In one of Portland’s most distinctive buildings, artists Lauren Fensterstock and Aaron T Stephan create an artful, art-filled home.
For years I passed Lauren Fensterstock and Aaron T Stephan’s home on my way to work, not quite knowing what to make of it. (I’m not alone— Lauren says that people are always peeking in the windows.) The brick structure on the border of downtown Portland and West Bayside stands apart from the rest of the buildings on the street with a front façade that has what looks to be an arched wooden door (like one on a castle), except that it has windows and doesn’t open. The building’s original two stories are topped with a metal-clad box and a roof deck facing the street. In a top-floor window a neon sign reads “SO SICK OF NEON.” One thing I surmised from the outside: whoever lives here has a sense of humor.
Aaron and Lauren met when Lauren was in graduate school in New Paltz, New York. They dated for two weeks, and then went on a three- week road trip in the deep South. After living together in New York for a couple years, the two moved to Maine in 2000 so that Aaron could pursue his MFA at Maine College of Art. “We thought we’d be here maybe just a short period of time, but we really fell in love with it,” says Lauren.
In 2006, Aaron was working as a contractor and a friend asked him to scope out the building, which was being used for lumber storage, to see if it was a feasible property for him to buy and fix up. Aaron went to look and reported back to his friend. “The place is a mess, don’t touch it,” he told him. Aaron then picked up the phone and called the owner to make an offer himself. (All’s well that ends well; the two are still friends and, in fact, Aaron recently went to his wedding.)
At the time, the structure was nothing more than a shell of a space, two stories tall with a pitched roof. Built around 1820 as a carriage house for the house next door, the place has its share of folklore surrounding it. “There are so many rumors and stories, we don’t really know what’s real and what’s not,” says Lauren. The couple heard that it was built by a descendent of John Proctor, who was hanged during the Salem witch trials. It’s reportedly been a shoe store, a Harley-Davidson repair shop, and a balloon shop where parade inflatables were made. More recently it was artist Alison Hildreth’s studio, before it turned into lumber storage. Aaron and Lauren are the first to call it home.
The couple carved out living spaces—an open first floor with kitchen, dining, and living area, plus a bath that they added, leading to a back patio; a guest suite and Lauren’s studio with a Juliet balcony on the second floor; and a third- floor master bedroom with a roof deck and a tiny bath tucked into the built-ins that line the walls. Artwork from fellow artist friends fills the space, a lot of it local, all of it with stories.
Experienced in contracting and construction, Aaron did most of the work himself and made almost all of the furniture—a coffee table inspired by an Italian one Lauren found online, a marble-topped dining table, and a cabinet made from an old window. “We jumped at the chance to design something and make it our own,” says Aaron. “We decided right away that we weren’t really concerned with making something that was re-sellable. We wanted to make something, first and foremost, that we wanted to live in.”
The two also weren’t afraid of experimenting. “An architect would’ve probably put this roof deck in the back, just because of personal space, but we like having a dialogue with the street,” says Aaron. “An architect would’ve also probably put this bedroom on the first floor, and the living and dining area on the second or third floors. But we’re so food-centric, we wanted you to be able to walk in and have people cooking food and eating food, and to have this big flexible living space.”
With her studio on the second floor, Lauren doesn’t have to go far to work. She prefers to be at home where she has everything she needs (to cook, garden, read), while Aaron requires the daily routine of getting out of the house to his studio near Back Cove. “I need to go make stuff and I need a different place to do
it,” he says. After a day in their respective studios, the two eat out or cook together— often something pretty elaborate. “A lot of the artwork I make is really long term, so the ability to make something beautiful in a few hours is appealing,” Lauren says. In the summer, they prepare fresh seafood like uni pasta or clams with pesto sauce.
The couple’s food obsession is one of the things that keeps them in Portland. The two love to host dinner parties and have recently started doing performance art that’s centered on the idea of a dinner party. They’ve hosted three of these events in their house, one of which they named “Farm as Table;” they grew the whole dinner on the table. “I think, for me, the dinners are kind of based on this house as well. They’re all about building a structure around people eating and having each course of the meal take place in a different location of the structure, and the structure is very much like this house,” says Aaron.
Today, Lauren and Aaron primarily show their work out of state, which means they travel frequently and get to see a lot
of other cities. But Portland is the place they come home to. They’ve watched the neighborhood change over the years. “Right after we bought the place, the Whole Foods went up,” says Lauren. “Cities change, and that’s what happens; that’s what makes them interesting and great,” says Aaron. “Strangely a lot of people we know are fairly resistant to change.” Lauren agrees. “In Maine there’s this idea of authenticity that keeps coming up,” she says. “I feel really hesitant to buy into ideals of authenticity, because who gets to decide what is authentic? I think it’s at best sort of naïve, and at worst a way of censoring things that you don’t want to see or include. I want to see the mark of our time left on the city, which is part of us working on this place and adding to it—blending a historic past that’s in direct dialogue with something from today.”