Design New England

York Decorator Show House, Where Past Meets Present

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Harbor Lights, built in 1906, is the setting for this year’s Museums of Old York Decorator Show House. The house is open daily except Tuesdays, through August 16. Tickets, $25, and shuttle are at the Parsons Center, 3 Lindsay Road, York ME; (photo: courtesy of Museums of Old York)

By Gail Ravgiala

The Museums of Old York is celebrating its 25th consecutive year of staging a decorator show house to benefit the organization, which maintains and opens to the public a number of historic properties in York, one of coastal Maine’s prettiest and historically significant towns. The anniversary earns applause. Managing a single show house, let alone 25, is a daunting feat, especially when the undertaking is largely a volunteer effort. Many an enthusiastic nonprofit has taken on the task with varying degrees of success, but few repeat it with any regularity (the venerable Kips Bay Show House in New York is a noteworthy exception).


What has most impressed us about the York effort is its consistent ability to find suitable houses in which to hold the event. The lack of appropriate venues has been the undoing of even the most devoted show house organizers, but the York team always comes up with a house that is both large enough for a dozen or more designers to transform a space and has owners willing to relinquish the property for weeks of preparation and a month of public viewing at the height of the tourist season. To top it off, most of the properties have been charming and idyllically located.


A vintage view of Harbor Lights atop a gentle bluff that faces York Harbor. (photo: courtesy of Museums of Old York)
This year, a 1906 Dutch Colonial style house on a bluff overlooking the York River with views of woodlands and the harbor fills the bill. Built by New Hampshire Governor Frank W. Rollins as a summer cottage, it is not a grand house, though it is a well-considered structure, built with every modern amenity of its day (central heat, plumbing, electric lighting). As a vacation retreat, it clearly calls for leaving formality at the office as its comfortable rooms, which don’t try to impress with size or elaborate ornamentation, say welcome. Originally set on 17 bucolic acres, it is in a part of town that to this day retains its rural sensibilities.


(photo: courtesy of Museums of Old York)

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(photo: Scott Dorrance) Interior designer Meredith Bohn of Hollis, New Hampshire, took some cues from the historic decor of the living room at Harbor House (top photo), but used a mix of antique pieces and contemporary furnishings to give the room (above) a refreshed look.
Named Harbor Lights, the house has been owned by only three families. It changed hands in 1920 and again in 1955, when the late Charles and Rachel Grieg purchased it and lived in it year-round with their children, who lent it to the Museums of Old York for use as the show house.
The designers who took on the job of reawakening 19 interior and exterior spaces all seem to have picked up on the house’s joyful, though low-key vibe. The rooms are serene, but not exactly quiet. It’s easy to imagine a sunset party spilling out from the first-floor’s enclosed porch, living room, dining room, and kitchen onto the back terrace where sea breezes waft up from the water. Upstairs, bedrooms are tailored but not uptight or overwrought. And a cozy porch shaded by tall trees invites quiet conversation after a long day in the sun. The house is a reminder of time gone by, but also speaks to a very current lifestyle as towns like York continue to be places of fond summer memories in the making.


(photo: courtesy of Museums of Old York)

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(photo: Scott Dorrance) The same Dutch Baroque chandelier hangs above the table in both the original dining room and in interior design Frank Hodge’s show house update. The Boston designer chose a palette of warm oranges and soft blues that has year-round appeal.
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