A garden makes a bridge between house and sea
Photographed by Lynn Karlin Lilies and straight white pines frame a view of Penobscot Bay and Camden.
Good things come to those who wait, and Dyke Messler and his partner Rickey Celentano waited more than seven years for their house and garden to be completed. These good things include a view of Penobscot Bay that goes on forever, a bungalow built in the spirit of the Arts and Crafts home of Messler’s grandparents, and a garden that is a masterpiece of place.
But in the beginning, there was only the view. It was 2007 when Messler, a master of the art of restoring old houses, bought 21 acres of wooded hillside property halfway up Mount Battie. Hundreds of feet below, the bay flows like a blue cloak into the horizon while brilliant white sailboats cluster in the harbor.
“I like being up here seeing the bay from this vantage point. The only thing I miss is the sound of the water lapping on the rocks,” Messler says.
So when Messler’s architect, Dominic Paul Mercadante, and landscape architect Stephen Mohr first saw the property, they knew not to compete with the vista. Messler wanted to enhance the view by emphasizing the soaring verticals of the white pine forest. They agreed that first Mohr would take steps to maximize the sight lines. Mercadante would then determine where to place the house so the view could be best appreciated.
Today, the bay and the Camden hills are framed by these white pines. Some are 200 years old and 75 feet tall. All are straight as arrows. This forest looks spontaneous, untouched by humans, but it is a picture, painted by meticulously adding and subtracting trees, shrubs, and plants, all to emphasize the beauty beyond.
Before construction started, an arborist examined each pine, keeping the healthiest and limbing up others to improve visibility. Trees in danger of toppling were removed. These changes took into consideration sight lines, growth patterns, and crown interlock. Trees that grow closely together in a forest interweave canopies. This is crown interlock, and it helps keep trees upright during windstorms. Start taking away trees and the canopy thins, potentially destabilizing the remaining trees.
The impetus for the entire project came from Messler’s memories of Sunday lunches spent at his grandparents’ house in Pasadena, California. No ordinary house, this was the Gamble House, designed by the architects Greene and Greene in 1908 for David and Mary Gamble, of Procter and Gamble fame, and now a National Historic Landmark. It is an exquisite example of American Arts and Crafts architecture and remained in the Gamble family until 1966, when it was deeded to the City of Pasadena and the University of Southern California School of Architecture.
“I spent just about every Sunday and holiday at my grandparents house until my grandmother died in 1963. I was 13,” Messler says.
For a child, it was a place to explore and enjoy. The house naturally got into Messler’s blood, and decades later he returned to its style when it came time to build the house that he calls Overlook. However, Messler, who has built and restored numerous houses, did not copy the Gamble House or its grounds. He adapted them for modern living and used sustainable building practices, such as installing solar panels and cisterns.
The bungalow is crafted of wood and stained a soft green, the color of the lichen on the boulders that punctuate the property. At 6,000 square feet, the building is hardly unassuming, but since its mass sits long and low, it does not overwhelm. Numerous windows frame gardens and ponds, and rooms open to patios and other sitting areas. It is clear that the outdoors takes precedence here.
The main house (there is also a guesthouse, finished in 2008) was started in summer 2010 and completed by late summer 2012. The garden at the main house was installed in 2012, so for one hectic summer the site held two sets of craftspeople doing a dance of materials and machinery around each other.
This dance becomes evident at the entry. Slabs of Maine fieldstone pave the way to the front door. A katsura tree to its right balances the mass of the stone pillars, which are surrounded by grasses, lilies, and Russian sage. Containers burst in a riot of bloom. Step past the plantings and—surprise!—the slabs now bridge a gravel streambed, where stone koi appear to frolic as a driftwood heron keeps watch.
It was important to Messler that all the stone used on the property, even the tiles on the swimming pool, be from local sources so they would look natural. Kevin O’Donnell, owner of Sunset Knoll, the landscaping company that laid much of the hardscaping on the property, says that the stone, including the boulders, came from no farther than 15 miles away and is the same type of stone found on Mount Battie.
Mohr designed the swimming pool, inset with boulders to give it a more organic look. “I knew he wanted a swimming pool and a hot tub. ‘Make it interesting, dynamic,’ Dyke said. He also likes the sound of water. So I designed the pool with a vanishing edge,” Mohr says.
The water appears to flow over the edge and spill into a natural pond one level below. But this is a clever trick, for though the two pools look connected, between the pool and the pond is a seating area paved with stone and surrounded by plants.
There are four water features all together: a large pond in front of the guest house, the swimming pool, the pond below it, and a small pool at the side of the house that catches the water from the streambed. These are partly fed by rain runoff from the roof, which drains into cisterns. Their pumps run on energy supplied by the solar panels.
Past the patio and across some lawn is a flight of fieldstone steps, surrounded by gardens, leading to those ramrod-straight pines. Beyond them is the view. Messler calls this area “the bowl,” a circular amphitheater of grass ringed by rhododendrons and set with Adirondack chairs—a gift from Mohr—designed in the style of Greene and Greene.
Mercadante likes how the house and the garden work together. “The plantings anchor the building and the pool terrace into their setting but also serve as defining elements, creating paths and rooms that extend the interior spaces and transitional spaces of the porches, loggia, and terraces into the exterior world. They provide beautiful outdoor ‘rooms’ that seamlessly link the enclosed spaces of the home into the natural forest beyond.”
Messler is passionate about his gardens, and it shows. He is not a fan of “drifts of one.” He plants in multiples, lots of multiples. On one acre are five thousand plants, including 75 rhododendrons and four-dozen varieties of lilies.
When it comes to his plants, Messler is hands-on. “He placed every plant. This is very much his garden,” Mohr says. Despite its “wild and woolly look,” tending the garden is “a huge amount of work. I have help with maintenance, a crew for weeding, but I’m out here all day, every day,” Messler says.
Coco, a briard, and Milo, a dachshund, keep him company and the deer at bay. The only wildlife problem is turkeys, which manage to eat the ripe high- and lowbush blueberries the night before Messler intends to pick them.
“My gardening career really started after I graduated from college and bought an old farmhouse in Vermont. It was there that I grew my first vegetables. Flower gardening was secondary. I started flower gardening in earnest after moving to Maine in 1978 and have been at it ever since!” Messler says.
And it seems that he has yet to meet a plant he did not like. “I like zinnias, echinacea, all lilies, peonies, Rudbeckia. And dahlias. I’ve also become a grass aficionado. Between the Rudbeckia, roses, lavender, dahlias, and lilies, there’s something blooming from early May into November, if we don’t get a frost. The garden peaks the last two weeks of July and the first two weeks of August,” he says.
“A garden is always a moving target. Given our winters, something always doesn’t come back, so you try new things. The garden isn’t static; it’s a work in progress. I move things around. I fill in any holes with annuals. And I look to where color is lacking. Colors tend to work well together in nature. If you brought orange and lavender indoors to decorate a living room, it might look odd, but in nature colors just go together,” Messler says.
An ordinary mortal would consider this house and garden the culmination of everything he had longed to do, and Messler has indicated that Overlook is where he hopes to spend the rest of his life. But this serial renovator and renaissance man is still not finished. He has plans to develop woodland gardens—natural, wild gardens beyond the more formally planted areas. Plan B, he calls it. One suspects there is a plan C, too.
Nature by design
Designing a landscape to take advantage of the larger surroundings does not have to be confined to new construction. An existing house can maximize the potential of the natural features on and around it. The key is to respect the sense of place. In this way, design possibilities emanate from understanding the location, working with its strengths and minimizing its weaknesses. And making choices becomes easier.
Here are some ideas for making house and garden blend harmoniously with their surroundings.
• Think color. Your house is likely the largest object on your property. For nature to take precedence over a man-made structure, consider painting your house to either blend in or harmonize with the natural world around it. Surrounding vegetation offers the most obvious color choices, but water, stones, sky, and snow come in almost infinite hues and also provide options.
• Put the right plant in the right place. Do not put sun lovers in the shade expecting them to thrive and vice versa. Plants given the conditions they need are healthier and more likely to reach their loveliest potential.
• Use local ingredients. Stone, timber, gravel, pavers, or fences will look the most natural if they are made of or sourced from materials indigenous to the area.
• Borrow a view. Look past your property lines to see where attractive views lie. They may be hiding. Limbing up and removing trees, shrubs, and other vegetation on your property may reveal a landscape you did not know existed.