“The landscape is part of the concept from the beginning,” says Anthony Esteves, a sculptor-turned-builder who created a small cluster of clapboard houses where he lives on Spruce Head in Maine. Esteves takes cues from the rocky, craggy island’s native landscape of “blueberry, bayberry, spruce, many types of wildflowers, moss, and lichens,” and adds influences from both Japan, where he spent time, and New England.
The small family compound, tucked in a clearing of trees, is inspired by the local vernacular, with a white Cape (originally built in 1754, then dismantled and rebuilt on the island in 1999, and recently remodeled by Esteves for his mother); a black clapboard structure called the Soot House, which Esteves built by hand using principles from Japan and where he lives with his wife and small son; and a timber-frame barn, in-progress, which will serve as a family library. Here’s a look at the old New England-style houses on a wild, purposely untouched Maine landscape.
Photography by Greta Rybus.
Esteves is continually working, thoughtfully, on the buildings and landscape. “Now that the soil is amended to consistency with the island, I will plant low-bush blueberries as a backdrop,” he says. “The bayberry, wildflowers, and saplings will creep into the blueberry, and over time the moss and lichen will grow on the granite. The process will be slow but the progression will be beautiful.”
When he came upon the site, Esteves says, “a lot of the natural environment was covered up with fill because the Cape was rebuilt with a standard foundation” when it was rebuilt on the island. “My process here involved uncovering and removing a lot of foreign material.” To keep it spartan, he left the natural granite ledge exposed as an homage to the environment: “Granite was quarried in vast amounts in Maine,” he says. “Many of the grand buildings of New York and Boston were made with the granite from Maine in the 1800s.”
The stones act as a sort of natural path between the houses. “The ledge undulates under a thin layer of acidic soil, appearing and disappearing throughout the property,” Esteves says. Around them, he took a “Scandinavian approach and used crushed stone to define the natural and built world,” using mulch made from the island’s fallen spruce trees and pea gravel he sourced from a nearby private beach.
Esteves, a sculptor by training, says that “landscaping” the property takes a certain amount of stepping back. “The goal is to have the landscape return to an open field of low-bush blueberry and saplings with small paths like deer trails,” he says.
The Soot House
The Soot House, which Esteves built from scratch, is clad in two parts. The main part of the building is also fitted with traditional colonial clapboards (visible nails included), painted with a Japanese-style, fermented paint that Esteves makes out of soot as well as water and persimmon. “It absorbs into the wood like a stain and creates a solid color in one coat. The color is extremely matte because of its high pigment content,” he says; it’s rot-resistant and will never chip. The small addition is fitted with wide-plank boards that have been burned using the Japanese shou sugi ban technique.
Esteves designed the Soot House to be extremely efficient; it’s heated entirely by a small wood stove, a $150 cord of wood, and a clever air circulation system through the long Maine winters. Esteves also designed a rainwater collection system: “The home’s addition uses a rain screen siding technique, with a high-performance, weather-resistant barrier underneath and a hidden gutter system to collect the water that runs through the open joints of the boards.”
More on Maine’s rocky coast: