Heart and Science: A Researcher’s Eccentric Handed-Down Home Off the Coast of Maine
So many details in Nadia Rosenthal’s dark, grand 1800s house on a craggy island off the Maine coast are not what you might expect. There’s a pine sapling planted in the dark wood newel post. When I asked about a stack of bright, geometric-patterned plates, Nadia wrote back: “I designed them for my textbook on heart development. Each depicts a different stage in the life of a heart.”
Nadia, a professor and world-renowned researcher who studies the role of genetic variation in cardiovascular and skeletal tissue repair, is the scientific director of the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, where her husband, Alan, works as well. But here on remote Sutton Island off the coast, their classic Maine home is full of moments of whimsy—and plenty of the unexpected.
Nadia’s parents, both musicians, first found the house in the 1950s when they were looking for a summer retreat; Nadia was two, and her father had been discharged from the Air Force and was headed for a career on Broadway and writing Hollywood film scores. They rented the island house, called Windemere, at first, then bought it, along with 10 acres of waterfront land, for $14,500. “In 1960 that was a lofty sum for two artists,” Nadia says. “My father had to write three film scores to pay off friends and family who lent us the money.”
The house itself, shingled and surrounded by dense pine and birch forest and the Atlantic beyond, is a “grand Rusticator summer cottage,” Nadia says, referring to the first artists, creatives, and well-to-do-families who ventured northward to this stretch of Maine in the 1800s for wild summer retreat. “The house was built in 1889 by Emma and William Burnham from Philadelphia,” Nadia says. “I have photographs of them with lovely hats on their steam launch, Iduna. We are the fourth owners, but by now we hold the longest tenure.” Though the house is uninsulated, the original fireplaces heat the house enough to live in through the cold fall and winter months.
Though the dark, grand Maine house has changed very little since the 1890s, Nadia and Alan have filled it with color and eclectic detail. “In contrast to most Maine summer house decor, all white and blue, Windemere’s interiors are brooding, cypress wood floors walls and ceilings, demanding a different decorative palette,” Nadia says. She follows her parents’ “lassaiz-faire” approach: “My mother was fearless with color and pattern and quite bold in her style, which was marvelous.”
The house will someday be inherited by Nadia’s nieces, Hannah and Clara. “The whole family—including my father, who is 96—will be convening this June to see Clara married on the lawn,” Nadia says. It’s a true family home, preserved through generations. “With very few exceptions, I have spent a portion of very summer of my life here,” says Nadia. It’s home. I open the door and the wooden smell of the house is Proustian.”
Join us for a visit.
Photography by Greta Rybus.
The two pianos remain. “They are the Grand Dames of the house, 1864 and 1875,” Nadia says. “They have distinctive personalities. One is good for Bach and the other for Brahms.”
The portrait on the far right is of Emma, “the original lady of the house,” Nadia says. “She looks stern, but according to her great granddaughter, she was a prankster and regularly hid her husband’s toothbrush.” Emma’s great-grandchildren gave Nadia the portrait to return it to its original home.
Nadia and Alan have added their own finds to the house’s inherited furnishings. “I am an avid antique carpet collector and have added judiciously,” Nadia says. “My work as a scientist takes me all over the world, so some bedrooms are decked out with wedding carpets from the Istanbul souk, others from Welsh country homes, still others from collectors that I happened upon by chance in Utah. I am known for tight-folding carpets into large suitcases and trekking them halfway around the world.”
N.B. We’re featuring Maine homes, destinations, and design details all week to celebrate the release of our new book, Remodelista in Maine. For more favorites, see: