Meant for the Marsh
Finding delight in a cottage by the sea
For many couples, the idea of a 10-year renovation would bring to mind fired contractors, delayed permits, and marital stalemates over the selection of cabinet pulls. For George and Donna Scontsas, their decade-long project to renovate and decorate a Maine getaway was a labor of love, with shopping expeditions around the Maine seacoast and even scouting trips to Europe for special design pieces.
“It’s been fun,” George says. “My wife and I really enjoy the whole process of decorating. It’s pretty much done, except my wife never stops. She loves shopping and finding the perfect accessories.”
Indeed, their mutual delight in interior design led them to the 1,600-square-foot cottage-style home. They were looking at places in York County, Maine, where the couple liked to visit, when they discovered the perfect little house. Built in the 1940s, it was in rough shape, and they could not increase its footprint due to zoning laws. “We didn’t know what we were getting into, but Donna thought it had great bones and we loved the charm of Cape Porpoise,” a small fishing village on the quiet side of Kennebunkport.
A neighbor recommended Chuck Archer of Archer Construction to help them with the renovation, and together with his senior carpenter Chuck Soule, they worked with the couple as they renovated space after space. Archer was familiar with the area, having done numerous projects on Cape Porpoise, and his father’s doctor had been a previous owner of the Scontsas home. “There’s a lot of history there,” Archer says of the locale.
The home’s age added challenges. “Nothing was square here,” George says. “That was part of what Archer and Soule had to deal with, and they were able to make it work.”
The contractor started with the second-floor bedroom and its attached porch, then the shed, which was an art studio, before moving on to the living room and two bathrooms. “The work was spread out through different sections over the years, and the kitchen was the final phase,” Archer says. Indeed, he may have played a part in encouraging the couple to finish, since he warned them that he was about to retire after a 45-year career around the time their home renovation was reaching an endpoint.
Given the small square footage of the house, Donna and George wanted to take advantage of every square inch. They used pocket doors to maximize space, placing them between the family room, laundry room, and bathrooms. In the guest room, a closet went where a chimney had once stood; in the laundry room, built-in shelving helped provide additional storage. “We took our time and thought through everything to maximize space,” Donna says.
That included every item purchased for the home. Both George, who runs a video production company, and Donna, a software product manager, travel extensively for work and for pleasure, which led them to be able to purchase numerous pieces of décor abroad. They made a trip to Belgium specifically for lighting, and they also searched for antiques throughout Provence.
Despite many pieces coming from abroad, the couple are dedicated to supporting local businesses. They purchased accessories and furniture at Antiques on Nine and Hurlbutt Designs in Kennebunk, farm + table in Cape Porpoise, Pallian & Company in Wells, and both Blanche + Mimi and k colette in Portland. They also obtained pieces from the Nashua shop of George’s brother, Scontsas Fine Jewelry & Home Decor.
For their kitchen, George and Donna brought in Kennebunkport Kitchens’ Pam Shangraw, who was recommended by their builder. “They knew they wanted it cottagey, with bead board and open shelves, but the layout was a real mystery to them,” Shangraw says. The designer suggested moving the sink to the opposite side of the room and adding another window to open the space to the outdoors. “Doing dishes isn’t fun, but if you have a beautiful view it’s a lot better,” she says.
Soapstone counters were ordered from Dorado Soapstone and installed by Ripano Stoneworks; the homeowners worked with the Nashua-based company to pick slabs and cut them so that the grain flowed properly in the counter areas. The same material was also used in the sitting room and family room fireplaces, where George and Donna let it age naturally; in the kitchen, they oil it. A Viking stove, thin Sub-Zero refrigerator, Bosch dishwasher, and open shelves stacked with white dishware complete the cooking space. “My favorite is the spice drawer,” says Donna, pulling out the narrow drawer that organizes and gives easy access to the small containers. “Everything was cleverly done.”
Around the entire kitchen and dining area, white floor-to-ceiling bead board opens up the space, framing a zinc-topped table from High Falls Furniture Company in Chester, Vermont. A narrow rack against a kitchen wall showcases the white Astier de Villatte ceramics that Donna collects, sometimes locally, sometimes in the company’s shop in Paris.
The home’s second floor is compact, containing the master bedroom and a screened porch, but the many windows make it feel spacious and relaxed. In the bedroom, which had to be gutted and rebuilt, stands a rustic armoire from Antiques on Nine. A sitting area beyond the bedroom turns into a sunporch, with windows that open for waterside breezes in warmer months. The room overlooks Sampson Cove and the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, making it possible for Donna and George to see moose, deer, bobcats, and foxes outside their windows, as well as clammers and kayakers. “The air here is just amazing,” George says. “We love the different views with the changing tides.”
After renovating the entire house, the couple worked as a team on the décor. “We definitely wanted white,” Donna says of the home’s color scheme. “It’s easy to maintain,” George adds. They tried to stay away from using too many nautical accents, with only small touches such as an antique ship’s lamp. Photographs by Brad Maushart of Kennebunkport hang throughout the house, and antique gates that Donna collected are scattered through the first floor, along with other pieces.
George oversees the landscape and does the weekly maintenance. The plot is spacious—two waterfront acres that overlook the cove. Brian Fairfield of Maine Stonework redid the portico entry’s antique stone steps and added a stone wall with a gate to section off an area of the backyard. Roses and ferns ring the house, and hydrangeas, irises, peonies, and daisies produce abundant flowers to cut and bring indoors. A boardwalk leads from the house to a point overlooking the water; it is surrounded by beach roses (Rosa rugosa) and wild brush. George found the roses, which thrive in a cool, salty environment and survive harsh winters, at Old Sheep Meadows Nursery in Alfred, Maine.
“We didn’t know anything about living on a tidal marsh when we bought the home,” George says. “We wondered, ‘Is it good? Is it bad?’” Now the couple knows they made the right choice. “The landscape changes every day. It’s so beautiful, and we see some of the most magnificent sunrises,” Donna says.
Over time, the couple has adapted to life in a small town. “We have made so many lifelong friendships in the past 12 years,” George says. They agree that their fellow residents are kind and down-to-earth. Donna also appreciates their convenient location. “We can walk to get everything we need,” she says. “It’s a great town.”
Donna and George are pleased with the outcome of their renovation project. “This level of design, you usually see in big houses, and here you see it in a small house,” George says. Archer agrees. “It’s quite a small house, and we did the most that we could with what we had to work with,” he says. The contractor also gives the couple credit for knowing what they wanted and being “a pleasure to work with.”
Clearly, the couple thrived during the long-term reconstruction and enjoys living in their renovated marsh-side home. “Donna likes to design and I’m into functionality,” George says. Now, a once-neglected cottage shows the benefit of their partnership.