For the living room walls, Erik Mercer and Sandro Sechi chose a shade similar to the “safety orange” seen on construction sites. A painting by Damon Farkas hangs over the leather chair.
By Sarah Anne Donnelly
Photographs by Erin Little
Portland transplants add a thrilling new chapter to their historic home.
It had been on the market for a year, this 1867 Italianate townhouse with a screwy central narrative — a clawfoot tub dead center of the master bath, an upstairs hallway stretching nearly a city block, a powder room (and accompanying wastebasket) bedazzled with disco-era wallpaper shiny as a Mylar balloon. What could you do with a place so strange?
Gut it, thought one potential buyer, but then that sale fell through. So the house on the cemetery end of Portland’s Spring Street sat and waited.
“I’d seen it online,” Erik Mercer says. “But the real estate agent didn’t even want to show it to us. Two agents, actually. The word they used is ‘oddball’ and I was like, ‘exactly!’ When we walked in here it was like, ‘God, I love this place so much!’”
In the hallway, painting by Cape Elizabeth’s Lynda Litchfield crowns a Tetris-like console table; The family on their front stoop; Multiple owners recognized the powder room’s wallpaper as too fabulous to change; Brittle floorboards became wainscotting in the guest suite.
Seven years ago, Mercer and his husband, writer and teacher Sandro Sechi, were living in a “blank slate” Brooklyn loft that was too small and sterile-white for a family with a toddler and a second child on the way. City houses were out of their price range, so the couple looked to southern Maine, where Mercer’s parents live. “We realized we could sell an apartment in a crappy neighborhood in New York and buy a mansion in Portland,” Mercer says of the West End five-bedroom they share with their kids, Rachel, now 8, and Eli, 6.
"We are interested in people's stories and we wanted our house to be a story also."
Here, stories drive their aesthetic. “Both Sandro and I are really interested in people’s stories, and we wanted our house to be a story also,” says Mercer, a social worker who travels the country giving accounts of defendants’ backgrounds to courts considering the death penalty.
Some of the plotlines were baked in: Under the floorboards in the attic bedroom, for example, the couple discovered a packet of 1881 love letters bound in twine onto which a bottle depicting a skull and crossbones had been tied. “It’s hard not to go Romeo and Juliet about that,” Mercer says.
The living room’s custom graffiti reads “Piccolina” — Italian for “Little One,” the couple’s nickname for their daughter.
Other narratives they created. Walk around the house and you’ll see it switches genres from room to room. There’s romance in the Baroque-inspired dining room with its scrolled, black Murano-glass chandelier and gold wainscotting topped with burgundy damask wallpaper; adventure in the neon-orange living room, where a scrambled painting by Portland graffiti artist Mike Breece hangs above the marble fireplace; and comedy in a lime-green stairwell punctuated with fence pickets dipped in fluorescent paint by Maine College of Art graduates.
The clash of classical and contemporary lends a sense of anticipation, a profluence like you find in a page-turner. Acting as a throughline is the couple’s art collection, in which gallery and auction finds hang alongside work by students, friends, and former clients of Mercer’s. Well-worn furnishings in rich honey and dark-chocolate shades, picked up at thrift stores and flea markets over the years, allow the art and boldly colored walls to do most of the talking. “It’s more genuine,” says Sechi, of the pair’s method of slowly accumulating treasured pieces versus furnishing the house in one fell swoop from a showroom or catalog.
The kitchen’s exclamation point: a pendant suspended from vivid-orange cords; Driftwood found on Scarborough Beach pops against steel-gray walls in the master bedroom.
Like all good storytellers, the couple is continually fine-tuning their narrative. This fall, Mercer plans to paint all the interior trim black. Sechi’s thinking about wallpapering the foyer ceiling. “I’ve never lived in a house that I don’t want to leave,” says Mercer, who over two decades in New York lived in seven places. “Usually when I move somewhere, I’ll be online looking at real estate — ‘where could we go next?’ Now, we talk about how if we won the lottery we wouldn’t go anywhere. We’d just make this place even more awesome.”