Every week, our House Calls feature takes you into homes with great style, big personality, and ineffable soul. Today, we visit the Portland, Maine home of Rich Robinov. When the entrepreneur saw the home for the first time, it was a mere suggestion. Working with a design team, he made it a reality. His main directive: "Be as creative as you want, just put love into it."
Real estate developer Tom Landry, of CornerStone Building & Restoration, and architectural designer Brewster Buttfield, of Prospect Design, have collaborated on many projects, but when it came time to design a home for lot with a view on Portland’s storied Munjoy Hill, they decided to do something a bit different. "We’ve built things for other people, now let’s design something we’d like to live in ourselves," Landry suggested.
"This was an older, run-down property that stretched from one end of the lot to the other. The neighborhood was once a bit gritty and industrial, but it had become a very desirable neighborhood. It’s a very idiosyncratic place, and much of the architecture follows that," explains Buttfield. "Our idea was to shrink the new building’s footprint to create some green space, and to make it taller to gain views."
The two came up with a four-story, modernist home that captures views of the water. They printed out renderings of their vision and attached it to the decrepit building that stood on the lot. The saying has it that "if you build it, they will come." But in this case, no one did—at first. Then Robinov went by and it clicked with him. He wanted to build it, and purchased the property and the rough design.
"I loved the design and I could see the potential of what could be here," says Robinov. "I’ve lived in Portland all of my life, and I had owned a condo around the corner from this place. I like the vibe of the community; its walkability, its family-owned restaurants, the local restaurants, and the proximity to the water. People have started to ‘discover’ Munjoy Hill in the last few years, and a lot of buildings are being converted or remodeled. I wanted to live here and felt fortunate when I found this place."
To seal the deal, the developer even rented a cherry picker to hoist Robinov up in the air to see the views he would have if he bought into the idea. Forty-five feet up in the air, he looked over the views of Casco Bay that would someday be his. The only thing left to do was flesh out the design and build the place.
City zoning restrictions limited them to a gabled roof on the front, and Buttfield designed a modified Dutch gable based, in part, on a recent trip to Amsterdam. But behind the pitched roof are two view decks, one higher and one lower. An elevator takes visitors all the way to the lower deck.
"To be honest, I really didn’t want an elevator," says Robinov. "I’ve run 27 marathons, and I don’t need help getting up and down the stairs. But the team convinced me that a four-story home needed one to hold value. The first thing I said after I agreed to it was, if I’m going to have an elevator, then I want it to have a really amazing bar in it."
Robinov isn’t sure where the thought came from, but it led to what may be the only fully-stocked elevator bar in a private home, designed by Matt Hutton of Studio24b.
"It’s a very fun thing. Part of the bar detaches and rolls out onto the lower deck," says Buttfield. "But it’s not a particularly fast elevator, so I’m sure if you want to have a drink on the way up, you can."
That’s just one example of design that Buttfield calls "shaking it up a bit." As stated, the tremors begin on the exterior, where lap siding and the peaked roofline speak to the older structures in the neighborhood, but the scale what the architect calls the "flood line" (the vertical planks that run the length of the first story of the house) is a modern, exaggerated take on a classic form. "That, and the dark color and metal windows, are our modern statements on the outside," says Buttfield.
The landscape design, engineered by Soren DeNiord at Soren DeNiord Design Studio, is also a contemporary statement. "The site's exterior design was conceptualized as a series of flexible spaces. For example, the narrow side yard is a driveway that doubles as a place for entertaining. We used refined cut stone pavers (from native granite) on the ground plane so the space reads primarily as an elegant court that also performs for parking," says DeNiord. "In the back, we arranged locally harvested boulders to create a composed meditation garden and routed one of the stones to feature a fire pit for night use. The perimeter privacy fence is made from horizontal cedar boards with linear gaps in it. It is back lit with LED fixtures, to illuminate the yard like a lantern."
Inside, the home turns more modern but the references to regionality continue. Buttfield worked to create a modern background that would fade away somewhat. "The layout is well thought out, designed to feel open and airy rather than tall and narrow. We combined rooms in an open plan, and we moved the stairs to the side to accomplish that," he says. "The interior is designed to disappear and let Rich’s possessions shine. He is a very interesting person, and he’s got quite a collection."
That collection includes modern portraits of music legends ranging from Ray Charles to Bob Marley and more furniture by Hutton and Charlie Hewitt (a woodworker who created the curvaceous headboards in the bedrooms and the dramatic sculpture on the deck). "Almost every stick of furniture is made by these two men," Robinov says. "I am thankful and fortunate to have the work of these making talents in my home."
Robinov asked the design team to flesh out the concept of the house as drawn. However, when it came to interior fixtures and finishes he had two influences: Portland and Asia. The first because he’s a native and a dyed-in-the-wool fan of his hometown, and regional details include granite that evokes the coast of Maine with its streaks of green reminiscent of lichen or sea foam. He’s never visited Asia, but says: "The simplicity and minimalism of the style appeals to me." Much of the furniture has an eastern attitude.
But his favorite element crowns the home. "The architect thought I was crazy when I said I wanted flagpole on top of the house. But I had the coolest pirate flag and I swore I would fly it if I ever got a home on the water, and this one is close enough," Robinov says. "Since then, I’ve collected all kinds of flags, some funny and some works of art. I do things like raise my Bob Marley flag on his birthday. It’s become a neighborhood thing, and occasionally the neighbors request I fly a certain flag."
The kinship with the neighborhood and wider world is by design. "We wanted this house to be a place for gathering and entertaining," says Buttfield. "I call it social design or design for living." The homeowner took it one step further. "I met with as many subcontractors as I could," he says. "I told them to be as creative as they wanted to be, but to put in as much love in it as they could muster. My goal was for every element and detail to make people feel loved and welcome."