Heart and Science: A Researcher’s Eccentric Handed-Down Home Off the Coast of Maine

So many details in Nadia Rosenthal’s dark, grand 1800s house on a craggy island off the Maine coast are not what you might expect. There’s a pine sapling planted in the dark wood newel post. When I asked about a stack of bright, geometric-patterned plates, Nadia wrote back: “I designed them for my textbook on heart development. Each depicts a different stage in the life of a heart.”

Nadia, a professor and world-renowned researcher who studies the role of genetic variation in cardiovascular and skeletal tissue repair, is the scientific director of the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, where her husband, Alan, works as well. But here on remote Sutton Island off the coast, their classic Maine home is full of moments of whimsy—and plenty of the unexpected.

Nadia’s parents, both musicians, first found the house in the 1950s when they were looking for a summer retreat; Nadia was two, and her father had been discharged from the Air Force and was headed for a career on Broadway and writing Hollywood film scores. They rented the island house, called Windemere, at first, then bought it, along with 10 acres of waterfront land, for $14,500. “In 1960 that was a lofty sum for two artists,” Nadia says. “My father had to write three film scores to pay off friends and family who lent us the money.”

The house itself, shingled and surrounded by dense pine and birch forest and the Atlantic beyond, is a “grand Rusticator summer cottage,” Nadia says, referring to the first artists, creatives, and well-to-do-families who ventured northward to this stretch of Maine in the 1800s for wild summer retreat. “The house was built in 1889 by Emma and William Burnham from Philadelphia,” Nadia says. “I have photographs of them with lovely hats on their steam launch, Iduna. We are the fourth owners, but by now we hold the longest tenure.” Though the house is uninsulated, the original fireplaces heat the house enough to live in through the cold fall and winter months.

Though the dark, grand Maine house has changed very little since the 1890s, Nadia and Alan have filled it with color and eclectic detail.  “In contrast to most Maine summer house decor, all white and blue, Windemere’s interiors are brooding, cypress wood floors walls and ceilings, demanding a different decorative palette,” Nadia says. She follows her parents’ “lassaiz-faire” approach: “My mother was fearless with color and pattern and quite bold in her style, which was marvelous.”

The house will someday be inherited by Nadia’s nieces, Hannah and Clara. “The whole family—including my father, who is 96—will be convening this June to see Clara married on the lawn,” Nadia says. It’s a true family home, preserved through generations. “With very few exceptions, I have spent a portion of very summer of my life here,” says Nadia. It’s home. I open the door and the wooden smell of the house is Proustian.”

Join us for a visit.

Photography by Greta Rybus.

Above: “Sutton Island is a mile offshore and can only be reached by boat,” Nadia says. “There is a mailboat that serves the island, but we also have a runabout that we use to commute to work on off hours.”

approaching the island and its docks. 10
Above: Approaching the island and its docks.
Above: ‘”The house is surrounded by pine and birch forest, graciousness in the midst of wilderness one of its spectacular attributes,” Nadia says. There are “no roads, no cars, no commerce, only root-ridden, mossy paths along the shore and through the woods.” And a pink granite seawall with views of Mount Desert Island and the sea.

the interiors are clad in original dark wood, a trademark of old maine seaside  12
Above: The interiors are clad in original dark wood, a trademark of old Maine seaside houses. The telescope by the front door was a birthday present for Nadia from her family. “We use it to follow comets, planets, and nebula, as well as sneak a peak at the goings-on in the opulent summer houses in Seal Harbor opposite.”
the entryway.
Above: The entryway. “We have an exquisite guestbook from the early days, with extraordinary musical entries, original poems, drawings and silhouettes from prominent guests, lovely handwritten letters, telegraphs. A real treasure trove,” Nadia says. Her sister, now a ceramicist living in London, carved the “Rosenthal” sign for the house when she was a girl.
the sprawling 50 by 30 foot living area is the only notable change to the house 14
Above: The sprawling 50-by-30-foot living area is the only notable change to the house over its history. The house’s second owners—relatives of the original owners as well as U.S. Secretary of War Henry Stimson— added it in 1929, Nadia says, “to accommodate two Steinway grand pianos for the pleasure of Florence, the wife, who enjoyed playing duets. It’s glorious, but the Philadelphia architects who oversaw the changes sent up blueprints (which I found in the attic) that were apparently ignored by the local builders. To our horror, many of the ceiling crossbeam cases that should have contained steel were actually empty. Leaks and sags for decades finally have been addressed by restoring the original peaked roofline and reinforcing those crossbeams. The house is now structurally sound, good for the ages.”

The two pianos remain. “They are the Grand Dames of the house, 1864 and 1875,” Nadia says. “They have distinctive personalities. One is good for Bach and the other for Brahms.”

a window seat offers a view of the weathered pines and sea. above it soars & 15
Above: A window seat offers a view of the weathered pines and sea. Above it soars “a wedding anniversary present for my husband Alan, carved by Dan Falt, a local celebrity.sculptor and dear friend.”
an original fireplace was made from stones from the beach below.
Above: An original fireplace was made from stones from the beach below. “A local stonemason was so enthralled with it that he rebuilt a fireplace for us out on the crags in front of the house to match,” Nadia says.
whimsical incense builders line the stone mantel.
Above: Whimsical incense builders line the stone mantel. “They were made by local Cranberry Islanders in the 1950s,” Nadia says. “We used to buy them every year at the Cranberry Island Fair.”
Above: “Most of the furnishings, lamps, carpets, china, and much of the artwork came with the house: On these islands it’s so hard getting anything on or off that things stay with the houses for the duration,” Nadia says. “My mother re-covered some of the threadbare 1800s down-cushioned furniture in the 1960s, and they are holding up very well 60 years later.”

The portrait on the far right is of Emma, “the original lady of the house,” Nadia says. “She looks stern, but according to her great granddaughter, she was a prankster and regularly hid her husband’s toothbrush.” Emma’s great-grandchildren gave Nadia the portrait to return it to its original home.

nadia in the kitchen.
Above: Nadia in the kitchen. “We re-installed an antique wood-burning cookstove in the big kitchen, which had been removed by the time we acquired the house, and we use it for cooking and heating,” she says. The wood floors are painted—another Maine house classic.

Above: A massive built-in china cupboard holds Nadia’s collections, in particular the heart-inspired patterned plates that Nadia designed for her textbook, called Heart Development and Regeneration (considered the definitive text on the subject). “I had them hand-painted by my friends, artisans Franco and Rita Mari, in Deruta, Italy,” Nadia says.

a wide porch lends views of the sea. of the divan, nadia says:
Above: A wide porch lends views of the sea. Of the divan, Nadia says: “My mother found it, spray-painted it shiny black against the wooden floor of the sunroom she’d painted white, and added wild paisley cushions. A woman before the times.”

an unusual, poetic original detail: the newel post at the base of the staircase 23
Above: An unusual, poetic original detail: The newel post at the base of the staircase is fitted with a zinc-lined planter.  “A baby pine tree spends the summer with us and then is returned to the forest,” Nadia says. “We know where they all are.”
collected shells line a windowsill. 24
Above: Collected shells line a windowsill.
upstairs, a summer bedroom with a map of nearby mount desert island (home to ac 25
Above: Upstairs, a summer bedroom with a map of nearby Mount Desert Island (home to Acadia National Park).

Nadia and Alan have added their own finds to the house’s inherited furnishings. “I am an avid antique carpet collector and have added judiciously,” Nadia says. “My work as a scientist takes me all over the world, so some bedrooms are decked out with wedding carpets from the Istanbul souk, others from Welsh country homes, still others from collectors that I happened upon by chance in Utah. I am known for tight-folding carpets into large suitcases and trekking them halfway around the world.”

more collected finds include
Above: More collected finds include “a delicate magazine rack from a Virginia mansion, a hand-carved wooden bed from Scandinavia, old china drawer pulls from Amsterdam, antique American quilts from local fairs,” Nadia says. “The house seems to absorb them all gracefully. The giant attic holds undiscovered treasures. I bring down tiny rocking chairs, extraordinary lampshades, silver platters. There are trunks still to be opened.”

Above: “My husband and I spent a decade in Rome, so some Italianate pieces drifted in,” Nadia adds. Here, details of Nadia’s irreverent style.

striped curtains from john lewis in london frame the view from the bath. the ca 29
Above: Striped curtains from John Lewis in London frame the view from the bath. The carved wooden boats on the windowsill are from “the Cranberry Island Fair decades ago.”
the exterior of the house is pure maine: weathered gray shingles and scrubby pi 30
Above: The exterior of the house is pure Maine: weathered gray shingles and scrubby pines.
a continued marvel of living here, nadia says, is
Above: A continued marvel of living here, Nadia says, is “the juxtaposition between the elegance of the house and the wildness of the island and ocean just outside the door.”
nadia at the shore. she is playing
Above: Nadia at the shore. She is playing “a Serenelli Ladies Accordion from 1954, a year younger than me, and made in Italy but bought in Australia. It is a joy to hold and to play,” she adds.

N.B. We’re featuring Maine homes, destinations, and design details all week to celebrate the release of our new book, Remodelista in Maine. For more favorites, see: