TEXT BY PETRA GUGLIELMETTI
PHOTOGRAPHED BY ERIN LITTLE
Beyond the creaky farmhouse charms and sweeping views of Cape Elizabeth’s Spurwink Marsh, it was the light that made Christina Watka fall in love with her 1790 home. An artist known for large-scale wall compositions of hand-sculpted stoneware forms and hanging sculptures of mica and brass that manipulate ambient light, she recognized the singular glow in this swath of town, where farmland edges toward wetland under radiant coastal skies. She and her husband, Andrew Halchak, also saw a peaceful spot to raise their four-year-old son, Jack, who’s since been joined by one-year-old twins, Sunny and Lucy. They’d been renting in Tarrytown, New York, where Halchak, a jazz musician, signed on as a volunteer firefighter. He enjoyed the work so much he decided to make a career of it. Around the time an opening came up with the Portland Fire Department in 2019, the house went on the market.
The listing lingered for a bit, likely thanks to a giant attached barn that was visibly buckling. But the couple was up for a challenge. “Since this is our first house, and we’re both creative types, it was really appealing to find a place where we could eventually smash a wall or make some big changes,” Watka says. Older locals know the Cape as “the Leighton farmhouse,” referring to one of its more recent past lives as a horse and vegetable farm in the 1970s. A neighbor gave Halchak photos from this time period, which he studied like history texts, identifying oaks that still stand, a feed shed that’s now just rubble with a roof, and a horse named Rusty, whose painted name plaque he unearthed in the garage.
ABOVE 1) In Christina Watka and Andrew Halchak’s Cape Elizabeth dining room, Behr’s Midnight In NY backdrops prints by Halchak’s mom, Mary Curran, and a vintage hutch from Portland Flea-for-All. 2) Twins Sunny and Lucy joined Jack and pup Boomer shortly after the family moved in. 3) This summer, the couple took turns on a ladder, installing new cedar shingles and clapboards on their 18th-century Cape and painting them a custom color that “looks like foggy, salty air, ” Watka says. 4) A hanging mica sculpture and botanical painting by Watka bookend framed works by Zoe Dieffenbach in the dining room. 5) A living room corner features a geranium propagated by Halchak’s mom, art by Tom Bingham, and a wire chair purchased in New York. 6) In Jack’s room, a color sketch by Watka, framed Mexican playing cards, and his own art crown Halchak’s childhood bureau. 7) An asparagus fern, an avocado plant, a vintage print from Paris, and a pottery sculpture by Watka form a botanical quartet in the primary bath. 8) A grandma-made tent pairs with curtains stitched from leafy IKEA fabric in Jack’s room.
After shoring up the home’s foundation and putting on a new roof, the couple hired Gardiner’s Barn Boards and More to disassemble the barn, piece by piece, salvaging whatever material they could over the course of six months. Much of it will be used for a new timber-frame barn, sketched out by Andrew’s architect dad, that will include a spacious studio for Watka, a music room, and an office.
While they’ll hire a builder to construct the barn, the couple tackles most home projects on their own (often while wearing the twins). They’ve painted dark-green accent walls in the living and dining rooms, resided the exterior, and regularly patch holes excavated by wasps and mice. Halchak’s long work shifts, followed by long stretches of time off, have allowed him time to fit wooden bookshelves into angled walls in the upstairs library and demo an attached garage. And firefighting has informed old-homeownership in unexpected ways: he gets to examine the innards of burned-out structures, and analyzes the layouts of local historic buildings he may one day rush into. But mostly, “how I’ve gotten everything done is by asking an inordinate amount of stupid questions of very patient people,” says Halchak, who corresponded with dry-stonewalling experts in England to get tips on repurposing fieldstone from the barn foundation into stone walls and had a handy coworker show him how to install a dishwasher.
ABOVE 1) The first thing the couple did was install shelves — these are made from wood salvaged from the barn — in the second-floor library to hold 17 moving boxes worth of books. 2) In the living room, a Kristin Texeira painting hangs above a West Elm sectional. 3) The kitchen brims with nostalgic details, like an iron beehive oven bearing the name of a Portland foundry that burned down in 1866 and mini built-ins lined with dozens of mugs, many by family members and friends. 4) In the primary bedroom, a CB2 sconce reiterates the shapes in a favorite poster from the Brimfield flea market. 5) A barn door opens to a primary bath that was already updated and bright. “I start my dahlias there in early spring because it gets the best light,” Watka says.
Inside, the home’s old soul harmonizes with the passions of its modern-day inhabitants. Amidst storybook slanted eaves, mismatched wood floors, exposed beams, and quirky built-ins, the couple has layered antiques with bargain home goods and intriguing compositions of original art by Watka, her art-school friends, Halchak’s mom and sister, and, recently, Jack. Two weeks before our photo shoot, he took crayons to all of his bedroom walls, which inspired the couple to coat one of them in chalkboard paint in his favorite tomato shade. Now covered in his shapely renderings of robots and rainbows, “it might be our best house project so far,” Watka says.