A turn-of-the-century Arts District home is updated to celebrate art and family.
Before Alex Fisher met his wife, Brianne, he was an aficionado of pop art. He collected old advertisements, computer games, and pinball machines. “There were lots of lights and color,” Alex says of his home decor. Brianne’s style was more subdued. By the time the two combined households, buying a turn-of-the- century sea captain’s house in Portland’s Arts District in 2012, Alex had sold the collection. Now their aesthetics mesh in an interior that reflects Brianne’s Zen sensibilities and Alex’s exuberance. “I throw out a thousand ideas, but I am smart enough not to do anything without approval,” says Alex.
Brianne is a broker at the Swan Agency Sotheby’s International Realty, and the couple met when she showed him an apartment. Alex is a Portland-centric entrepreneur, who founded or cofounded the Portland Lobster Company, El Rayo Taqueria, and Planet Dog, among other businesses. A Maine native, Brianne was born in Portland and has a degree in equine science from Findlay College in Ohio (now the University of Findlay). “I knew if she could whisper to horses and dogs, as she does, she could certainly whisper to me,” her husband says. Although he has lived in Maine for 20 years, Alex was a Brooklyn kid who spent childhood summers in the Catskills and went to graduate school at Bard College in Annandale- on-Hudson.
The couple wanted their home to look true to its age, even as they modernized. They preserved and restored the original architectural detailing—including the staircase, doors, sills, and hardware—but reconceived the ground floor, removing a centrally located chimney and incorporating what had once been a screened-in porch into the living space. Now, two granite slabs form steps leading to a front door that opens onto a single, long space with rooms defined by function, not walls. Living room leads to dining room to kitchen to breakfast nook, and all of the areas are compact, as the home is just 1,800 square feet. Upstairs, three modest bedrooms have been collapsed into two and linked by a walk-in closet.
During the home inspection, Brianne climbed out a bedroom window onto the flat roof of what was then the enclosed back porch. The inspector had propped a ladder from this roof to the house’s flat roof, one story above. Brianne asked if she could come up. It was a cold, rainy day, and the inspector pointed out that she was wearing high heels. “I don’t care,” she said and began to climb, finding at the top a 360-degree view of the peninsula and Casco Bay. Brianne and Alex converted this roof to a deck with cushioned porch furniture, a place where they go to relax, or to determine if the ocean looks good for sailing.
On a different rainy day, after the couple had moved in together, Alex took Brianne to the roof, now accessible by a steel spiral staircase fashioned by Maine metalsmith Al Kronk, and asked her to marry him. A few minutes later, Brianne started to receive texts from friends, encouraging her to look at the Time and Temperature Building. The fourteen-story Congress Street office building was no longer flashing the time and temperature on its digital display, but “BRI MRRY.”
The couple was married at the Portland Museum of Art (PMA), which is a big part of their lives. Their walls feature modernist works by Alexander Calder, Robert Motherwell, Helen Frankenthaler, and Ellsworth Kelly and contemporary pieces by Mainers Mark Wethli and Cassie Jones, as well as Japanese pop-artist Takashi Murakami and James Castle—known for his use of found and homemade materials. The Fishers’ backyard has a small courtyard with two John Bisbee sculptures, including one of Bisbee’s signature, round exploding-nail pieces.
Although the art is modern and contemporary, and the house was likely built in 1903 or earlier, the interior design is an eclectic mix of styles and periods with an emphasis on unusual items. An Eames chair sits by an old French farm table surrounded by distressed-wood, oval-backed side chairs with seats covered in burnished-gold fabric. Within arm’s reach, there is a Norwegian Rais woodstove—mounted on a lazy Susan, so it can face any part of the room—and a TV on a wheeled wooden easel. The screen can be moved from space to space and lowered and raised at will. The kitchen has white walls, white cabinets, and a white farmer’s sink. “We like to do things in white, because somehow color finds its way into our world once we move in,” says Alex. An example: the kitchen’s orange rotary wall phone. Hudson, Alex’s 10-year old daughter, spent 30 minutes playing with it when she first saw it, finally announcing, “This is my favorite cell phone.” Another of her favorite items is the living room’s baby grand player piano, which can record the efforts of talented friends for later playback.
Even the bathrooms include quirky and fun touches. The powder room has a steamship shaving mirror, which consists of a small, long-legged table with a long-necked mirror affixed to the top. In the upstairs bathroom, the green and white wallpaper, patterned with a whale chasing a squid chasing a whale, was supplied by Brooklyn friends who own Flavor Paper, a company whose various, vibrant, and sometimes trippy wall patterns have a scratch-and-sniff option.
Part of what both Alex and Brianne prize about their house is its location near the PMA. At present, Alex is on the Board of Trustees, and both Alex and Brianne are members of the Contemporaries, a group of PMA supporters who convene regularly for social and community events. “It’s the best networking opportunity in the city,” says Alex. “You get together with hundreds of like-minded people and discuss art, but other things as well. A lot gets done there. In another city, with a different culture, you might play golf to get business done, but here it’s art.”