An 1800s School House Gets an Education

A rising-star creative pair transformed their historic schoolhouse in Kennebunkport with black and white paint and flea market finds
Words By Annie P. Quigley

The Cape: If Brett Campbell and Mark Cotto were going to wind up with a house apart from their apartment in Boston, that’s where their families figured it would be. Mark grew up in Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts, and Brett on the South Shore, spending summers on Cape Cod. “We actually had our first date at a restaurant in Harwich Port,” they say. “The thought of a home in Maine had not crossed our minds.”

The backyard abuts the Kennebunk River and provides us with endless amounts of wildlife to watch,” Brett says.
An existing propane stove helps dry boots by the door.
We wanted some pops of black throughout,” Brett says. It adds dimension to their shades-of-white finds.

But as often happens for those who browse real estate on vacation, a Maine home found them. The couple toured this snug, historic house in Kennebunkport’s historic district, a stone’s throw from Dock Square and backed by the Kennebunk River, while visiting friends one Labor Day weekend, only to have it quickly go under contract with another buyer. Six months later, the couple was vacationing in Tulum when the house popped back up again. “We quickly called our agent and arranged for a showing the day after we returned,” the homeowners say. “Two months later, we owned it.”

The house was old (a sign out front reads “1820: Site of School”) and badly in need of “some love and attention,” Mark and Brett recall. “It had been used solely as an income property by the previous owners and had a lot of dated and mismatched furniture.”

But there were two fortuitous things about this particular house for this particular couple. “We knew it was the first schoolhouse in Kennebunkport and thought it was fitting since both of our mothers were schoolteachers,” the couple say. Second, both Brett and Mark work in the realms of houses and design: Brett as a real estate agent in Boston, Mark then as a photo stylist for Wayfair and now as creative director for Kennebunkport Resort Collection. There were, it could be said, no two better people to preserve and transform this piece of the town’s past. “I think we were most concerned that there might be a historic society that would restrict us from painting the house a different color than the barn red it was painted,” they say.

“Mark bought the safari chair at an antique store in Harwich Port,” Brett says. “The leather is so worn in and beautiful.

In the end, they went bold and had the house painted black (on the rear addition and garage) and white (on the historic front section), a color scheme that would set the tone for the house’s interiors. “Every room had a different pastel color trim and doors,” the couple says. “The walls were painted a yellowish beige, and it just felt dated. We knew we wanted everything white and black. We just wanted a clean and fresh canvas.” The pair banished the springy palette with a coat of Benjamin Moore’s “Decorator’s White” on all of the walls and “Black Beauty” in key places (a built-in cabinet, the stair rail). “We painted the entire interior of the home during the first five weeks of quarantine,” says Brett. “I’m glad we had the time to do this together, but I will NEVER paint an entire home ever again.”

The backdrop done, the two kept on transforming the place: planning, arranging, combing through flea markets. “We did not work with anyone else—just us,” says Brett. “We’d share ideas back and forth. It was very collaborative between the two of us.” Mark’s creative vision took cues from classic New England architecture, an appreciation that’s been passed down from both of his grandfathers, who were builders on the Cape, and his grandmother, who worked as a curator for historic houses. At the same time, the couple wanted their home to be eclectic and approachable, not stuffy and old-fashioned. “Nothing is too precious,” they insist. “We didn’t want a designer showpiece where our friends and family were afraid to sit or touch anything. We wanted a house that sparked conversation and seemed unique to people.”

On the weekends, the couple developed a routine: “We’d get up early, get a coffee, and go hunting for treasures at flea markets, yard sales, and antiques shops,” Mark says. “It’s now a running joke that Brett is not allowed to ask, ‘Where is that going?’ The best part of finding something you love is that you’ll find a spot for it so you can enjoy it.” Amidst the house’s old bones and the bold two-tone interiors, what they’ve collected together stands out: vintage wooden bowling pins from the Arundel Flea Market, authentic Cesca chairs they found for free on the side of the road, and black-and-white photos taken by Mark on the couple’s trip to Iceland.

And they have more plans for the place. “We want to renovate the bathrooms and the kitchen,” they say. “And down the road we want to add our primary bedroom above the garage so we have our own separate space from guests.”

It’s an ongoing space they’re creating together. “I can honestly say that the house will never be finished. Once I think a room is done, Mark is moving something or thinking of other ideas of where to put something,” jokes Brett. No doubt the weekend flea market dates will continue, even if they hire out the painting from now on.

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