The origin story of this house goes back — way back, to August of 1983. That summer, a gallon of gas cost 96 cents, Risky Business was just about to premiere in theaters, and Chantal Jennings and her husband, Michael Jennings, first spotted a parcel of land on Bunkers Harbor on the Schoodic Peninsula.
“I seem to remember that it was listed for sale in Down East magazine,” recalls Chantal, who was born in France. The land—which held a main house, guest cottage, and stable—had previously been the summer artist retreat of California-based watercolor painter Barse Miller. “It isn’t clear how involved Barse was in the construction, but there is some consensus that he designed the buildings,” Chantal says. By the time she and Michael bought it from Ethel Elizabeth “Betty” Miller, Barse’s widow, however, the property was abandoned, the structures in shambles.
“They leaked; there was food left in the refrigerator, trash everywhere, and abandoned personal items; creatures had gotten inside … it was pretty sad looking,” recalls Chantal. “We were busy with our little family, so we didn’t do much to improve the buildings or use them.” But the landscape was as beautiful and rugged as when it had drawn Barse there to paint. “The slow-growing, stunted jack pines that grow in our ocean microclimate look like bonsai trees,” says Chantal. “We visited once or twice a year to enjoy the shore and the constantly changing ocean views.”
Then, in August 2014, 31 years later, almost to the day, Chantal and Michael were ready to simplify and downsize, to sell the Alexandria, Virginia, house they’d lived in since getting married and make Maine home, splitting time between their house in Winthrop and the still-untouched property on the harbor. They had the derelict buildings razed and began, slowly, to create something new. “We originally thought a tiny, easy, rustic building,” says Chantal, “but as we discussed and tossed ideas around, it became apparent that as we advanced in age, something more comfortable would be better.”
Fortunately, there was an architect in the family: the couple’s daughter, Elizabeth Jennings of Charlottesville, Virginia–based Small House Design. “Elizabeth was the logical person to turn to,” says Chantal. “She knew what we wanted to achieve, knows us well, and certainly knew the property and its magic.” Lending a hand on the close-knit team was David Rogers of Rogers Design in Turner, who had overseen renovations at the family’s Winthrop house.
The same slow, methodical approach of building extends to the land, too. “A large part of the beauty of this property is the native plants that existed here when we bought,” says Chantal. “It’s also low maintenance. Our desire is to keep it as natural as possible.” Chantal tends the land with a light touch, planting vegetables in raised beds, work- ing from what she calls her “practical little garden shed,” even hand-laying a patio. “The stones are all collected from this property: I selected them, and Michael carried them to the cottage. I’m not a stonemason, so the patio is natural looking and definitely not precise. It works for us.”
For them, it’s process, not perfection. “Landscaping and hardscaping are works in progress,” says Chantal. “I like it that way. It gives me little projects that are relaxing.”