In a historic house on the Eastern Prom, Allison and Lincoln Paine open their doors to the community.
In June of 1996, Allison and Lincoln Paine packed up their New York City lives and took a gamble on Portland. Neither
of them had ever set foot in the city (aside from the airport), but they were enamored with the promise of Maine: a lower cost of living, more space for their furniture and books (6,000 books, at the time), and proximity to outdoor activities. Allison had grown up in Colorado and liked to ski; Lincoln liked to sail. “We wanted to be on the coast, and at the time, if you wanted affordable housing you had to
go north of Boston,” says Allison. The two landed in a house built in 1909 on the Eastern Promenade overlooking Casco Bay—the best view on the Eastern seaboard, if you ask Allison.
The move required a bit of acclimating— especially for their two daughters, Kai and Madeleine, who were well on their way to becoming city kids. Walking through a park under a light rain, a four-year-old Kai once theorized that the raindrops were condensation from an air conditioner overhead. “When we first got to Portland, Madeleine asked why we didn’t live in a neighborhood. To her, a neighborhood meant being surrounded on all sides by buildings, and we had the water across the street,” says Lincoln. “Their lives were so different here than they would’ve been in Brooklyn,” says Allison. “Back there, we never let them out of our sight. Here, once they learned to ride bikes, they had much more freedom to explore the neighborhood on their own.” (Well, until that one time Kai rode her bike on the wrong side of the divider on I-295 trying to take a shortcut to Washington Avenue.)
Two decades later, the Paines’ neighborhood has seen some of the most dramatic change in the state. Homes nearby sell for ten times what theirs cost in 1996. “When we moved here, the closest restaurant was Silly’s,” down the hill on Washington Avenue, says Allison. “Today, there are three restaurants and a number of new condos within just a couple blocks.” The house is one of the few single-family homes of its size in the neighborhood that hasn’t been divided up. Despite the house’s age, the Paines are only the third family to live in it. Many of the finishes are original, and what isn’t dates back to the 1940s, when the last major renovation was done.
A maritime historian, Lincoln has authored several books, including most recently, The
Sea and Civilization: A Maritime History of the World. Most of the book was written from his second-floor home office with a front-row view of Casco Bay and all the passenger and freight traffic between the islands. (“I had to move my desk away from the window,” he says. “I wasn’t getting any work done.”) Allison is a former software developer and database designer; now she has her own textile business called Allisewn, which she runs out of her workroom on the third floor. Both Lincoln and Allison are active with local nonprofits, having served on the boards of the East End Children’s Workshop, the Telling Room, Portland Stage, and the Maine Maritime Museum. Allison also participates in the Walking School Bus, a handful of adult volunteers who walk children on Munjoy Hill safely to East End Community School. “I do it every Tuesday,” she says, “and I really look forward to it. Even in the snow, wind, and rain.”
Although they are within walking distance to downtown, Lincoln prefers to ride his bike everywhere; he switches to studded snow tires in the winter. On most days, he commutes to the Portland Public Library or to the University of Southern Maine, where he writes or does research. “When you look at the resources we have here for historians—the Maine Historical Society, the Maine Maritime Museum, the Osher Map Library, Greater Portland Landmarks—there’s some really wonderful things we have here,” he says.
Of course Portland is small enough that a lot of it is accessible on foot (or on two wheels), but it’s also accessible in terms of cultural life. Allison loves that you don’t have to sign up for theater tickets six months in advance here. “It’s also a small enough community that the nonprofit organizations can pull together and coordinate,” she says.
These days, it’s just the two of them living in the three-story, 12-room house. (They had
to give some of the rooms descriptive names, like the Long Room, for ease of reference.) But this is no empty nest; Lincoln estimates they have guests more than 60 nights of the year. As part of their involvement with local boards, they often host dinners and receptions. “We refer to our front door as revolving,” says Allison. “Beginning around Memorial Day and up until October, there is a lot of sheet- changing going on.” Playwrights, filmmakers, poets, and novelists have stayed with them as part of Portland Stage’s From Away program. This annual festival, produced in collaboration with the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, brings writers from around the world to Portland for staged readings of their work by Portland Stage’s Affiliate Artists. “So many fascinating people have come through here,” says Allison. “We’ve had people from South America, Africa, Asia, Europe.” In fact, on a recent trip to lecture in India and Portugal, Lincoln caught up with two people who had stayed with them as part of the program.
With five siblings each, Lincoln and Allison also host a lot of family—for reunions, birthday parties, even just a quick overnight stay, as when Lincoln’s sister, the education director of the Island Institute, has meetings on Casco Bay islands and can’t get back to her home in Vinalhaven.
If the Paine house had a tagline, it might be, “The more the merrier.” A few days before my visit, the couple hosted 30 people for a Portland Stage reception. This was not a catered event: Allison and Lincoln enjoy cooking and don’t shy away from large groups. “Having a house this size without opening it up would feel silly,” says Lincoln. “If we hadn’t gravitated towards hosting people and being open in that way, I don’t think we would have bothered getting a house this large.” Allison echoes this sentiment: “It’s a house built for gathering people,” she says. “The first floor goes around in a circle. It’s meant for good circulation and good parties. We couldn’t live in a house like this and not share it.”