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This is a love story, between a girl and an island home.
When they first met in 1955, Nadia was 2 and Windemere was almost 70. Today, Nadia herself is 70 and the aging house well over 100. They weathered an almost 40-year separation, but the house embraced Nadia with the same warmth as ever when they reunited in 2010. Nadia, in turn, offered new life to her dear old friend.
When I picture Nadia Rosenthal, my Sutton Island neighbor, I see her in paint-speckled overalls, applying a new glossy coat to an old bookshelf on the sunny back porch of Windemere, the magnificent, grande dame of a house she’s been doting on over the last 10 years. Or she’s digging in Windemere’s front yard, battling the rocky soil, preparing to plant a new rosa rugosa that waits in an old wheelbarrow nearby. Or she’s on hands and knees in the kitchen, stripping paint off the floor. If it’s evening-time, she’s carrying a basket in from the kitchen, draped with a decorative cotton cloth, emanating the scent of her signature homemade cheese straws, still warm, that she sets on a tile-topped table in front of Windemere’s giant picture windows. Her husband, Alan, provides the cocktails, and life is full to overflowing.
But there’s more. In addition to being an artist, a musician, and the loving steward of a magnificent historic home, Nadia is a brilliant scientist. Professor Rosenthal is the scientific director at The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, with a lengthy trail of distinctions, honors, and endowed chairs behind her.
This is a love story, between a global leader in regenerative heart research and the Sutton Island home that nurtured her inquisitive soul.
Nadia’s childhood summers on Sutton, she says, were “steeped in lonely observation,” though she was fortunate to have the company of her sister, Maria. The girls ran wild over the island, descending on ropes into deep wells, tiptoeing over precarious cliffs along the shore, creating artwork out of shells and stones, or presiding over tiny mouse weddings on the mossy forest floor. Sutton and Windemere nurtured Nadia with the curiosity, independence, and creativity that informed the rest of her life.
Between her international career‚ Italy, Australia, England—and a tense relationship with her mother, Nadia and Windemere drifted apart. “For almost 40 years, I was a visitor,” but the day came when the house was passed down to the two sisters. Soon after, Nadia and Alan took jobs at The Jackson Laboratory. She and her childhood haven were together again, but Windemere had suffered years of time, tides, and limited funds. Determined to restore the house to its full glory, Nadia got to work.
In consultation with Maria, who lives in London, and with the guidance of “my brilliant contractor, Scott Flanders,” Nadia worked from the ground up. They jacked up the house, excavated, and installed French drains. Next, they artfully reshingled the building, and a new roof went on. Nadia studied 100-year-old blueprints of the house, had decks restored, and added natural landscaping. Inside, the 30-by-50-foot living room ceiling was sagging, and Scott found structural beams missing. That winter he jacked up the interior of the house, and Windemere groaned from every creaky corner. “I’m glad I wasn’t there to hear it!” Nadia said.
Then the fun began. Combining keen aesthetic taste with an eye to historic restoration, Nadia had the living room’s two mid-nineteenth-century grand pianos restored; acquired old portraits of the Burnhams, Windemere’s original owners; reupholstered and re-curtained with luxurious fabrics from England; cleared and cleaned and lovingly reclaimed Windemere’s shine.
“It’s like embracing an aging relative you’ve known all your life,” said Nadia of her work on the house. “I spend all day in my head. I love to get out of my head and sand, polish, and paint things.” At age 70, Nadia Rosenthal has the energy of a 40-year-old, and maybe that’s because it’s a labor of love.
This is a love story, between an aging scientist, still going strong, and her beloved childhood heart-home, newly uplifted, drenched in a rich atmosphere of past, present, and a rosy future. ▪