Vintage Modern Loft
Words By Debra Spark | Photos by Myriam Babin
What was once a commercial building off Congress Street in downtown Portland is now a vintage modern loft, equipped with modern finishings and an extensive art collection.
Architects: Caleb Johnson & Michael Chestnutt, Builder: Asa Gorman Builders, Cabinetmaker: Paul Lewin
A life of adventure and a life with a mortgage. Somehow, they do not seem one and the same. For 50-plus years, Mike Keon opted for the former. He worked as a graphic designer, chimney sweep, fisherman, and restaurateur while living in Boston’s North End, South End, Chinatown, and other neighborhoods, as well as on boats off New Bedford, Seattle, and (for a decade) Alaska. Bad ship food turned him to cooking, and cooking became his passion, then his livelihood. “We caught beautiful fish and crab, but we were eating processed food,” he says of his Alaska fishing days. Although he continued working as a deckhand, he became his ship’s cook in his final Alaska years, returning to Boston to work in a friend’s restaurant off-season. Eventually, he opened his own bistro in Haverhill, Massachusetts. He moved to Portland full-time in 2006, because it was “time for a change.” But not quite time for home ownership. He continued to rent, as he always had—first, in the West End and later, when his rental’s building sold, on Congress Street. “I had no intention of moving for quite some time,” he says of his apartment. He was even helping his landlady upgrade. Then, a friend with a newly-acquired real estate license encouraged him to buy. He thought if he could find a loft space that he could design himself… well, then maybe.
In 2015, an investment group decided to sell the top two floors of a commercial building off Congress Street. Keon was interested, though he waited a year to fully close, wanting to be sure the city would allow a residence in a building with a hair salon, juice bar, yoga studio, and other businesses. Architect Caleb Johnson of Caleb Johnson Studio in Portland helped with the permitting, and then Michael Chestnutt of the same firm produced drawings for a reinvention of the living space.
In some ways, says Portland builder Asa Gorman, who renovated the space over the course of the subsequent year, “the space is just a box and canvas for the owner’s art collection.” The ground floor is a large, open white rectangle with a commercial-grade kitchen and stainless-steel counters, a ten-burner BlueStar range, a Salamander broiler, and a large Sub-Zero refrigerator on one wall. A custom dining table with Emeco chairs, Safavieh navy blue velvet couches, and an orange leather Roche Bobois love seat occupy the living area and can be moved into different configurations—even pushed aside when Keon gathers friends for musical performances. The walls are whitewashed brick or (behind the kitchen area) white subway tile. The oak floors are stained white, and the exposed ceilings and beams are painted white.
In other ways, though, the box is “sui generis,” interrupted as it is by an L-shaped winder staircase, blackened oak and dark-blue steel, with wedge-shaped treads at the turn and arrived at through a wholly original foyer, which accesses the private spaces at one end of the white rectangle. On entry, you step out of an elevator to see a wall lined by six wood doors with frosted-glass upper panels—stenciled not with the words “Sam Spade, Private Investigator” but “Storage,” “Utility,” “Laundry,” or “Private,” the latter referring to bedrooms. To the right of these old-fashioned office doors, a powder room door is framed by what looks like a sculptural shoji screen: opaque-white glass in a steel grid with a facing panel which can be lit from within. The foyer also has rounded warehouse ceiling lights—the same lights used for the condo’s cobalt blue-and-white-tiled shower stalls—and two 400-pound art deco cast-aluminum sconces, once used for the exterior of the Wrigley chewing gum factory in Chicago.
The condo’s walls are decorated with the owner’s extensive art collection, consisting primarily of prints and black-and-white photography, including work by luminaries like Diane Arbus, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Michael Chelbon, Bruce Davidson, Aaron Siskind, Garry Winogrand, and Joel-Peter Witkin, as well as a fairground print by Maine notable Dee Peppe.
The salvage pieces may be the condo’s biggest surprise. As many residences as you may have visited in your life, you’ve probably never seen one where the living room lighting includes two steel street lamps or where a vintage, six-door meat locker and a bright orange refrigerator serve as wine cellars, the former for red and the latter for white.
Keon heard about a Chicago salvage store called Urban Remains, whose inventory includes metal furniture and items from former hospitals and apothecaries. Intrigued, he visited while his loft was under construction. Then he discovered a second store called Salvage One. He shipped back a treasure trove and acquired additional pieces at Portland Architectural Salvage, numerous items of which had a previous non-domestic life. The powder room tissue stand is made of a cast iron water meter cap on an adjustable steel-and-green-enamel base that once supported a dental exam chair. Two living room coffee tables are made from the wings of a Cessna. Thick piano legs form the base of the custom dining room table, and bathroom towels hang on hooks that are actually elevator crankshafts.
Good weather finds Keon not in his condo but on his rooftop deck, which has an ipé floor, pergola, raised-bed planting boxes, and a stainless-steel railing with ipé cap. Sharing the haven all summer, herring gulls and their chicks have offered the observant Keon a display of habits—part intrigue, part nuisance. The real view, though, is the panoramic showstopper of the Portland peninsula and Casco Bay.
How did the now 56-year-old Keon learn about interior design? He didn’t exactly. “I just like certain things,” Keon says simply. Perhaps surprisingly, given how long he waited to settle, he adds, “I always wanted to put a place together.”