Standing at one of the highest points in Kennebunkport, where Cape Arundel juts into the sea, Lori Ray knew she had found something special. There, tucked into the woods—a stone’s throw from Ocean Avenue and a five-minute drive from the bustle of town—was a rambling 1905 structure laid with original heart-pine flooring and flooded in natural light.
Not that the place looked particularly special right then. “The property was in shambles,” Lori says. Except for a few tweaks to the kitchen, “the home had not received any remodeling since it was built, and it had suffered from its use as a tenement house for workers at The Colony Hotel,” just around the bend. “The home had been divided into several apartments, and it had two outdoor staircases to the second floor along with many makeshift add-ons,” she adds. In other words, the house had the bones of an elegant historic property, done over as a dorm.
But Lori could see potential under all that jury-rigging and disrepair. It helps that she works in the field, having managed the building and interior design of new builds and gut renovations in Naples, Chicago, and Nashville, her home base.
Stories of the house’s history helped, too. It hadn’t always been a summer dorm: Previous inhabitants told Lori that the original owner, William Trotter, had co owned a boathouse in town with Booth Tarkington, the Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist who famously holed up in Kennebunkport during his later years. And Trotter’s daughter, Betty, who lived in the house until 1960, became Tarkington’s writing assistant, sitting beside him, perhaps, and scribbling down notes as he talked.
So Lori bought the house and vowed to save it. The only catch? “I bought it on a trip with our daughter without my husband, John, even seeing it,” she admits. “Not the first time I have done that. But he trusts my ability to see the house as it might be.”
Next, Lori had to find someone who could also see what she saw: not a run-down mess but a historic property in need of some TLC.
That’s when the couple’s Realtor at Sotheby’s introduced them to Brian Sleeper at Period Design and Restoration in York. “From day one, he had the vision,” Lori says. Together with Matt Banow of Matt Banow Design in Rollinsford, New Hampshire, they assessed the house, parsing out with care how to modernize and rejigger the haphazard interiors while leaving the outside structure—and the original charm—completely unchanged. The first priority was undoing the dorm-like accommodations. “We collapsed the eight bedrooms into three suites, each with their own sitting room and full bathroom. We wanted all of our guests to have privacy,” Lori adds—no roommates, no tight quarters.
Down on the first floor, the team worked to tie the kitchen in with the rest of the house, carefully removing a few walls around the space to open it up. But Lori also wanted to be sure the kitchen didn’t look too kitchen-y. “I minimized the exposed cabinetry to give it the feel of another entertainment area that just happened to have some appliances,” she explains. To make up for less cabinet space, she installed a large walk-in pantry for dry goods and kitchen essentials. In the nearby living room and grand stairway, original elements were ripped up, restored, and reassembled as they were.
The delicateness of the project was compounded by a tight time frame—and a few hiccups midway through. “We closed on the house in September, and Brian promised us that he could have it ready by the summer season,” Lori says. In February, Lori and John headed to Kennebunkport to check in and discovered that, because of the house’s age, the team had encountered some unexpected setbacks, like having to pour a new foundation. But there was a silver lining: With the house undone, Lori explains, “we could see that taking down some additional walls would allow us to see the entire first floor from any room.” They did, and still finished in time for summer. (In a second phase, the team built an addition over the garage, a spot for Lori’s parents and the couple’s close friends to stay in when they visit.)
Now, the sense of openness is the couple’s favorite element of the house—particularly in the kitchen. “We entertain there and can watch the grandchildren eat and do projects,” say the couple, whose daughter and two granddaughters come for a month in summer. Lori played up the house’s natural light by adding new Marvin windows, painting the interiors white, and opting for almost all-white furnishings.
The mostly-white interior has another effect: that of a gallery. In each room, the furnishings and decor are a simple backdrop for the couple’s eclectic collections of art and furniture, collected in their travels. One particularly unexpected piece is a wooden sculpture from The Chronicles of Narnia film series. “We were at an art fair on Randolph Street in Chicago and met a wood sculptor who had created it as a mock-up for the movie,” Lori remembers. “He told us that when he was not paid for his fees, he flew to LA and demanded to meet the producer, who apologized for the oversight. But, realizing it was a long trip back to LA if he remained unpaid, the artist grabbed the mock-up from the producer’s office as ransom.” Now, the sculpture cohabitates in Kennebunkport with two paintings commissioned in the style of the Colombian artist Fernando Botero and a wooden ball salvaged from a Norweigian yacht club. Above a fireplace is a blue and green landscape by the Maine-based painter Jean Jack. But not everything is Maine-centric. “Art is best when mixed,” the couple say.
Outside, the wooded, rolling grounds by Kennebunkport-based Terrapin Landscapes feel secluded and quiet. As with the interiors, the couple streamlined the exteriors but left the historic elements in place. “The yard was stripped with care to save the old hardwoods and pines, and over 100 trees were added,” they explain. “The centerpiece is the firepit, hidden from the rest of the yard, nestled within the forest.”
For a fitting final touch, there’s the front door. “It’s the one door that is original,” says Lori. “I thought it added character.” She had it painted French blue: “With all of the white paint, the house deserved a splash of color.”