By Meadow Rue Merrill
Photographs by Meredith Perdue
What’s more invigorating than a shvitz in a backyard sauna? How about sweating it out between an icy dip in Casco Bay and a roll in the snow? “Oh, it’s sensational!” insists Genell Huston, who, with her husband, Saer, regularly drives a half-mile from her South Portland home to Willard Beach for what sauna devotees call a “cold plunge.” The pair bought and renovated their 1920s bungalow seven years ago, and Saer assembled the electric-powered, cedar-barrel sauna from a kit in 2017. Like the rest of the house, it’s a blend of rusticity and fun that makes the whole family happy.
In the office off the kitchen, a 6-by-9-foot National Geographic map provides a useful reference when listening to the news, discussing far-flung family members, and planning the next family trip. “Travel is such a big part of what we do,” says Saer, who co-owns Huston & Company, a custom furniture business in Kennebunkport. Each year, the clan vacations in Costa Rica, where Genell — owner of Portland’s Lila East End Yoga — also leads a yoga retreat. Adhering the map to the wall involved cutting out Tonga and fitting it over a light switch. The carved wooden bench, from Portland’s Asia West, hides gloves and hats.
One side of the living room serves as a hangout for Riley and Keller. The wall-mounted shelves are repurposed storage benches, rescued from the basement of Saer’s mother, and the rug, by artist Sara Schneidman, doubles as a mini-roadway. Upstairs, the couple carved out two bedrooms in what had been an open space. Saer installed ash trim — shown in the boys’ room — combining various stains until he achieved an umber that matches the home’s original pine woodwork. Flax-colored walls and a new French door leading to the hallway lend an airy look.
What really made the couple fall in love with the bungalow? “It was the porch,” Genell admits. She and Saer spotted it while on a bike ride, perusing the neighborhood for possible houses to raise a family in, and saw in the columned structure a place for “conversations and connections to friends, neighbors, and fresh air.” With small rooms, narrow hallways, and dated green linoleum and worn carpeting on the floors, the house needed some major remodeling, which included tearing down walls, gutting the kitchen, and adding a 30-foot-long dormer in the attic they turned into a master bedroom and bath. The Hustons did the majority of the work themselves, with a little help from family and friends.
Saer’s woodworking skills came in handy in the kitchen, where he designed, built, and installed whitewashed ash upper cabinets with sliding doors and cherry lower cabinets topped with matching countertops. A curved cherry backsplash sheds water and gives the space “a skateboard vibe,” he says. The cherry components are finished with oil and wax. While the first few scratches stand out, once a patina builds up, “the harder the kids treat it, the better the cabinets look,” Saer says. A birch-tree rug by Portland’s Angela Adams, bought at the company’s annual sale, grounds the dining room, which also features a 7-foot-long cherry drop-leaf table Saer crafted. Off-white walls and newly laid maple and oak floors create harmony throughout the house.
An oil painting of a granite slab on Mount Desert Island, where the couple met, presides over the living room, its lightly stained mahogany frame mimicking one of the home’s windows. Saer created the work while a student at Bar Harbor’s College of the Atlantic. The room gets an earthy vibe from the warm leather and wood furnishings — including a cherry coffee table designed and built by Saer’s father, Bill, who founded the furniture company and helped renovate the house — and a concrete-and-cinder-block side table that Saer made. Out of view is a television, which doesn’t get much use in the evenings. “We put our kids down and take a sauna,” Genell says.
Pre-kids, the Hustons removed all the walls on the second floor and used the entire space as a master bedroom. But with a downstairs tenant, they needed privacy, so Saer MacGyvered a door — using cables, pulleys, and the house’s original window weights — to close off the stairwell. Blue-and-white canvas panels, draped over the railings, give the enclosure a nautical feel, reminiscent of unfurled sails. The tenant has since moved out, but the playful apparatus, like the family, is here to stay.