In Deering Highlands, artist Honour Mack and real estate agent David Marsden are loving stewards of a midcentury modern gem.
Honour Mack and David Marsden weren’t exactly house hunting when they found their midcentury modern Portland home more than a decade ago. “Passively searching” is what they call it. The couple was living near Back Cove in a two-family Victorian. But Marsden is a real estate agent, so in a sense he’s always looking, and Mack, an artist, had an architect father. Between the two of them, they know a good house when they see one.
The first time they saw a midcentury house in Portland they were intrigued: Were there others like it around here? Where were they? Who built them? Not long after, Marsden found another in the Deering Highlands neighborhood, off of Brighton Avenue. “He didn’t tell me about it because he knew that it was going to be trouble,” recalls Mack. “He just came home one day and said, ‘Let’s go for a drive,’ and brought us here. I walked in and that was it.”
Built in 1951, when Frank Lloyd Wright was designing his “Usonian” residences (beautiful and affordable middle-class homes in a post- WWII United States), the house design came from Better Homes and Gardens magazine and was customized by a local builder. It had all the bells and whistles of the modernist style and era: a flowing floor plan with distinct public and private spaces, radiant heat, a central stone fireplace, modest materials, and tall glass walls and doors that open to the landscape. It was even ahead of its time energy-wise: the house faces south with oversized windows and a large overhang that provides both shade in the summer and sunlight in the winter.
“There was just something about this place,” says Marsden. “When we first walked in, the magnolia tree was in full bloom, the light was pouring in through this wall of windows, the birds were singing. It was the Brady Bunch meets Frank Lloyd Wright, and we could just see ourselves living here.” The two put an offer in that night, and Mack wrote a letter to the sellers. The house had been in the Aranson family for more than 50 years following its construction for Golde and Albert Aranson. Albert was the chief of medicine at Maine Medical Center and the first formally trained pulmonologist in Maine, and Golde was the state’s first nurse counselor in child psychiatry to hold a degree in that field. She worked at Maine Medical Center’s outpatient child psychiatric clinic for nearly 15 years. The couple raised their four boys in the house and were embedded in the community, known by their neighbors and friends for their spicy homemade pizza and green thumbs. “I give them so much credit for building a house that was really ahead of its time,” says Mack. “Imagine what the neighbors were thinking back then? I really wanted them to know we wouldn’t drastically change anything—that we would take good care of it.”
Marsden and Mack have kept true to their promise; they haven’t made any big changes since moving in over a decade ago. The kitchen is mostly original, except for new appliances and a couple coats of paint. The layout is exactly the same; even the knotty pine walls in the den, which used to be Dr. Aranson’s office, have remained. Perhaps most notable is the original furniture in the house, including
a hi-fi cabinet with built-in bar, a U-shaped sofa custom-made to fit the living room, and
an oversized midcentury modern lamp. “We bought these pieces with the house. We couldn’t find anything to replace them even if we wanted to because they fit so perfectly in the space,” says Marsden.
Outside, Mack has continued the Aransons’ dedication to gardening—in her own way. “The garden has been very important for me because it helps me with my artwork,” she says. “The practice of gardening is very similar to painting. For me it doesn’t come with all the baggage that sometimes comes with painting.” If she doesn’t like the color or texture of a plant, she can just pick it up and move it somewhere else. “It’s very visual and it’s very intuitive. I’m sure a real gardener would be horrified by it. It’s all dictated by what I’m seeing at that particular moment.”
Mack has been a professor at Maine College of Art since 1991, and is currently the program chair of the painting department. She has a studio near Back Cove, a five-minute bike ride away. The house is, not surprisingly, filled with artwork, much of it by local artists. “Every piece of art in the house is connected to our lives here—either my students made it, or my colleagues made it, or it’s a family piece, or it’s my own work,” she says. Indeed, several works from students line her walls, a painting by her father hangs in her office, one of her own pieces hangs above the dining table, and a coffee table custom-made by fellow MECA professor Matt Hutton has a prominent place in the living room.
As someone whose job it is to help other people find neighborhoods, Marsden—an agent at Bean Group—says the search often comes down to one question: “Are you a peninsula person or an off-peninsula person?” Marsden admits he used to be a peninsula person through and through. He loved living on the West End, where he could walk everywhere. When he first moved off-peninsula, he felt “like a downtown guy selling out and moving to the suburbs.” But now, he’s found he prefers the quieter living off-peninsula, in a neighborhood that is still so close to everything, including access to the outdoors.
Both Mack and Marsden work downtown and enjoy riding their bikes into their offices (it’s only about a 15-minute ride). They also love having Rosemont Market and Bakery in the neighborhood, as well as Woodford Food and Beverage. On the weekends, they’ll head to one of the nearby trails. It might be Back Cove, to walk their dogs Arlo and Tilda, or Stroudwater on mountain bikes. Marsden is also an avid windsurfer and paddleboarder. In the summer, he’ll get up at 6 a.m. and drive the 20 minutes to Higgins Beach to paddleboard before a 9 a.m. showing.
Mack and Marsden have seen Portland morph over the last couple of decades into the vibrant city it is today. They recall the days before Munjoy Hill had condos and restaurants, before Bayside had coffee shops and breweries. “During the last 10 years in particular, Portland has blossomed in terms of the creative economy and the arts. Maine is on the national radar and we’re attracting people for this incredible quality of life,” says Marsden. “Our little town is growing up.”