Inspired renovation revives the spirit of an 1800 cape
Frank Grdich has no explanation for what prompted him to do it. Even 16 years since he first laid eyes on the little cape on the Maine coast, he still draws a blank. All he can come up with is, “Something drew us here; it was destiny,” when probed about how he and his partner, William Floyd, came to their Kennebunk home. But clearly, the ocean had something to do with it. It might have been the fog rolling in off the coast, or perhaps Grdich’s Croatian roots played a part in the impetus, or maybe it has to do with the fact that Frank Grdich is a Pisces. But, if you figure that the couple’s last port of call was Ipswich, Massachusetts, you begin to see a pattern.
That said, the proximity to the water was the only common denominator between Frank Grdich’s past and present homes. Fact is, the little 1800 Maine post and beam cottage is pretty much the polar opposite of the custom built, sleek-lined, brand spanking new, Nantucket shingle-style ranch in Ipswich where Grdich previously resided. Although Grdich was happy in that house, he was not in love with it. Then he met his “soul mate” home, but not everyone understood when the couple switched their port of call.
Not only did Kennebunk take Grdich by surprise, this switch also floored his friends. “People thought we were crazy to sell our Ipswich house,” Grdich admitted. Comparatively, the Maine coastal retreat did not weigh in favorably at first glance. “It was dreadful,” Grdich realized. The previous family had purchased the 1800 house as newlyweds in 1926 and did everything within their power to erase any vestige of character. Grdich figures they worked feverishly throughout their tenure to homogenize the house into something absolutely unremarkable. Even Grdich can’t say how he sensed that magic lay behind all the layers of boring “improvements,” but he definitely felt the potential. So he hired a contractor and started peeling away. Sometimes blind faith is rewarded, and this was definitely one of those instances.
Early on in the renovation, they were tearing out the Homasote walls that Grdich calculated would cost maybe $50,000, but which turned into an investment in the neighborhood of $500,000 when they exposed the post-and-beam construction in the attic. That was the beginning of the payoff for stubbornly following a dream that had no script whatsoever. From that moment on, the renovation began a life of its own. That discovery freed Grdich to think out-of-the-box, so to speak. He already felt strongly opposed to being sandwiched into small, cramped rooms. With the revelation of the visually strong skeleton, he envisioned a method for following his madness. He ripped out the low ceiling and floor, erasing the constriction overhead and exposing the attic. At the same time, he had no intention of living in a dark, somber historic house. So the walls went white, giving the home light and levity.
Meanwhile, Grdich was discovering the silver lining in his home. With time and resources, the house was brought back to its character with all the inherent integrity intact. Where floors were unremarkable and something swanker was required, such as in the living room with its narrow oak floor, Grdich hired James Van Dyke from Ipswich, Massachusetts, to paint over the flaws. Giving Van Dyke a lot of leeway, and with only a few suggestions and some color input, Grdich got a uniquely patterned floor with a twist—a combination of pewter, blue, and cream that is infinitely whimsical. It makes the room.
As time moved on, Grdich broke out of the original floor plan. He and his partner ended up more than doubling the house’s footprint with an expanded kitchen, along with a dining room, den, and master bedroom suite. Those rooms have all the amenities, such as recessed lighting, that modern technology can bestow. But they flow with the older portion of the house due to their simple, smart lines and retrospective color palette. From the road it still looks like a modest clapboard yellow saltbox with a natural-shingle ell, half hidden behind a pair of antique birch trees that Grdich nurses slavishly to preserve. Inside, it brims with character.
However, the focus is not totally oriented to the interior—the retreat is also outward bound. One of the additions is a screened porch for summer lounging and dining. A skylight lets the sun stream in, while an oversized lantern keeps it lit after dark. And it overlooks a marsh and grasslands where Grdich parked a rusted thrasher, and an old, gnarly appletree is silhouetted. In the evenings, he and his partner watch the egrets take off and land. During the day, they enjoy the breezes.
In the restored section, white dominates the walls. In the new additions, Grdich went with sunnier hues, using glowing colors to tint the walls and throwing in skylights and banks of windows. In the dining room, he glazed the wall. But when it was being applied, the glazing got so hot that it became blotchy. Grdich left it that way. “It’s sort of fun—the house looks like it had a leak.” Those homey quirks give the house character and a comfort level that reads as warmth. It is less about hunkered down and more about highbrow. But in this Kennebunk home, highbrow has humor.
So where does all the levity and humor enter in? The new spaciousness gives a sense of freedom, but it also illuminates the décor. When the couple lived in Ipswich, Grdich softened the spare appointments of that previous house with a chic parade of Biedermeier furniture. When they moved to Kennebunk, the entire inventory was summarily packed up, shipped out, and exiled to the couple’s Naples, Florida, home. Meanwhile, Grdich warmed to the task of starting from scratch. The owner of Bulfinch Antiques originally on Charles Street in Boston, Grdich casts a wide net when it comes to period furniture. He has strong feelings about the direction in which his décor veers. Definitely, the traditional, country-style, white painted furniture was not in the Kennebunk retreat’s cards. Cutesy is avoided at all costs. Couches and overstuffed chairs are clad in eggshell white slipcovers (“No chintz! And no gold chairs!”), but the remainder of the furniture is painted unique, faded colors or polished up so the intriguingly grained wood shines.
Frank Grdich refuses to be confined to one era or tradition. He goes for Swedish; he has an affinity for European. He is fond of offbeat curvaceous pieces that marry many styles, such as the Anglo-Indian sideboard that lords it over the living room. But he pairs it with a skirted table that looks like Gypsy married Rococo and came out with a smile. “All the furniture has weight and substance,” says Grdich, defining the only commonly held trait of the pieces that he handpicked and calls “casual European.” Good legs seem to be an overarching theme. Besides that, anything goes.
When it comes to accessories, Grdich imposes a rule. “When something comes in, something has to go out.” It has served this collector who abhors clutter very well. Bucking the trend, there are no boats in the window. But a few pieces of coral—which he collects and sells—are proudly on display and speak of his oceanic affinity. Besides that, surfaces might hold an urn, but not much else. “People see a table and feel they have to put something on it,” he says. He bucks that instant reaction.
The Kennebunk retreat is purposefully “unassuming” from the street. And Frank Grdich likes the way it opens up into surprise spaces as he moves from room to room. But recently, he has taken steps to make one element of his domain a little more prominent for passersby. He took the pony barn on the property, renovated it smartly, and made it into an antique store. Now the Bulfinch Antiques sign hangs once again. After all, he needed some sort of outlet for all the wonderful furniture and accessories that he traded out of his home over the years. Make no mistake, it will be filled with treasures with a twist.