A Brilliant Restoration
Artist Michael Walek renews his historic property in York, Maine
Nobody does color like Michael Walek. He painted the exterior of his home, Chase House, the blush of dawn with a hint of canyon. It is the glow of the noonday sun on the petal of a dewy David Austin rose, combined with the juicy flesh of a newly sliced melon. No, this is not a Victorian painted lady. We are talking about a humble Federal house circa 1814 in York, Maine, given a Mona Lisa smile.
Nothing is incongruous about the house or its hues. To the contrary, the reaction that Walek invariably gets from observers is envy for his daredevil choice of paint colors. Ditto for the equally courageous hues in the garden plantings around the house.
Before jumping to the assumption that this homeowner is just a renegade running footloose with the rainbow, you should know that Michael Walek takes no liberties whatsoever with the spectrum—his choice of exterior colors is firmly based on historic precedent. According to Walek’s research, prior to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, also known as the World’s Columbian Exposition, homes made good use of the color spectrum. It was only after the country flocked to the fair’s white stucco buildings that the fashion in exterior colors blanched.
In fact, early homes often combined multiple hues. Although no record exists of Chase House’s original paint colors, Walek discovered that many residents in the region used brick dust from regional kilns to tint their paints, which resulted in varying shades of salmon on exterior walls. He took this concept and ran with it.
Invariably, everyone who sees the house asks Walek for the exact salmon shade that he chose. But you cannot walk into a paint store and find this color in a can; he oversaw its custom mixing, tested it extensively, and tweaked it to be sure it would never fade to dingy taupe, as salmon can occasionally do. Walek, an artist who works with acrylics, gouache, and watercolors, knows how to achieve that sort of detail, and he takes the same exacting pains in the garden. But there he creates an ever-changing canvas, and his selection process occurs on an annual basis. Each summer, he chooses annuals to achieve just the right color balance. In other words, he mixes his palette. Then he composes a scene that embraces visitors but also opens up revealing views. Throughout its transformation from scrubby forest into a series of deftly staged, heady horticultural experiences, the property’s historical roots are celebrated and preserved.
Michael Walek is a preservationist with an independent streak. Beyond his use of color, character is written all over the house that he shares with fellow artist and spouse, Todd Bezold. Character is even more apparent in the garden he planted and tends with Bezold in an eighteenth-century mill foundation next to the house.
Walek accomplishes everything he does with forethought, design savvy, and research, including the gardens he designs for clients. In addition to being an artist, he spends summers galloping around the region for his own coastal garden-design/building/maintenance firm. Each landscape is unique—he consults the genius of each space to honor and elevate it. He does that for his clients and did that for the Chase House landscape.
At first, Chase House was just a flirtation for him. Back in the spring of 1997, when he was in the market for a house in the area, he sent a realtor a “hope and dream” list of properties he had eyed from the road. The list’s goal was to help realtors gauge his taste; he had no notion whether the houses on the roster were actually on the market. Chase House topped the list. Coincidentally, Chase House was not only available, but it also came with every item on his wish list, including acreage. “Having land was critical,” he says. And the home boasted a “borrowed landscape.” Indeed, Chase House’s six acres abut hundreds of acres in preserved water-district land. Walek’s initial property visit was like meeting the proverbial love of his life in a crowded room. “I had this overwhelming ‘this is home, this is it’ feeling,” he recalls. “I just sat there in the driveway, mesmerized.” Granted, massive renovations were in his future, but Walek took them on.
In 1750, Chase House was connected with the fifth largest cotton and flax weaving mill in the territory. For more than a hundred years, the factory wove fabric until the Civil War put the enterprise out of business. By the time Walek found the property, the mill structure was gone; the only remaining evidence of it was the foundation next to the house. But the original house, built in 1814 with room for millworkers to board in the third floor attic, was still standing. Sixteen men at a time lived upstairs, huddled around a thick-masonry chimney that kept them warm. When the mill began to falter after the Civil War, the owners developed their significant land holdings on the coast and prospered as a result. They also harnessed the adjacent Chase’s Pond to provide water to southern Maine. That land remains conserved. All these benefits remain for Walek’s home.
It was not until after the dust settled from the extensive interior restoration that Walek went to work in earnest outdoors. He had already thinned saplings to allow a clear view of Chase’s Pond, leaving sightlines from the road obscured for privacy. Meanwhile, he invested in the future by buying David Austin roses, which he grew in containers, knowing that he would want sizable plants when the time came to install them. He trimmed the historic lilacs surrounding the house into shape and installed six linear Chamaecyparis shrubs, which he lined up against the house to soften the three-story structure.
Doing justice to the original mill foundation was high on the agenda. But until he found the obelisk to serve as a focal point, he had no overarching plan for the space. After securing a deal on boxwood, he crafted a formal garden of annuals and perennials with all the blowsy splendor and unapologetic use of color, typical of Chase House’s heyday. Hollyhocks, lilies grown indoors in containers and later transplanted into the garden, campanulas, Monarda, and Actaea give the garden its vertical lines while annuals provide girth. Despite the hubbub of intermingling plants with uncompromising colors, the spectrum is masterfully harnessed. “I lived in Portugal,” Walek says to explain his palette preferences. “I like bold color.”
From there, he integrated the garden with the house and created reflective spaces around it where friends could convene in the evenings. The larger property is dappled with shade trees, giving a park-like ambience with peekaboo spaces carved out.
Closer to the house, Walek is more flamboyant. When he purchased the house, it had a little deck out the back door that felt totally incongruous with the setting. “I hated that deck,” he admits. But when he put a plant stand against the wall, he discovered how to hide the deck’s flaws with plants, creating a secluded, sheltered spot for meals and “taking away its curse.” It has since become a microclimate for houseplants, which are now Bezold’s domain as well. His extensive knowledge of molecular biology—in addition to being an artist, Bezold is a molecular biologist by profession—helps keep pests and diseases at bay.
While houseplants dwell on the deck, the landscape in front of the house showcases large, single-specimen containers of nicotiana, dahlias, lilies, coleus, and bananas, which move indoors over the winter and slip into dormancy. Walek stages the pots to form alcoves, which he uses as exterior mudrooms for slipping off muddy work boots before coming inside. He enters his home through the unpainted Greek Revival door that first endeared the house to him.
When Michael Walek first met Chase House, it was white, but he saw its glow shining through. Now, the gardens echo the brave new colors of the dwelling, and Chase House has yet another waltz with glory. Not only is this incarnation rosier, but botany plays a bigger part this time around.
Plants from Pick of the Planet