Home Tour: Behind The Restoration Of A Chinese-Inspired Retreat In New England
Perched on Western Bay in the US state of Maine, the northernmost part of New England, this 200-acre estate has a fascinating past.
The sprawling property was previously home to the late American philanthropist and society darling Brooke Astor, of the prominent Astor family. In the 1960s, she commissioned the late American architect and landscape designer Robert Patterson to build a variety of structures that were heavily inspired by Chinese architecture. Making use of the estate as a retreat, she named it August Moon.
Astor passed away back in 2007 at age 105, and August Moon now belongs to a New York couple—though her spirit has lived on in the design of the property.
While there are a number of theories behind Astor’s naming of the estate, the truth remains a “mystery,” says Peter Pelsinski, co-founding principal at Span Architecture, which was commissioned by the current owners to carry out major restoration and construction work at August Moon. With the Chinese-style aesthetic she left behind, though, it’s not difficult to gauge what she may have been inspired by. “Our guess is that it reflects Ms. Astor’s fascination with Chinese culture, and from her travels throughout Asia as a child.”
The owners asked Pelsinski and his co-principal Karen Stonely to restore the Chinese-style tea pavilion and cottage from the Astor era. They also wanted the architects to build a 5,750 sq ft, six-bedroom, six-bathroom family home, as well as an additional one-bedroom guest house.
The process took 15 years. With their clients wanting to retain as many of the original features as possible, Pelsinski and Stonely extensively researched both Patterson and Astor’s backgrounds.
“[We were] inspired by Patterson’s love of nature and conservation, as well as Ms Astor’s fascination with the natural world,” explains Stonely. She and Pelsinski also strived to “have the architecture befit the landscape in which it is placed,” she adds.
Astor's tea pavilion, nestled in the forest, was “largely destroyed,” says Pelsinski. The architects restored it to as close to the original design as possible. Its design echoes architecture in ancient China, with ornamental stonework in the glass windows as well as upturned eaves and a pointed roof.
The features at the top of the structure also serve a practical purpose, explains Pelsinski: they are good for rainwater drainage and the reduction of snow load.
The facade of the Chinese-inspired cottage. Credit: Rob Karosis
The cottage is surrounded by a pool and has all-encompassing views of the New England coast. Credit: Rob Karosis
Water features are an important element in classic Chinese garden architecture. Credit: Rob Karosis
Meanwhile, the cottage—which was originally surrounded by a moat and gardens—was also badly in need of repair. While reviewing documents at the local historical society, the architects discovered that Patterson’s original visions of this structure “were not fully realised.” For example, the existing windows and doors didn’t match the blueprints that Patterson drew. “The windows would have simply been too large to construct with the technology available at the time,” explains Stonely.
The duo put in place Patterson’s original window designs. Meanwhile, wood from the Douglas fir pine was used to restore the wooden elements. The cottage’s conical wooden roof—one of its most unique features—was given new life with an internal lighting system, built to “create an impactful glow.”
A living room, bedroom and utility space were also created, transforming the crumbling cottage into a pool house that can accommodate guests. The moat is now a saltwater swimming pool.
The main house pays homage to the original architect’s designs, which Pelsinski and Stonely married with their own vision. “Patterson’s designs stemmed from Chinese influences and craftsman-inspired detailing,” explains Pelsinski. “We ensured that our interiors complemented his while also venturing into an even more modern realm and some vintage pieces.”
The house has a zinc-coated copper roof and is built with natural materials including Douglas fir, cedar, and stone from the local quarry Patterson once sourced from. On the top floor is the master suite, which is designed to look like a “glass treehouse” and gives a feeling of “sleeping within the canopy of the forest.”
Downstairs, the living and dining space is covered by a grand, expansive ceiling, inspired by those inside cathedrals. The standout feature, however, is the entertaining space. Located underground, it is hidden from sight: a green lawn outside the living and dining area is the “roof” of the subterranean space. It boasts private access to the paths that lead to the coastline.
Inside the family home, the architects sourced antique pieces, such as a vintage brass mirror featuring backlit etched patterns of local pine boughs. The chandelier in the dining room, by David Weisman, “reinterprets site-specific leaves, branches and the client’s favorite flowers in cast-metal and porcelain.”
A sofa came from Patrick Naggar, an antique chair was sourced from George Nakashima Woodworkers, and a repulholstered Alvar Aalto lounge chair came from New York-based mid-century furniture specialist Wyeth. There are one-of-a-kind pieces too: the steel handrail is made of perforations cataloging the “phases of the August Moon.” A coffee table with Chinese-inspired joinery was custom-made by Rick Bradbury, a Maine-based designer who also created other pieces for the home including the master suite's headboard, side tables, and wardrobes.
They also decorated the space with maps, books, and pen and ink drawings of the natural phenomena of Mount Desert Island, the area in which August Moon is located adding “a sense of place and authenticity,” says Stonely.
Elsewhere on the estate, Pelsinski and Stonely built a moongate. Seen in classic Chinese garden architecture, moongates act as a passageway through walls. Pelsinski and Stonely’s take on the design is made with Corten steel, which they describe as “a starkly modern adaptation of a traditional Chinese design.”
“The property is a celebration of natural beauty and conservation,” reflects Pelsinski. “August Moon is the very best example of how we can bring the outside in and how nature should inspire design.”