A historic former pottery factory houses a contemporary pied-à-terre.
For all that it is traveled now by locals and tourists, Portland’s Commercial Street came somewhat late in the mapping of the Portland peninsula. In the 1850s infill reconfigured the harbor to add a street broad enough for horses and buggies, and to unload cargo from ships and freight cars. The street was named for its function: Commercial.
Virgil and Jean Cumming made their own contributions to the eponymous activity of Commercial Street far more recently. They bought (and then renovated) a condo in the E. Swasey and Co. building on the south end of the street. Like many of the mid- nineteenth-century brick and granite structures you see along Commercial, the building started life as a warehouse. Later, it became E. Swasey and Co. pottery, making and selling ceramics. Now, locals may know the building as the location of the gluten-free bakery Bam Bam, although the south wall of the building is still painted with the pottery’s name and the words “Pottery Glass Ware Crockery.” As for the Cummings, they know the former factory as home to their one- bedroom condo, an hour from their primary residence in Georgetown.
By the time the Cummings bought their Portland pied-à-terre in 2016, most of the Swasey building had been converted to condos. Theirs had not been recently renovated, so they turned to Eider Construction of Scarborough to help them rethink the space. Trevor Watson and Ashley Norton served as design team, and Steve Hooper as project manager. The new design collapsed smaller rooms into two large rooms, which were separated by an oak sliding barn door. Now, the kitchen/living space is on one side of the door, the bedroom on the other. A long quartzite-topped island divides the kitchen/living space. On entry, one sees a wall of flat-panel white kitchen cabinets to the left, and, to the right, a sitting area with chairs and sofa grouped around a custom glass and metal coffee table. The living room/kitchen’s internal brick walls have been left exposed, and the drop ceilings in what was once an entry hall and enclosed kitchen have been removed to reveal the original—now dark—wood ceiling beams, as well as pipes, painted black by Eider, for the building’s sprinkler system. The black paint helps the pipes blend into the ceiling, as does the black that Eider used for the ceiling’s track lighting.
“We wanted to keep what we could local and Maine,” says Jean. With the help of longtime friend Brett Johnson of Maine Street Design Co., she and Virgil selected or commissioned items from places like Rusted Puffin Metal Works, Simply Home, Thos. Moser, Fogg Lighting, A.E. Runge, Jr. Oriental Rugs, and Araby Rug Galleries. The Cummings sourced floors—whose dark color matches their ceiling beams—from Atlantic Hardwoods and employed local talent, including Alfred’s Upholstery for the furniture and Alice Mobley, production manager at Maine Street Design Co., for custom Roman shades, pillows, and bedroom linens.
Although the palette tends to the neutral and natural, bright splashes of color are provided by paintings from Maine artists represented by Portland Art Gallery. These include semi- abstract landscapes by William Crosby, an atmospheric skyscape by Joanne Parent, and three island and coastal landscapes by Matthew Russ. The paintings are carefully arranged to fit the available wall space and to complement the existing furniture placement, which presents its own problem: the couple often find themselves appreciating new work that they can’t purchase. “The Medicis rearranged each time they fell in love with something, but we are not the Medicis,” Jean says.
The condo allows the Cummings to have a largely maintenance- and car-free life. “At home, we have the garden and the lawn and everything to attend to,” says Virgil. “We love Georgetown, but here we can just enjoy the city.” They walk to favorite restaurants like Solo Italiano, Chaval, and Paciarino; visit the Portland Museum of Art; and seek out lesser-known galleries and art venues like the University of Southern Maine’s Osher Map Library.
Eider’s design offers unobtrusive storage—in the kitchen area, but also in generous cabinetry on two of the bathroom’s walls, as well as a bedroom closet, whose addition was part of the reconfiguration of the bathroom layout. Now, instead of having a direct view from the living space into the bathroom, one sees a wall on which hangs a painting of a flat- paneled barn by Maine artist Jean Jack. A small sculpture of bent nails by Brunswick-based John Bisbee sits on a table below.
Although the condo is entirely uncluttered, sleek, and devoid of knickknacks, one shelf bears a crock—emblazoned with Swasey’s name, insignia, and location—that Jean found on eBay. The crock is light brown on the bottom, dark brown above. When Hooper saw it, he thought, “That looks familiar.” His mother has four virtually identical antique crocks, which his grandmother used to make mustard pickles. On closer inspection, though, the Hooper family’s crocks proved to be from a different local pottery.
In renovating, the Cummings made some concessions to modern comfort by insulating walls and replacing four windows. In the process, they had to drywall over some of what they would rather have left exposed: the bedroom ceiling beams and the condo’s street-facing interior wall with fanned bricks over the window apertures. Still, the couple remains mindful of the past. Considering the curious arrangement of the condo’s ceiling beams, which suggest some sort of conveyor once ran through their living room, Jean says, “You look at these beams and wish they could tell you their stories.” Although the beams are mum, the stoneware crock has something it wants to say: “I was made here.”