Hannah Holmes

How to Make Sense of a Maine Home

Home Improvement

Why is this house attached to a barn? What does that light switch do? And, um, what’s with the tarp? Let an expert walk you through it.

By Hannah Holmes
Photographed by Greta Rybus

Hannah HolmesWhen the price of heating oil spiked in the 1970s, my dad glued blue insulation-board to the walls of his home office, weatherizing from the inside. He stapled clear plastic over the windows to keep out winter winds — and spring and summer and fall winds, as it turned out. Such bold innovations are the sort of thing you might encounter when you start looking for your dream house in Maine.

Maine’s housing stock is among the oldest in the nation. That’s because most of the state hasn’t enjoyed a building boom since . . . ummm . . . . Even in the legitimate boomtown of Portland, more than half of all homes are at least 75 years old. As a result, when you go house hunting, most of the places you’ll see will have been remodeled and remuddled, restored and adored by many generations of owners.

And those owners are known for their Yankee ingenuity, not for their adherence to principles of attractive design. In the battle of form versus function, the champions of form hold only a few urban centers across the state. All around them, ingenious pioneers of shelter technology wage a campaign to continually improve upon home improvement. You should be prepared for some of their more popular techniques.

The “New Englander,” for example, is a structure that began as a two-story home but, over decades and centuries, has been wrapped in a series of added wings, porches, and tractor sheds, each of which gradually acquired a couple of windows, plastered walls, and mysterious light switches. The New Englander is the architectural version of a turducken.

Inside, the most recently annexed room might feature “Pine State parquet,” better known as plywood, or “state o’ Maine wallpaper,” better known as the printed-paper side of insulation. Belowdecks, the “rubble foundation” might bring to mind an oversized, subterranean stone wall. And fluttering high in the rigging, you may spot the “Maine state flag”: a blue tarp lashed over a leak in the roof.

Inside, the most recently annexed room might feature "Pine State parquet," better known as plywood.

But you needn’t be intimidated by such ingenuities. Every civilization has its architectural vernacular, as well as a corresponding corps of experts who maintain such structures. In Maine, a surprising percentage of these experts bring to their trade degrees in philosophy, English, or fine art. The result is a roster of home-improvement talents who can tutor your kids in music theory while jacking up your porch. Your real-estate agent will have an iPhone full of such eccentrics to share with you and can direct you to the gas stations that sell the blue tarps.

Attending the three-hour home inspection of any house you put under contract will save you approximately three million hours of figuring things out yourself.

Attending the three-hour home inspection of any house you put under contract will save you approximately three million hours of figuring things out yourself. Maine home inspectors have encountered countless examples of Yankee engineering, and they can put these into a calming context for you. When I tell my real-estate clients, “Those plaster cracks are normal in this climate,” what my clients hear is, “I’m tired. Please buy this hell-hole.” But inspectors get paid whether or not you buy a house. So when they tell my clients, “Those plaster cracks are normal,” my clients swell with pride, having selected a property so cleverly constructed that the very walls adapt with the seasons.

Attending the three-hour home inspection of any house you put under contract will save you approximately three million hours of figuring things out yourself.

If you do skip your inspection, you will be sent a 40-page report listing the home’s “material defects.” And lacking the inspector’s soothing voiceover, this will be the most terrifying document you ever read.

But the truth is that every old house is like a small museum, and that inspection report is a catalog of your museum’s unique holdings. A proper museum will display heating technologies spanning many eras: fireplace, cast-iron radiators, some baseboards from before that heating-oil shortage, a woodstove from after. The same goes for flooring and electrical systems: one house may contain half a dozen types. Reading between the lines of this catalog, you’ll find record of an economy in which disposable income has historically been scarce, in which design has primarily been driven by such dilemmas as, “So Grammy’s moving in — how can we heat the tractor shed?”

An old Maine house preserves a record of pragmatism. And if necessity is the mother of invention, then pragmatism is invention’s crazy uncle. With no natural inclination to follow directions, Yankee problem-solvers have long responded to necessity with a spirit of, “Hey, what if we try this?”

The results are not always beautiful, but they’re usually functional. If not, there is always a tarp.

North Haven, Photographed by Greta Rybus

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