On the US-Canadian border is a remote property that has been in the Snow family for five generations. The story of this lake house renovation began when the current owner’s great, great grandfather purchased an island located on East Grand Lake in Eastern Maine. When Snow’s grandfather decided to buy a large piece of land on the mainland, only a short boat ride away from the island, the newer property snowballed into what they call the “family camp”. The Snow family has spent decades of summers playing in and around the deep waters of this cold, glacial lake, about a 40-minute drive to a real grocery store and the hospital. But as time passed, the various buildings on the property aged badly due to the brutal Maine winters.
The latest generation had the vision, the means and desire to restore the family camp into a legacy destination that would survive for the next hundred years. They wanted their children and grandchildren to enjoy this place filled with memories and relics of their ancestors.
The Snow’s vision for this lake house renovation included their wish to document what had transpired over the decades. As the architects, we were challenged to create something that was more sustainable and permanent than what existed. Through photographs, stories and actual experiences, we were tasked with incorporating the family’s history into the architecture, connecting past generations with those still to come.
Over 400 photographs were painstakingly removed from the old frames, scanned, digitally enhanced, enlarged and reframed; and are now hanging throughout the house.
Cole Harris Architects and the Snow’s decided to pursue a LEED Gold certification, which meant that the source of many of the building materials had to come from nearby quarries and lumber mills. Every piece of wood used was recently milled, all the stone was quarried regionally, all the ceramic tile was custom designed to work with our own palette and created specifically for this property.
“So, what we ended up with was a kind of perfect storm; Dave’s obligation to his family and our obligation to sustainability and a very high level of quality. We are very proud that we were able to achieve this. It’s rare to have a project with both the resources and the commitment from our clients to let us do what needs to be done; to bring their vision to life.”
A lake house renovation for all generations
The original home was cramped and therefore we made judicious changes to the original layout. For example, the living room became the kitchen, but the original footprint of the house stayed the same. Some of the little changes were very impactful. The dining room stayed in its original location, but now when you sit at great grandmother’s original dining table, you have views of the glacier lake that you didn’t have before.
“It was important for Dave to keep some of these adjacencies and memories from his childhood intact. We, as architects, wanted to exploit and romanticize those memories and really make them a bit larger than life.”
Above, the raised terrace sits behind the lake house renovation, the porch to the left, and the second story of the building never previously existed. Only the room on the first floor was original to the cabin. The stones for the terrace floor came from a closed quarry from which the contractors excavated the remaining material. We landscaped the property with drought-resistant and indigenous plantings throughout the property. The roofs are red copper standing seam, which will eventually turn brownish-green. The shingles are eastern white cedar, and all the posts on the porch are of solid eastern white cedar. We custom-designed the Adirondack chairs especially for this camp.
“It’s a very small house. Basically we decided to rebuild the main cabin in the approximate footprint that was already there, including the living room, dining room, kitchen, and bedroom that his grandparents once slept in.”
An aerial view of the family camp clearly shows the lake house renovation and dock sitting on the Southern end of East Grand Lake. As one looks out at the lake, standing at the flagpole that Dave’s father erected, Canada can be seen on the right, and the United States on the left. A rarely used Canadian crossing sits about a quarter-mile from the end of the driveway. You can see why we’ve dubbed the property simply Grand Lake.
The beautiful boathouse was tilting and falling down. We had to find a way to preserve it while maintaining the original character. After a basic facelift, it looks like new. A stream runs under the boathouse and into the lake. A camera on top of the boathouse remains active so that the family can enjoy views of the lake, even when it’s too cold to go down to the docks.
A view from inside the boathouse looks out onto the crystal-clear waters of the lake. The majority of the structure is original, although the four-pillar frame was built to strengthen and straighten the building, and weathered to look original as well.
This interior view of the main cabin looking toward the dining room now has a beamed, 30-inch wide entry. While the dining room is still in the same place, the view is vastly improved. We expanded this room into the second story to give it a wide-open feel, with grand, high-ceilings. You can see Mr. Snow’s study up on the second floor, overlooking the living room.
This boat dory, seen hanging from the ceiling, was the original craft that their great grandfather brought with him from Portland, back in the eighteen hundreds. The original brothers used this exact dory to row out to the island, as well as Dave, when he was young. It’s made from pine, which is not a durable material.
“So, every winter it was covered and had holes drilled into the bottom so that water could drain out. This is why the dory lasted so long. We took that dory, had it restored and winched it up to the ceiling. Another memory preserved.”
In the main room of the cabin, the ceilings are lined with reclaimed hemlock gathered from local buildings or barns. Some of the family’s restored photographs adorn the local-stone fireplace, reclaimed mantel and painted, shiplap walls.
The upstairs study is also lined with reclaimed hemlock and the gated opening looks down into the living room. Rolling doors provide privacy when the owner is working. The room has custom built-in cabinetry, furniture and a muted, patterned rug.
The compact kitchen is efficiently tucked onto one side of the house. The cooking, cleaning and storage areas are against an outside wall facing two prep islands with walking space in between. Great Grandfather’s kerosine lanterns were carefully restored and are now beautifully displayed. Regional stone slab floors have radiant heat for when it starts getting cold. The original dining room table and chairs belonged to Dave’s grandmother, although parts of the set had to be replaced or repaired by a local woodworker.
The kitchen’s custom splash tiles depict game fish to memorialize the generations of lake fishermen that would bring their catch onto shore to be sold. Lobster and clams also adorn the tiles, reminiscent of the big family get-togethers, from generations ago.
This stone sink shows incredible attention to detail of this lake house renovation with a hand-drawn, 180° panoramic depiction of the camp. Starting at the boathouse and ending at the rocky shoreline. We drew all of these scenes by hand. A master tilemaker carved the plates and cast the tiles from our drawings.
“We tried to bring in outside elements, like the boathouse and woods, but we did not want to get too kitschy. So, even though we have tiles with images, we tried to not, you know, make it look like a bar.”
The master bedroom, where the Snow’s grandparents slept, is high up in the eves and originally had a flat ceiling, which we opened up. Reclaimed hemlock and built-in lockers are now used as the closets. Grandpa’s dresser still rests at the foot of the bed. The custom-made bed frame is complete with acorn finials, representing the oak trees still situated around the camp.
The master bathroom has a beautiful, antique nickel soaking tub by Kenedy Waterworks. The tiles on the floor were made locally and bear the tile company’s name. Bronze pulls, on inward opening doors resemble sticks and branches, which complete this nature theme.
At the end of a summer day, the family would traditionally gather on the screened-in porch. Because there are so many mosquitos and black flies in Maine, it’s kind of tough to be outside at dusk. However, the original porch was small, and the growing family couldn’t all fit comfortably. So, we decided to expand the screened porch so everyone could chit-chat and watch the incredible sunset together.
Dave’s father and his grandfather built this sleeping cabin, which is separate from the main house and adjacent to the lake. The original, one-bedroom cabin was morphed into a two-bedroom, with a new central entrance and all the amenities.
We wanted to keep the original, vaulted wood ceiling to be visually preserved, so we actually added insulation above it, before adding the standing seam copper roof. The sleeping cabins have half sinks, showers, and toilets so guests don’t have to use the main house’s bathroom to wash up. With heater upgrades, the cabin can now sleep people year round.
As architects, we love when we have the chance to merge local history with functional design. Our goal from the onset was to remake the camp into a durable and family-friendly getaway, but also to embed its legacy, literally within the structure itself. Now, stories of generations past will live on, retold to generations in the future.
Special thanks to Jeff Roberts for his incredible photography and to Maine Home + Design for their feature article.