A summer home that captures the magic of Maine
Maine has 3,166 islands. We know because the Maine Coastal Island Registry counted. The largest, Mount Desert, is 108 square miles. The smallest are granite ledges that can barely accommodate a few sea gulls.
Bremen Long Island on Muscongus Bay in the Gulf of Maine splits the difference. Three miles long and one mile wide, it has no roads, no electricity, and no year-round residents. It has lots of evergreens, osprey, and bald eagles and a constant breeze that keeps bugs on the move. Damariscotta is eight miles to the west, Portland an hour south.
On the northeast part of the island, the land is shaped like a mitten. The space between the thumb and fingers is a sheltered cove where the sailing boats called sloops were once built. A rambling white house overlooks the cove. Constructed by shipbuilders, one side is two stories high with a gambrel roof. The other section is longer, with a deck that runs the length of one side. Part of the deck is glassed in.
The house was built around 1917 as a summer residence for John Aspinwall, a wealthy businessman from Newburgh, New York, his wife Juliet, and daughter Bessie. According to Margaret Baird, author of the forthcoming Voices from the Island on the history of Bremen Long Island, Aspinwall spared no expense for his island home. This included building a granite dock to accommodate his barge, which brought provisions from the mainland, including the family cow that was sent from Newburgh.
Aspinwall spent his summers hunting, fishing, and entertaining. After his death in 1949, the house was turned into a lodge for tourists. Baird writes that in 1958, a local family bought the house and 360 acres of land for $15,000—a bargain even then—and rented the house as a camp for vacationers. That is what it remained until 1997, when Gail and Gene Albert saw the property for the first time.
The Alberts, whose permanent home is in southeastern Pennsylvania, were not in the market for a vacation house. Their daughter had died in a cycling accident a few years before, and although the couple was adjusting to a new normal, they needed a distraction. They were visiting friends on the mainland who suggested checking out Aspinwall, which was up for sale, and Gail and Gene agreed.
Gail remembers seeing Aspinwall for the first time: “The house was set up motel-style. No front door, no hallway, just rooms opening directly onto the deck. There were kids running everywhere.” The buildings were hard used and 30 years overdue for a paint job.
But every room had water views. At 4,500 square feet, the house was big enough for a crowd. There was a sand beach. And there were 125 acres of beauty and quiet.
The island had worked its magic. Gail says, “We didn’t get out of the boat.” The owner said “make an offer” and they did. So without seeing the inside of the house, the Alberts became Aspinwall’s third owners. The couple knew that the house needed work, but it was the right project at the right time. “Renovating the house was our sanity saver,” says Gene, a commercial real estate developer.
“We fell totally in love with the house. It had amazing bone structure, but it was a shell,” says Gail, who is a designer. “The first year, we slept on the floor near the fireplace.”
At the start, there was no electricity. Work was done with hand tools. And when Gene forgot or ran out of something, there was no quick drive to the store. It is a 20- to 30-minute boat ride to the mainland. “Building on an island means you carry a whole house on little boats,” he says.
Except for the addition of an outdoor dining deck that unites the exterior of the two buildings, the couple repaired and restored the house but did not expand. “We worked within the blueprint of the house,” Gail says. They fixed the roof, painted and refinished the bird’s-eye maple floors, and spent two years repairing every window—all of them with their original glass.
Gail and Gene acted as their own contractors, builders, and designers. They had lots of help, but not from a traditional construction crew. Some local lobstermen work construction in winter, when lobsters go farther offshore and severe weather makes harvesting tough.
“Mainers are resourceful—they have to be,” Gail says. “You don’t hire a roofer, you hire a ‘guy.’ He can put on a roof and fix a tractor. And if he can’t do something, he knows a guy who can. It’s a network of skilled people.”
Gene recalls, “We were trying to raise a flagpole at the point. The pole is 50 feet high and goes eight feet into the ground. We couldn’t get it off the ground. A guy who was passing by in a skiff saw us and stopped. He used to make masts for big ships and knew how to get the pole into the air. In no time he fashioned a fulcrum, and, using a tractor, raised the pole. If he hadn’t happened by, I’m not sure what we’d have done.”
The renovation took 15 years. The first five, there was no cell phone service. People left messages at the marina on the mainland. Now everything is up to date. “We have a phenomenal power system: solar, batteries, and computers,” he says. “We are totally off the grid.”
The kitchen and pantries take up the entire bottom floor of the gambrel-roofed section of the house. There is a staircase and an open walkway leading to two maid’s rooms on the second floor.
“When we bought the place, the most enormous wood-fed iron stove filled the room,” Gail says. “It was the original cooking stove. First thing we did was throw the old stove in the ocean to use as an anchor.” It has been replaced with a smaller antique wood stove that takes the chill off spring and fall mornings. Aspinwall has no central heating, so like many summer homeowners, the Alberts live there about five months out of the year.
One perk of Maine island living? “We don’t go to the store for lobster,” Gene says. The fishermen set their pots right below the house. Gene shouts to whichever guy is closest, tells him how many he wants, and he leaves them in the lobster box tied to the dock.
The living room is the heart of the house. Immense oak trusses hold up the 20-foot ceilings. Cozy does not usually describe a 30-by-40-foot room, but the overstuffed couches, warm woods, and classic Maine furnishings both rustic and nautical make relaxing effortless.
A 12-foot wide fireplace commands the living room. Made using stone from the property, the fireplace is thought to be one of the largest in Maine. The mantel has a slight but intentional slant. “It’s supposed to be for good luck, but nothing stays upright!” laughs Gail. Antique leather and brass fireplace fenders encourage snuggling up to the fire.
A piano and the dining room table are original to the house, but Gail and Gene did the rest of the furnishing and decorating. It is a comfortable combination of mainland rustic and nautical, with a garnish of folk art. A coat rack is crammed with hats bought on their travels. The coffee table is a ship’s wheel.
An elaborate wooden ship’s model from the 1800s sits in the 70-pane window overlooking the sunporch. It is an exact replica of a real ship, made by its captain. The couple won it at an auction when no one else bid on it.
Much of the décor comes from antiquing expeditions around Maine. “We like antiques and have the same taste,” Gene says. “Everything has a story. We buy something and then find a place for it.” Gail calls it a passion. “If it looks good and we like it, we buy it,” Gene adds.
Even the antlers on the living room lighting fixtures are regionally authentic. When Gail had both chandeliers made, she specified that the deer antlers had to be collected from the New England area.
The sunroom, off of the living room, was designed for laid-back, feet-up storytelling and old-fashioned board games. A local artisan made the red, white, and blue star pillows, and the room is decorated in whimsical bits of Americana: a tin lamp, an Uncle Sam whirligig, and star-shaped iron anchor plates perched above the windows.
At the far end of the house, the Alberts turned two of the five bedrooms into a master suite and TV room, with sets of French doors opening onto the deck. A painting of a red barn by a Colorado artist hangs over a bed outfitted in soothing indigo-blue and white. The master bathroom is 20 feet by 24 feet, with a stand-alone shower and large soaking tub. A half wall divides two pedestal sinks, both original to the house. The room is crowned by a round, leaded glass window that came from a courthouse in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
Nearby are four guest cabins, done in rustic Americana style. The old icehouse has become a game room for the three grandchildren, with a ping-pong table, dartboard, and craft area.
Vacation homes are intended for the pursuit of happiness. Aspinwall was built at a time when it was truly possible to get away from day-to-day life. Today the attempt is to escape from the siren song of electronic devices with their insistent pinging and chiming.
“The grandkids come for the month of August,” Gail says. “We call it summer camp, with Pop Pop and me as the camp counselors. We want our grandkids to have the real Maine experience. Aspinwall is where they power down from their everyday lives.”
She continues, “When we dock, it’s the most wonderful feeling stepping on the pine needles. We smell the pine and the salty air.”
“We watch the seals on the beach and see whales,” Gene says. “We see 100 times more stars here than in Pennsylvania.” Willem, their 11-year-old grandson writes: “I love it on Aspinwall because when I get to the island I can forget about school, sports, and all the bad things happening around the world. We just go up and relax.”
“There’s something about being on an island that I can’t explain,” Gene says. “It’s like ‘See ya, world. I’m on my own time now.’”
The Alberts worked their magic on Aspinwall, and it works its magic on them. “When we’re at Aspinwall, there’s a ritual. Every day at 6:30 p.m., we meet at the Point, sit in the Adirondack chairs, and watch the sun go down,” he says. “The view is incredible. You can see forever.”