designed by Paola Navone for Crate and Barrel. The series has since been discontinued, so when Davis found them, she bought two sets. Cumberland artist Annie Witte used ink dots for the shapes that form the abstraction on the far wall.

Davis liked this George Nelson Bubble Lamp from Design Within Reach, because “it was white and floated and hovered.” Also, it “didn’t create a visual distraction in the room.” The chairs were designed by Paola Navone for Crate and Barrel. The series has since been discontinued, so when Davis found them, she bought two sets. Cumberland artist Annie Witte used ink dots for the shapes that form the abstraction on the far wall.

This gave her a chance to flip her narrative. Three years earlier, she’d founded Urban Dwellings, an interior architectural practice in Portland. She had material resources: an art collection, inherited pieces, and one-of-a-kind items purchased during her frequent travels. And she had a wealth of less corporeal resources: her experience and talents, as well as friends in the design community.

She began by removing things. Out with the carpet, wood pellet stove, the barriers that created the apartments, and even the interior doors. She wanted to have a sense of open space, despite the small rooms and footprint. She achieved this, in part, because the house has so few hallways. When you walk in, you are greeted by a stairwell. To the right, the living room opens directly onto her office, and to the left, the dining room opens directly onto the kitchen. Upstairs, she turned one of the bedrooms into a dressing room for the en suite master bathroom, using a plumber’s pipe with a grommet drape for the closet door. She turned a third room into a guest bedroom.

Her overall vision was for a bright, clean, energetic place. “So much of our days are spent looking at screens. I wanted one place to go in my mind to relax and get away from all the news,” she says. When designing for herself—and picking items for her store, Urban Dwellings, which she opened in 2015 in Portland’s East End—she gravitates to Scandinavian and European interiors. She also likes to combine the old and new.

The landing at the top of the back stairs has a mirror framed with an old metal industrial fitting, an iron stool with walnut top from CB2, and a painting by Eric Hopkins. All the rugs in the house (save for the master bedroom carpet) are from Tree of Life Kilim & Home Textile.

The landing at the top of the back stairs has a mirror framed with an old metal industrial fitting, an iron stool with walnut top from CB2, and a painting by Eric Hopkins. All the rugs in the house (save for the master bedroom carpet) are from Tree of Life Kilim & Home Textile.

To this end, her house has the sparseness of an art gallery, with white walls against which intriguing items distinctively pop. But it’s not just the home’s walls that are some variant of white. The dining room floor, bedroom linens, select furniture (an antiqued table in the pantry), and decorations (an arrangement of largely vintage white plates on the kitchen wall) are also white. To keep the spaces warm, she chose brown over black as a contrast color. And here’s where several of her older pieces come into play. An antique tool trunk, which still has its original tool trays, sits at the foot of a guest bed. Another trunk—a high school graduation gift from her father—is in the dressing room. She refurbished a cutting table from a textile mill—its surface still has someone’s initials on it—for her dining table. One new purchase—a sectional couch of her own design manufactured in North Carolina—is covered with brown velvet.

A view of the living room with French nesting tables from Brimfield Antique Flea Market. The charcoal is one of five studio sketches that Davis purchased at a Parisian flea market.

A view of the living room with French nesting tables from Brimfield Antique Flea Market. The charcoal is one of five studio sketches that Davis purchased at a Parisian flea market.

Brighter color comes in small touches, as with the turquoise Turkish enamel cups that are white and orange on the interior and have handles wrapped in twine. These sit on white shelves that cross the pantry’s window. Color also appears in some of the art—landscapes by Eric Hopkins and Alex Katz and a Robert Indiana LOVE painting, which Davis placed in her bedroom, because the slope of the O in the iconic image matched the angle of her bedroom eave. “I really love that piece,” she says. “No pun intended. How the blue balances with the pink so you have gender specificity and how the pink contrasts the background brown.”

Davis always knew her Bath house would not be her “forever house.” Ironically enough, it is love—the real sort, not the painted image—that has occasioned a move. She recently found a partner and moved back to Portland. But the Bath house is coming with her—not the actual house and its contents but the long-term effect of the home. “It was a place that provided shelter, a place for my mind to quiet, and to build a life for myself that had been a deep void for a very long time,” Davis says. “What I bring with me into our new home is a confidence and faith in partnership.”

Debra Spark