Architecture & Design

They Called the Owner of this Fixer Upper ``Don Quixote``

In a TV-worthy whirlwind, an architect couple transforms a 19th-century Bar Harbor Masonic hall into a pair of inventive living spaces.

Mason House, one of two units carved out of an 1887 former Masonic hall in Bar Harbor

ABOVE In the Mason House, one of two units carved out of an 1887 former Masonic hall in Bar Harbor, a chartreuse Anthropologie daybed flanked with curvaceous, rose-colored chairs creates a cozy “room” within the larger ballroom turned living area.

TEXT BY SARA ANNE DONNELLY
PHOTOGRAPHED BY MICHAEL D. WILSON

It was almost midnight and Augusto and Kay Rosa were exhausted to the point of delirium. For hours, they’d been painting the 15-foot-tall dining room in the Mason House, one of two apartments they were carving out of a cavernous 1887 former school and Masonic lodge on a tree-lined street in downtown Bar Harbor. Augusto had been at the property since 6 a.m. and Kay had arrived after working at their firm, A4 Architects. “We’d started to get a little slaphappy and were laughing about how the crew joked that we were crazy to take on this project,” Kay says. “They called Augusto ‘Don Quixote.’” Impulsively, Augusto climbed his ladder and, in the spotlight of an incandescent lamp, painted Don Quixote facing down the iconic windmill on the wall. “We are Don Quixote!” he declared, and Kay lifted a brush in assent.

From the beginning, the Rosas knew they might be tilting at a windmill. For more than 20 years, they’d lived across the street from the 7,500-square-foot building whose first floor hosted the odd community karate or yoga class and whose second story was home to the mysterious local order of Masons. “Nobody had been upstairs because it was secret,” Kay says. When the Masons suddenly put the property up for sale in 2016, Augusto saw potential, with a hefty dose of necessity. “I was afraid someone would buy this huge building and divide it up into a bunch of apartments and we have a very quiet residential street,” he says. “I said, ‘why don’t we use it for two nice big rentals?’”

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ABOVE A West Elm sofa begs for repose in the Mason House’s living room, which owners Kay and Augusto Rosa also outfitted with a wallpaper mural from England’s Modern Love and the Masons’ grand piano. In an Emerson House bedroom, sky-blue tufted headboards and red-plaid Ikea bedding pack a complementary punch.

That noble idea turned out to be “the most extreme undertaking we’ve ever put ourselves through,” Kay says. The lodge was dark and sepulchral inside, not least because the Masons had removed almost all of the windows. There were no full baths, bedrooms, or livable spaces, and basics like the heating and electrical systems and insulation needed replacing. What’s more, Kay’s brother had asked to have his wedding there, which meant the overhaul would have to wrap in five months. The Rosas rallied their go-to contractors and stayed late every night; neighbors pitched in when they could. And quickly, insistently, the renovation took shape.

The first floor, dubbed Emerson House, was divided into a five-bedroom unit that makes use of original fir wainscoting and beadboard paneling to elegantly shrink the space, along with rugs, walls, and furniture in dark, saturated hues and layers of eclectic décor and textiles. The Mason House, with its soaring cove ceilings and French-plaster wall panels and, post-reno, four bedrooms, ballroom turned living room (with a disco ball), and oversize windows fitted into original casings, was largely whitewashed for an airy, modern look. Low-slung furniture, extra-long pendant lamps, and a living room mural comprised of wallpaper divided into three framed panels play up the drama.

The day before the wedding, the family, including Kay’s brother and his fiancée, were frantically laying runners and hanging curtains. The bride’s father, Kay says, “was a little horrified.” But Don Quixote, never one to eschew a challenge, would have been proud. “There was laughter, there was crying, there was drama, there was everything,” Augusto recalls. “It would have made a great television show.”

ABOVE 1) Owners Kay and Augusto Rosa standing at the building’s entrance. 2) Scion wallpaper juxtaposes with thrift-store art in the unit’s den.

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4 Comments

  1. Mary Yarumian

    I’m curious if the owners ever considered renovating the space and offering it as year-round housing for locals instead of high priced seasonal weekly rentals?

    • Kay

      Excellent question. Yes, all possibilities were considered in detail. There are many factors that make affordable housing an impossibility, starting with the high purchase price of the unimproved property, the need to replace all systems (electrical, heat and windows alone cost several hundred thousand), and the high price of renovation. By code, more than two units trigger a more complex and expensive construction with fire separations, additional stairwells, and a lengthy and costly permitting process (time not available). Four units would be the maximum allowed under the land use ordinance, (and only three with the required parking) resulting in rents in excess of two thousand a month just to cover the mortgage. Since the building was never housing before, it actually adds housing, which, while certainly not affordable, it does help a numerous local family afford to stay in Bar Harbor.

  2. Mimi Steadman

    Instead of several smaller, more affordable apartments that might have been within the reach of people who work and live in Bar Harbor, they made two fancy, expensive dwellings for people from away. “Noble idea”?

  3. DeeDee Hargrove

    After all the hard work they personally put into this project, it seems to me they should be applauded for doing the beautiful refurbishing and not have their choice of use snidely questioned. Just a thought.

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