Interior designer Betsy Cole transforms a Gilded-Age Maine “cottage” back to its former glory—and finds a surprising family connection
“When I walked in the front door of this house for the first time, I felt that I’d been here my whole life,” says Betsy Cole of the southern Maine home that she and her husband, Ed, bought ten years ago.
There was a serendipitous reason for that sense of connectedness. It turns out that The Cottage—an ironic appellation for this grand, 5400-square-foot home—had belonged to one of Betsy’s relatives three generations ago.
The couple first discovered The Cottage during a summer vacation in the late 1990s. While giving visitors a driving tour of the southern Maine coast, they came upon the erstwhile York Cliffs area.
“We saw The Cottage and it was for sale,” she recalls. “It was in an acute state of disrepair, but my husband and I thought that maybe we could buy and flip it. The real estate prices in Maine were considerably less than in Connecticut, where we lived at the time,” she adds.
Betsy and Ed certainly had the credentials for a successful flip. For 17 years, she’d been a partner in a well-known interior design firm in New York City, and Ed owned a design and development company.
“But when I walked in and felt like I’d been there … and when I discovered the family connection [from the then-owner], I had to have it. I’d never acted that spontaneously in my life,” she adds, laughing. “And I’ve never regretted it for a minute.”
In the late 1800s, she explains, a consortium of affluent New Yorkers bought a few hundred acres in Cape Neddick they called York Cliffs. “Their intention was to build an exclusive coastal colony to rival Bar Harbor,” Betsy says.
The York Cliffs Improvement Company, as the consortium was known, built 13 large “cottages,” most in the then-popular shingle style. One, called Greystones, was built by Betsy’s great-great-grandfather Kinney. He also built The Cottage in 1894 for one of his sons, who was Betsy’s great-grand uncle. “My family had always summered on the mid-Maine coast so I had an attachment to the area,” she notes. But until she walked into The Cottage, she had no idea of the extent of her family’s connection.
In the ten years since Betsy and Ed moved into The Cottage—it is their year-round residence—they have lovingly restored it to its turn-of-the-century elegance, melding period details with modern-day amenities to create a wonderfully livable home.
But it begs the question: how does someone with Betsy’s credentials, experience and, literally, a world of resources at her disposal, design a home for herself?
“It is difficult,” she admits. “You have this knowledge of the best that’s out there, but you also have a budget. And it’s not a question of what you like; I like almost everything! So it becomes a process of elimination, listening to how the house speaks to you and knowing your own needs. And working with pieces you already own.
“You start by defining your goals,” she continues. “I knew the feeling I wanted to create. I just needed to decide how to get there.”
Betsy sought to create a feeling of harmony, balance and serenity. And she decided to use color to achieve it.
“My design inclination is as a classicist,” she explains. “Part of that definition is avoiding sharp contrasts, creating a harmonic composition that’s soothing.”
That’s one reason why she didn’t use patterned wallpaper in The Cottage. “In a traditional house like this, you typically see rooms wallpapered,” she says. “But I didn’t want the disruption in flow from room to room.”
She opted for paint instead, and her color inspiration came from two sources. “I have a small but decent collection of Hudson River Valley art,” she says, pointing to an oil painting hanging in the living room as an example. “It blends with the view from the house … you see the sapphire blue of the water, the dense greens of the pines, tree trunks of varying browns. Look at the view, look at the painting—it’s a total relationship.”
The second source of inspiration was the outdoors. “To achieve harmony, what I see outside has to hold hands with what I see inside,” Betsy says. “It’s as if there are no walls, no demarcation between inside and out.
“I had to live here a while to figure it out,” she continues, referring to her color selections. “I like multi-pigment paints—they’re more complex [than saturated color]. I custom-mixed every paint color in the house.”
That took time as well (“I thought my husband was going to divorce me!” she jokes.) But her perseverance paid off. “Nine out of ten people who visit our home comment on the color,” she says. And she is happy with the results. “The green in the living room changes with the light, becoming a grayer green on cloudy days,” she comments. “And on a brilliant day, it transforms itself.”
The coppery hue on the library walls is the result of a glaze applied to grasscloth wall-covering, providing a warm counterbalance to the cool green walls in the adjacent living room.
She made some internal structural changes to the home as well. When the Coles bought The Cottage, it had been turned into a two-family residence, so some reconfiguring was necessary to make it a single-family home once again. “But we didn’t change the footprint of the house or add rooms, except for a mudroom,” Betsy says. “We just took back what was originally here.”
The renovation took years and included restoring the original wood floors, replastering the walls and rebuilding porches. Betsy and her husband lived in The Cottage while they restored it. “It was an incredibly impoverished house,” she comments. Not any more.
They transformed three separate bedrooms into an expansive master bedroom suite that includes a sitting room, bedroom, dressing room with walk-in closet, and bath. “In these old houses, every bedroom opened onto the next,” she explains of their decision to reconfigure the master suite. The new layout affords more privacy for the homeowners and their guests.
There are still three additional bedrooms on the second floor, and a space they refer to as the “camp” on the third floor—a rustic, open area with walls and sloped ceiling paneled in the home’s original triple-beadboard.
Back on the first floor, they turned an added-on kitchen back into a library, which was the space’s original purpose. It now features a built-in bar crafted by Ed (in fact, he built the cabinetry throughout the home).
Betsy points out that she uses a lot of mirrors in her interiors. “It’s not about vanity,” she says. “This is a fairly large house, but the individual rooms aren’t all that big. Mirrors extend the boundaries of a space and reflect light in a prismatic, shimmery way.”
The grounds of The Cottage have also flourished during the Coles’ tenure in the home. “There was nothing but trees when we first moved in,” she says. Her husband laid out all the gardens, and she gives credit to Monique Richard of TLC for Your Garden for bringing it all to lush fruition. “She and her all-woman crew take a totally organic approach, and the results have been simply amazing.”
Perhaps the ultimate testament to Betsy’s design prowess lies in the most frequent question she gets from first-time visitors to The Cottage. “But what did you actually do to the house?” they ask, because the home looks as if it were always the way it is today.
And while The Cottage is a decidedly elegant residence, she is quick to point out that real people live in it.
“This house is well-used, and we use it all,” she says. “My husband plays the grand piano that’s in the entry, friends sit on the sun porch and read The New York Times, we host a lot of gatherings for family and friends, and there are kids around all the time—our grandchildren have even ridden their Razor Scooters through the house.
“Nothing’s off limits,” she adds. “What’s the point?”
Sounds like The Cottage will remain in Betsy’s family for generations to come.