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Whitten and Callahan + LeBleu Ask the Right Questions

Guided by an expert design squad, one Higgins Beach couple discovers a style all their own
Words By Brian Shuff
Photos By Trent Bell & Meredith Perdue
ArchitectWhitten Architects|Landscape DesignerCallahan + LeBleu Landscape Design|Project ManagerDouston Construction|Interior WoodworkHuston & Company

When designing one’s living space, who can say exactly how aesthetic preference develops? What precise mixture of experience, instinct, taste, imagination, and geography does a homeowner draw from, consciously or otherwise, when making decisions about the environment they want to inhabit day-in, day-out? And furthermore, how will that environment, that home be used to live?

The home's design is a nod to the owner's appreciation of the modern industrial look.

In 2018, when Molly Oehrlein and her husband Scott decided to level their beloved Higgins Beach summer cottage and build a full-time home in its place, they had plenty of ideas. “We’d been imagining this house in our hearts since 1988,” Molly says. But it wasn’t until they began an extensive and fruitful collaboration with Will Fellis (Whitten Architects) and Catherine Callahan (Callahan + LeBleu Landscape Architects) that the couple could shape their desires into a cohesive and functional whole.

“Will is such a creative listener,” Molly says. “Our entire extended family may be here every summer for a three- week beach vacation, but for the rest of year, this was going to be our home. Will understood that.” He also has a way of drawing out his clients’ aesthetic leanings with unexpected questions. “Will didn’t want pictures of kitchens we liked, or specific houses,” Molly says. “Instead, he asked for pictures of shapes we like, textures and moods, places in Portland that we love.”

Answers to these surreptitious inquiries found their way frequently into the final design. For instance, “they love the industrial buildings of the Old Port,” Will says, “so we used steel, exposed wood, and timber to evoke that feeling of a revitalized industrial building. The black framed windows with large-scale panes are meant to resemble the steel windows of warehouses.” In addition to the material palette, a chimney by Morin Brick rises dramatically to the vaulted ceiling, tapering as it climbs, reminding one of an industrial smokestack from any number of mill towns dotting the area.

Whitten Architects balanced large, open spaces with nooks to read, do puzzles, and eat together.
The family made their dream house in 2018 and have been enjoying it ever since.
Coaster leather barstools from Hub Furniture juxtapose the milled “Rugged Concrete” Caesarstone backsplash.

The house also exhibits a distinctly modern element. Note the clean lines, the spare, uncluttered layout facilitated by multiple built-ins and shelving units, the pendant lights in the bunkroom and living room (both by Sonneman). “Years ago, we lived in Montreal in a converted 1800s firehouse,” Molly says. “The renovation they’d done was completely modern. I know it sounds strange, but in the whole time we were building this current home, I never realized how much of an influence that old, modern apartment had. Not until I saw it in the design. Again, it was those questions Will asked us. Somehow it all ended up in here.”

A brick fireplace made of Old Port Blend by Morin Brick was designed to resemble industrial smoke stacks at local mills.

Molly and Scott first came to Higgins Beach together as college students, and prior to that, Scott’s family had absconded to Higgins for over a hundred summers. “It’s a special place for us,” Molly says. “Before we owned, we probably rented on every street in this neighborhood. We have 8mm film of my husband’s great grandparents at the Higgins Beach Inn.” Honoring that family history and preserving the vibe of those classic beach cottage days became especially important when designing their new home’s exterior.

“They wanted an outdoor space they could use to cook and entertain guests in the summertime,” says landscape architect Catherine Callahan. “This was hard on a small plot. A big part of our work was determining the structure’s footprint, where we would actually locate the building so there would be room for everything. By moving the house toward a corner of the plot, we created a backyard where there wasn’t one before.” The shift made room for an outdoor kitchen as well, one with a custom range including a Big Green Egg smoker and a 42” Lynx Professional grill.

“The fluid relationship between indoors and out is helped a lot by the enormous sliding glass doors we included,” Catherine says. “The old cottage only had one point of entry,” Molly says. “Now we have four. It’s way more open. One leads to a four-season patio out front. One leads to the yard in back.” The latter opens onto a stairway of reclaimed granite with wide slabs that double as seating at barbeques. “It’s like a tiny little amphitheater,” Catherine says.

Beyond its porous relationship with the outdoors, the new home nods to its surrounding neighborhood with contemporary cottage detailing that helps merge the exterior aesthetic with others on the block. But perhaps the home’s most significant tie to its beach cottage roots comes on the inside. “We had the builders save some pine boards from the original cottage,” Molly says. “It was important to me to have them somewhere.” Will used the lumber in three places: on the back wall of the mudroom locker, inside of the built-in bunkbed, and painted white on a sliding barn door outside the laundry room. “That wood still has nail holes in it from where we hung pictures in the old cottage,” Molly says. The detail seems to move her. “There isn’t one thing we would take back about this house,” she says. “We had an incredible team. They really, really listened to us. And that enabled them to make a home that truly reflects who we are as people.”

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