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Shelter on the Shore
As seen in the Winter 2003 Maine Boats & Harbors magazine.

A Camp with Feeling
by Iver E. Lofving

Size has little to do with it.
Intelligent design, fine details, and artistic expression are the keys.




A bold sculpture at the peak of the entrance gable signals the pleasures to be found within.









"I discovered many details that "betrayed me into delight."


       For those who are born on the Maine coast, and those who come from away to live, or to rusticate for awhile, our dramatic, largely unspoiled natural environment is the greatest reason for being here. The most direct way for many to experience it is to "go to camp," which is somewhat akin to participating in a spiritual retreat.

       Richard Coakley has designed and built that rarest of things, a simple and beautiful little camp. It is a retreat in the woods and a summer guest house with a sauna building. On the property, nearer the water, is a larger year-round house built some years ago. Coakley's project was intended as an adjunct to the main house.

        At first look, the camp seems perfectly straightforward, a rectangle, 16' by 32', with a peaked roof. One enters through an enclosed porch with French doors that can be folded back to make the porch feel part of the living room. Both rooms have the same high wood-planked roof. In the living room is a kitchenette, a wood stove, and a prominent staircase leading to an open sleeping loft above. There are a bedroom and bath on the ground floor behind the living room. The first impression of the main space is a warm and gracious airiness, a feeling that one can relax and enjoy some quiet time here.

       The 8' by 8' square sauna, a separate building on a deck set off the east side of the camp, can be reached in two ways, either through a door opening onto the deck from the first-floor bedroom, or up some steps on the side of the front of the house, which also reaches the deck. There is a wall on the front part of the deck, providing privacy. There is also an outdoor shower and a changing bench. The relationship of the two buildings is based on an 8' by 8' module, giving the little complex an underlying sense of order that helps to make this a soothing place.

        On further examining the camp I discovered many details that, in the words of John Ruskin, the nineteenth-century architectural theorist, "betrayed me into delight," the sign of a really fine building, one that did not show at first glance all there was to see and therefore had much to tell.


A rectangular camp, a square sauna, a deck connecting the two - perfectly straightforward until you take a long look at the details. This is a retreat in the woods that feels good for being there.





A place for everything and artistic touches as a complement. The kitchen is tucked under the stairs; storage for firewood is under the first landing. The design of the balusters turns the ascent into a sculptural experience.


       Richard Coakley is the product of both academic and practical training. He has a master's degree in sculpture from the Yale school of art and architecture; it was there that he began to build fine wood furniture and found in wood his expressive medium. After graduating, his work expanded in scale to designing and building wooden houses, first for his own family, then for clients on Deer Isle. He has gradually built up a business, Summerbeam Homes and Design, creating expressive structures with detailing that reflects his abilities and training as an artist, a craftsman, and a capable organizer of the complex process of building a fine home.

       The sauna building has several details that make it a little delight by itself. The shingles on the gable end wall are cut with a curling wave pattern that reminds me of the Ionic scroll motif - said to have been derived from the waves of the Ionian sea, just as Coakley's wave pattern reminds us of the waters of nearby Eggemoggin Reach. The peak trim over the shingles is curved, cut from a single piece of wood large enough to be nailed in place and to lap the top of the shingles, solving an annoying problem one meets when the shingles in the top course are so small that they are sure to split when nailed. This detail is evidence to me of Coakley's experience as both a hands-on builder and a sophisticated designer.

       At the peak of the entrance gable on the main house is a bold piece of sculpture that serves the same function as the dragon head on a Norwegian stave church. Coakley's design is completely different from the twelfth-century original, but is serves the same decorative (and perhaps spiritual) function.


The loft bedroom, reached via the staircase over the kitchen, is open and cozily enclosed all at once.







French doors can be folded back to make the front porch part of the living room. The view is looking down from the loft.


       Another gable end detail on the main house is completely original. It is a notching pattern on the bargeboard. The pattern starts out with a regular, fairly close spacing, then stretches out and finally dies away as it reaches the peak. It reminded me of the final notes of the "Song of the Lark" by Vaughan Williams; after all, music and architecture are very closely related, particularly in matters of rhythm.

       Coakley says that in this building, which is smaller than his usual projects, he had the opportunity to work out a system of construction that he derived from the ancient log structures of Russia and Scandinavia. As in those buildings, he has made a solid bearing wall of wood, but in an entirely contemporary fashion. He uses 2" shiplapped white cedar planks set between 8" by 8" uprights, channeled to form an H section in which the horizontal shiplap planks are held. The planks are attached with screws and finished with pegs. On the interior the upright's corners are eased by a curved bead-and-groove routing.

       I asked Coakley why he did not use the more common V-grooved corner. He felt that the curved bead helped preserve the continuity of the wall. I agreed with him, noting to myself that here is a builder who is thoughtful, indeed. Having used the bead corner on the uprights, he continued to use it in other places, such as the door and window trim, so that they became part of the same language of detail.







Details, properly executed, transform the simple into the delightful.

Handmade latch and hinges accent the sauna door. The sculpted shingles above are reminiscent of the waters of nearby Eggemoggin Reach.





Music and architecture are very closely related, particularly in matters of rhythm.

Partitions are also sheathed with horizontal planking. Wherever practical, no finish has been applied to the wood, giving it a warm softness that will mellow with age. The interior doors are plank and batten, with beautifully crafted wood latches and catches that are sculptural statements all by themselves.

In a few places that need protection from wear, such as the kitchenette, the bathroom sink counter, and the staircase, Coakley finished the wood surfaces with brilliant applied colors. The small areas of color are just enough to enliven the prevailing wood tone.

The open staircase to the loft is a striking sculptural focus to the living room. The first element I noticed when I entered the space was that it has winders that create a platform halfway up for a fresh view of the high space of the living room. The open balustrade is formed of teal-colored flat chevron uprights carved in a slight taper with a notch pattern; it helps to turn the ascent into a tactile and sculptural spatial experience. One of the tread is a striking surprise; a realistic painting of a dense school of fish that seem to be swimming just under the surface of the tread. Another detail that makes this design so special is that is was executed by Elizabeth Coakley, who is also an artist.





Ingenious latch design turns opening a door into a tactile experience.

Looking at this camp led me to consider whether there is a Maine style of architecture, and also, for that matter, a Maine school of art of more depth than the souvenir variety. At about the same time I was introduced to Coakley's building, I saw the Bernard Langlais show at the Portland Museum of Art. Among other virtues, the Langlais exhibit was for me a celebration of wood, as is this camp.

The love of wood and other natural materials, building designs that are good neighbors to the old structures in small Maine towns, a tradition of fine craftsmanship - these are, I feel, some of the components of a Maine style of architecture.

In the construction of the camp, Richard Coakley worked with two other craftsmen, Jack Berry and Clark Nesbit. He also had an appreciative and supportive client, one of the reasons such a fine building was created.

Maine is a feeling - the scents in a spruce forest, the joyous intensity of the northwest wind on the water - and feelings are what one gets from the best work of artists who are moved by their experience of Maine. John Marin, for instant, painted in a style derived from European avant-garde art, but his watercolors of Maine are an evocation of the feeling of the coast as much as a Frederick Church oil painting. Richard Coakley's camp is also a work of art that evokes the feeling of Maine.

Iver E. Lofving, architect and Maine Boats & Harbors
contributing editor, summers on Swans Island and winters in Portland.



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