By Robert Boucheron
For the annual First Year Building Project at the Yale School of Architecture, students design and construct a small building, often a wood frame house in New Haven. Unique at American schools, the project is required of all students in the program. A faculty member who is also a contractor guides them through weeks of rough carpentry, roofing, sheetrock, and more.
In the spring of 1976, I was in the first year class. Our project was to be an office and sales showroom for a quilting cooperative in West Virginia, but it fell through. Funding for a house renovation in a black neighborhood of New Haven also stalled. The faculty was at a loss. As students made plans for the summer, the building project was likely to be cancelled.
At this point, a classmate offered an alternative to anyone who was interested. Ken Colburn and his wife and his older brother Ted had just bought an old cottage on the coast of Maine. They had spent summers there as children, and they had relatives nearby, including two cousins who lived there year-round. One of these, David, was the realtor who sold them the house. The other, Bob, was a home builder or handyman. The project was to make badly needed repairs.
The Colburns wanted to rent out the house during the summer months and use it themselves off-season. When I searched online after forty years, I found the “Colburn Cottage” is still available for rent, one or both of two furnished units, right on the water, and fifteen minutes’ drive from Boothbay Harbor. In the photos posted, the house looks unchanged. It is on Capitol Island, east of the larger Southport Island, reached by a narrow wooden bridge. People from Augusta, the state capital, bought and developed the little island in the early twentieth century, hence the name.
As the semester ended, I was the only Yale student to take up the offer of free room and board in exchange for construction labor. It was a chance to see the coast of Maine, I thought. I did not own a car, so I would ride with Ken. The plan was to leave at the end of April and work on the house for four to six weeks. A tenant was due to arrive on June 15. A bookish type who wore glasses, I had limited know-how with tools. Ken probably counted on more capable hands.
Spring was advanced when we left New Haven. Leaves were out and the morning was warm. Ken picked me up in his compact car. I jammed a backpack in the trunk, which was full of gear as if for a camping trip. As we headed north, the landscape thinned. By the time we reached Maine, it was winter again, bare and cold. In her amusing 2002 memoir, The Lobster Chronicles: Life on a Very Small Island, Linda Greenlaw says: “Early in May, the Maine sun is seen more than felt. There is a chill in the air that the sun will not overcome for another month.”
When we reached Freeport, Ken wanted to stop at the L. L. Bean store, the retail outlet for the mail order company. It was part of the Maine experience, he said. Maybe it was there that I bought a pair of tall black rubber boots. Or maybe I got them a few days later in an Army-Navy store, after I learned that construction generates mud.
Much of the adventure has slipped from memory. I did not keep a journal or take photos. I did buy and mail a dozen picture postcards, a ritual of travel that I kept up for years. The boots and postcards are long gone, but images surface in my head like wreckage in the surf. I examine the images and try to fit them together. A letter I wrote to my sister, who dutifully saved it, helps.
According to the letter, Ken and I stayed overnight in the geodesic dome of Ted Colburn and his girlfriend. The dome was a relic of the 1960s, an angular hut with a door and a skylight. Ted had bought it, repaired leaks, improved or added plumbing, and installed a Jøtul stove. Jøtul is a Norwegian company that makes small cast-iron stoves that burn wood so efficiently a single log can last all night, Ted explained. He was burly type who had worked in construction. I forget where the dome was, but we woke the next morning in sleeping bags and emerged to a fresh fall of snow.
By the time we got to Capitol Island, the snow had melted. The house charmed me at first sight. It gave the impression of a wooden ship that has just steamed ashore. The plan was a simple rectangle with a gable roof. A wraparound porch of two stories was rotated forty-five degrees. An outside stair to the second story resembled a gangway. Inside, the walls were open to the studs in the time-honored style of American seaside cottages. There were plenty of windows, a brick chimney, an oil furnace, a kitchen and bath on the first and second floors, and a steep stair to bedrooms in the attic. The bedroom doors were a step or two above the stair landing, a hazard prohibited by the building code. As architecture students, Ken and I found much that was wrong and much to admire.
We worked alone for days at a time. Ted Colburn and his girlfriend came for a week or more. Bob the builder gave advice and a hand. Because of verbal confusion, I had to give up my name. The electrical contractor was called Quahog Electric. “Quahog” is the Narragansett word for clam. The side of the van was painted with a zapped clam sticking out a tongue.
Ken originally hoped to renovate the first floor and build an addition which stuck out into the porch, but Ted demanded that the floors be leveled before anything else was done. This task required several days. We ripped out all the first-floor partitions (only the exterior walls were load-bearing), severed the second-floor joists, inserted a carrying beam, and patched. We also took up floor boards on the porch, found that some of the joists were rotten, and replaced them. In my mind’s eye I see fresh masonry for a foundation, and I recall heaving concrete blocks. All in all, we did heavy construction. We had sore muscles and good appetites. We cooked and slept upstairs. I spread my winter coat over the bed, as Ken either did not light the furnace, or it was unable to cope with the cold May nights.
We made several car trips to buy supplies and do errands in Boothbay Harbor. After days of isolation, we were eager to go into town. One morning Ken drove to Bath for legal business, and I went along for the ride. Bath is a city at the mouth of the Kennebec River, with a shipbuilding industry that dates from 1743. The Bath Iron Works has built hundreds of ships for the United States Navy, and it continues to do so today. We made sightseeing trips to Wiscasset and Damariscotta, two well-preserved nineteenth-century seaports. I have another mental picture of being out on the water on a sunny, windy day. The motorboat docked at a rocky island where a house perched on stilts instead of a foundation. I suppose Ken was visiting another relative.
Thanks to his generosity, I got a glimpse of what Maine offers the tourist. For a description, here is one from the 1989 Smithsonian Guide to Historic America, Northern New England:
The Maine coast has long been known as one of the most beautiful landscapes in America. In 1734, a Massachusetts visitor wrote that “All that coast appears to be full of commodious rivers, bays, harbors, coves, and delightful islands.” More than a century earlier, the explorer Samuel de Champlain called the mouth of the Penobscot River “marvelous to behold,” with its “numerous islands, rocks, shoals, banks, and breakers on all sides.” . . . In the nineteenth century, the beauty of this area attracted some of the country’s foremost landscape painters as well as thousands of wealthy summer visitors, who flocked to the fashionable resort at Bar Harbor.
As never before, I became aware of the tides. Low tide exposed a mud flat east of the house, where a lone figure dug for shellfish. There were mornings of fog and days when wet weather hampered our work. Ken was absent one weekend, visiting his wife in Boston. I stayed at the house alone and took walks. The house did not have a television, and Southport Island had no shops, theater, or other entertainment. I did not meet any full-time residents.
I read books I brought with me. I would like to say that the books were The Country of the Pointed Firs, stories from 1896 by Sarah Orne Jewett, who lived in South Berwick, Maine; essays by E. B. White in the mid-1900s about his farm in North Brooklin, Maine; and Journals by May Sarton, who lived in York, Maine. All are classics that breathe the solitude and fresh air of the seacoast. The truth is that I read them years later in New York.
As the end of May approached, the weather improved at last. The Colburns adjusted their expectations to what could be built in the time remaining. For Memorial Day weekend, they planned a picnic and family reunion. Ken and I cleaned up the site and took a load of debris to the dump. As a final touch, he pulled a lawnmower from the crawl space, got it to start, and cut the grass for the first time that year.
The picnic was a feast organized by people who knew how to hold a reunion. Ken showed me how to eat a lobster, my first ever, and it was delicious. I was a stranger amid the clan, but I had earned a place at the long table on the grass. Until the sun went down, it was warm enough to sit outside and talk.
Two or three classmates arrived from Yale. They would work on the cottage for the next two weeks as I departed. The next morning, Ken drove me to a roadside stop, and I boarded a bus to Boston. There I changed to a train to New Haven.
I found a summer job with an architect named George Conklin, to design and draw a competition entry for a resort hotel in Vermont. Age sixty-eight, Conklin was unhurried and well-to-do, a gentleman architect. He asked me to serve drinks and nibbles at a party he and his wife threw at their house in Woodbridge. Again, my value as hired help was slight, but the Conklins were too gracious to complain. Our hotel design did not win.
About the Author: Robert Boucheron grew up in Syracuse and Schenectady, New York. He has worked as an architect in New York City and since 1987 in Charlottesville, Virginia. His short stories and essays appear in Bellingham Review, Fiction International, London Journal of Fiction, New Haven Review, Saturday Evening Post, and other magazines.