From Seedy Hangout to Family-Friendly Retreat
On a Windham pond, a party spot becomes the stuff of childhood fantasies.
ABOVE Maggie Birlem and Noelle Deluca’s kids, Nora and Wallace, stand near the mucky spot where the family unearthed a set of granite steps that now descend from the grass into the pond.
TEXT BY JESSE ELLISON
PHOTOGRAPHED BY MYRIAM BABIN
To see Maggie Birlem and Noelle Deluca’s camp on Windham’s Little Duck Pond, with its tidy whitewashed buildings, colorful children’s obstacle course, and cedar-barrel sauna, it’s difficult to believe it was once “the party spot of Windham.” Abandoned for 25 years when the couple first visited, the property was strewn with beer cans, cigarette butts, and bent silverware, and featured a pair of collapsing buildings and a dock that was similarly sinking into the pond. “It was a crazy spot,” Birlem says. “But it was also magical.”
Just 17 miles from their Cape Elizabeth home, the main camp sits roughly 45 feet from the pond, which the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife describes as shallow, “with crystal-clear water” and a sparsely developed shoreline that belies its populous location and conjures “a remote trout pond.” The couple’s daughter, Nora, was only six months old when they found the place, but Birlem had once owned a design-build construction company and they were up for a challenge. They bought the property in 2013 and planned to do one or two big projects a year.
ABOVE 1) The couple’s Windham screened porch features a wicker loveseat from Birlem’s family’s Boothbay cottage. 2) Nora and Wallace like to hide out in the guesthouse. 3) In the primary bedroom, when you’re lying in the bed, “it looks like you’re floating in the water,” Birlem says. “You can’t see any ground at all.” The duvet cover and curtain fabric are from IKEA. 4) IKEA pendants with brass-colored interiors pick up the tangerine in the kitchen cabinets, which, like the living room’s coffee table, are also from IKEA. An armchair from Birlem’s grandparents’ house sports lawn-chair cushions.
The first summer, Birlem and some friends built a guesthouse the couple calls the Artist’s Studio using rough-cut lumber from a mill in Gray. That fall, they rebuilt the rotted-out main camp. The following year, they brought in power — no small feat, as it required a series of easements and the installation of utility poles. In the spring of 2016, Birlem gave birth to the couple’s son, Wallace. A few months later, the camp was moved to a new foundation and Birlem was back at it, framing out an addition that houses a first-floor bedroom and bath for the couple and a loft above with a crimson sectional for family movie watching.
Eighteen-foot-tall ceilings, pearly woodwork, plentiful windows — some from Birlem’s family’s Veazie dairy farm — on interior and exterior walls, and glass doors, unearthed on Craigslist and at the Cape Elizabeth recycling center, create a feeling of expansiveness in the 1,000-square-foot space. Whimsical touches, meantime, such as a hobbit-size door connecting the children’s bedrooms, tomato-colored melamine IKEA kitchen cabinets wrapped in local pine, patterned curtains and carpets, and vibrant nature- and nautical-themed thrift-store art, keep things cozy. “I wanted a place that felt comfortable and fun, not precious,” Birlem says. “I don’t want to care if something gets broken.”
ABOVE 1) A Craigslist rug, surfboard-shaped coffee table, and thrift-store art give the living room a nautical point of view; the sofa is from Wayfair and Birlem found the lampshade at the Cape Elizabeth Swap Shop. 2) In the primary bedroom, Audubon prints from a former neighbor hang next to the ladder to the loft, built by Birlem’s father. 3) Birlem’s dad also built the guesthouse ladder, and painted the flag in the corner; rope provides an economical railing in the loft. 4) Wallace’s room, with a hand-me-down bed and IKEA-fabric curtains, is tucked into a former entryway.
For Nora, 8, and Wallace, 5, the real fun happens outside, in the pond and on the elaborate obstacle course Deluca assembled with parts from an old McDonald’s playset found on Craigslist. Comprising a zip line, rock-climbing wall, tunnels, three slides, swings, and monkey bars suspended from the trees, the apparatus “took her the same amount of time to build as it took me to build the entire add-on to the camp,” Birlem says with a laugh.
The only thing the place is missing? Wi-Fi, which is unavailable on the pond. “It makes people lose their minds,” Birlem says, “but I love it.” The family spends weekends at the camp from April through October, often hosting friends. “I love being in the loft and looking down at the kitchen when there’s a bunch of people there,” Birlem says. “That was my dream, to have a revolving door of friends and kids and families. It’s so much fun.”
ABOVE A decade ago, Birlem purchased the living room’s French doors for $10 apiece on Craigslist, figuring she’d eventually find a place for them. Fanciful IKEA-fabric curtains provide privacy at night. On the screened porch, a wooden table expands to seat 12.