Cape Neddick Christmas
Owners of a getaway cottage celebrate with style
There is a much-coveted invitation for the holidays, and it comes from Cape Neddick, Maine. Rumor has it that everyone wants to get on the A-list for Christmas Eve in the company of Mark Smith, Mike Zamojski, and their corgis, due to their reputation for doing the holiday justice and because the venue is perfect for parties. “This house,” Mike modestly passes along the credit, “really knows how to entertain.”
It’s true. The hunkered-down shingle house, enveloped in evergreens and only a mile from Perkins Cove, is the quintessential shingled cottage by the shore. It promises to greet you with a massive bear hug, hand you a drink, feed you well, and offer plenty of ambience along the way. And apparently, the cottage has plenty of practice with merrymaking. Judging from the stories of legendary parties thrown by previous owners, chances are good that the venue has partying down pat.
Actually, the Cape Neddick home was not always habitable for the winter holidays. Built strictly as a summer cottage in 1905, not only did the house originally lack heat and insulation, but indoor plumbing was conspicuously missing. “Until the 1970s, the house had two maid’s quarters, and it probably had no bathrooms until the 1950s,” says Mike, repeating what he was told. At that point, its formerly austere fortune improved (two linen closets were transformed into bathrooms). Plus, when it gained a furnace, this coastal Maine getaway also became a whole lot cozier and capable of adding the winter holidays to its agenda. That was the beginning of its illustrious and legendary entertaining career. A previous owner’s guests were rumored to have included Kitty Carlisle, Rex Reed, Anthony Perkins, Bernadette Peters, Stephen Sondheim, and cartoonist Al Capp—if walls could talk, imagine the intrigue that must have transpired. “Someone once disappeared into the woods and went missing for a few days after a party…” Mike recounts one of the more storied post-party mishaps. But beyond the missing person report, the rest of the house’s misadventures are lost to history.
Nowadays, it continues to specialize in serving up a rollicking good time, although parties are probably relatively tame compared to the hijinks that undoubtedly happened once upon a time. However, in the décor and decoration department, Mark and Mike have former inhabitants beat by a mile. An event planner and marketing consultant, Mike can be forgiven his obsession with getting the holidays right. The house’s “good bones and good soul,” in Mike’s words, had everything to do with their purchase. Just like a photographer can spot the physique of a great model from a distance, they saw immediately that the open floor plan and expansive but embracing rooms were custom-made for a fete.
Until 2000, Mike had always gravitated toward Cape Cod, while Mark went to Vermont when they wanted to get away. But they were beginning to feel the “been there, done that” reaction to the Cape and Vermont, so they focused on southern Maine. Their rule was that this second home must be situated within an easy one and a half hours of Boston. Years earlier, a visit to Maine had Mark falling hook, line, and sinker for the cedar shingle house in Cape Neddick. They passed it often on the way to visit friends, and Mike was not the least bit interested. The fact that it was a dangerous combination of quaintness and serious disrepair did not bother Mike, because it was not for sale. He could nod his head and humor his partner without risk of repercussions. And then the fateful day came when they passed by the house and Mark did a double take, pointed to a sign out front, and bellowed, “Look! It’s for sale!” When they contacted the realtor, the track lighting, eclectic furniture, and porch full of junk failed to thrill Mike. But the pine wood floors and leaded glass windows totally won him over.
Of course, a lot of renovations ensued, including new cedar shingles, roof replacement, and a warm wood surround for the fireplace that had previously “looked like a furnace.” But from the start, the house exuded the essence of winter for family and friends. Built-in benches beg to be snuggled into, and shellacked rustic bark staircase railings add a cozy touch. A 600-square-foot porch is capable of seating 24 for a dinner party, thanks to an 1850s French dining table and glass panels that replace screens every autumn. All it takes is a lot of nubby wool throws tossed around and some moose pillows for Mark and Mike to be halfway to ho, ho, ho.
What helps set the mood is the fact that the rooms always have that sink-in-and-stay-awhile type of comfort. “We were tempted to go the Stickley route when we first moved in,” Mike recalls of their affection for period furniture, including the Morris chairs in front of the fireplace. But they eventually chose a more classic English cottage style. “We gravitated to more of a Ralph Lauren hunting lodge look,” Mike says. Furnishings include voluminous, comfy 1940s leather Chesterfield club chairs and couch, plus lots of wildlife on the walls, such as a 24-pound lake trout that Mark brought from a fishing excursion to northern Canada, where he spent his summers growing up and still vacations. On the other hand, the mounted deer is an antique from Prospect Hill Antiques in Georges Mills near Sunapee, New Hampshire, where the classic wicker porch furniture was found. Also vintage and on permanent display—but particularly apropos for the holidays—are a pair of wooden skis from Mike’s aunt.
Not surprisingly—after all, these are event professionals—the holidays never take this couple unaware. When tackling the serious business of events (especially their own), they plan long ahead. The whole holiday affair at the Cape Neddick house is steeped in layers of traditions—starting with the Christmas trees. At least two full-scale trees are adorned on an annual basis. The day after Thanksgiving perennially finds Mike and Mark venturing out with a car fitted with two kayak racks to fetch two carefully selected spruces from a local tree farm—often with several friends in tow. They select the tree of their dreams, cider is guzzled, and the gang retires to a lobster dinner at a friend’s house. Trimming commences immediately thereafter. One tree gets a nautical theme; the other is more extemporaneous, although the plaid wool ribbon and dried white hydrangea fillers that Mike discovered recently might be keepers as far as traditions go. For the trees, they keep it fairly simple, “We worry that it might become too overbearing.” Plus, they have many more miles to cover before decorating is complete. The two downstairs trees are just the beginning, because all the guest rooms get smaller versions. That sort of detail is just part of the reason why company flocks up north for the holidays.
Radiating from the trees, they spread greenery around. To make the snug home even homier, they bedeck their halls with swags, garlands, and accent greens wherever a little softening might soothe the soul. Fresh greens are tucked into every sconce (Mike went sconce-crazy when he found on sale at a Crate & Barrel outlet several sets that look like they were custom-made for the house). Mike cuts the property’s own greens from outdoors, doing selective pruning on the 20-foot-tall blue spruce in the backyard as well as the Mugo pines. Homegrown greens go around all the candles; Chamaecyparis sprigs are tucked into the napkin rings in a presentation reminiscent of the beach seaweed. Despite the fact that outdoor pursuits become less of an option as the holidays near, there is a little bit of the coast everywhere you turn.
By the time Christmas Eve is nigh, the whole house is glowing and redolent with the smell of cut evergreens. Mark and Mike have transformed the porch into an outdoor living room with a tree, kerosene lamps, and an Adirondack chair. The evergreen mood is evident throughout the house. Meanwhile, Oriental carpets and plaid throws serve up pops of color and put a snap on the prevailing verdure because bows are not their thing. “Stately but comfortable,” is how Mike summarizes their theme for floor coverings and drapes.
The decorations are the perfect prelude. But the real ambience happens when friends and family tap the acorn knocker on the front door and arrive on Christmas Eve. Conviviality ensues and so does a winter feast, comprising heaping helpings of hardy soup, a roast, steaming root vegetables, and whatever other victuals the two have planned.
Then, Mark seats himself at the piano, which is the cue for everyone to fall into a sing-along of favorite carols before retiring to the guesthouse, where Mark’s massive organ dwells. “The organ would be comfortable in a midsized church,” says Mike, describing its projection capacity. Mark spends untold hours preparing a full program of hymns and holiday music to play on its keyboard. Add that to the warmth of the house, the merriment of dear friends, and coastal Maine’s mystique, and you have a holiday like nowhere else. Absolutely, the Cape Neddick cottage is a joy throughout the year, but on Christmas Eve, it is the place to be for the holidays.