big house little house back house barn


The gates swing open, the driveway curves to the right and stretched out before you is a collection of attached buildings with varying rooflines, a traditional New England vernacular often known as  “big house little house back house barn.”

It’s the living embodiment of the four essential components of rural homes, developed as needs and families grew. Visually, architect Dominic Mercadante tied the pieces of this Midcoast farm together with red
trim, outlining doors and windows, and echoing the color of the original
little house.

However, in this case, there’s a twist. Because the home sits on an easement of the Coastal Mountains Land Trust, there was a stipulation that the new barn’s volume match the old one, so all that remains of the original 1760 structure is its sizeable silhouette.

When the homeowners, a retired couple, bought the property in 2012, they had hoped to keep it intact, but an infestation of bats and a crumbling foundation made it necessary to start fresh. They worked with Mercadante to create a residence in the space that could accommodate their extended family, some who live locally and some who come for long visits to swim in the lake or cross-country ski. Year ’round, the homeowners and their guests take in the view of Maiden Cliff, watching as it changes color with the light.

Mercadante has worked with old barns before, but with a laugh he says, “nothing like this.”

“I’m well-versed in the challenges of converting an existing frame,” he says, “but there was too much to be done structurally to accommodate this one. It’s visually a barn,” says Mercadante, “but functions as the main residence.”

With details such as ceiling beams cut from on-site trees and bird’s-eye maple fireplace trim, combined with art by Hungarian and French painters, there’s a sense of Old World Europe meets New England farmhouse. It may seem grand at first glance but, says the homeowner, “The whole thing is about family. This was never meant to be a show house.” The couple amassed a collection of furnishings, art, glassware and other decorative items when they lived in Europe for more than 20 years.

Each piece is a story, with a memory of the place and time it was acquired. “We wanted to use the things we gathered there,” says the wife, “but have it simpler and less formal than some of our previous homes.” She has a flair for decorating, having done each of the couple’s previous homes. Her sure touch and European aesthetic mix well inside the rebuilt barn, the “big house.”

Tall sliding doors, retained from the original barn, frame a charming entryway, leading into the kitchen and dining area. French doors at the other end of the expansive room allow you to see straight through to the yard and, in the winter, to the lake beyond. Two spacious kitchen islands ensure there’s enough counter space for everyone to lend a hand when they gather for holidays and family weekends. An extra-long dining table stretches nearly the length of the room, dividing the kitchen from the living area, with a French antique baker’s lamp hanging above it. The beamed ceiling could easily connote either a Maine home or an English farmhouse.

It was the prescribed volume that allowed Mercadante to create not only this expansive area, but also a stair tower leading to bedrooms, the music room and even a hydraulic elevator that goes from the three-car garage to the second-floor bedrooms. The couple entertain often in the music room, so-called because of an antique grand piano.

Skylights “are a godsend in the winter,” says the wife, letting in much-needed light. Her husband, who cut the ceiling beams from pines on the property, had never done anything like that before, but enjoyed the process and feels very connected to the land now. “The beams are literally holding the room together,” comments Mercadante. “And it’s a way for him to manage the wood lot in his retirement.” The comfortable room is filled with furnishings from their time in Europe—an antique armoire from Belgium, a gilded French clock, an amusing marble bust of a Chianti-drinking Italian gentleman.

The hallway connects the barn and music room to the “little house”—the original 1820 Cape-style home. Its lower ceilings, small fireplace and compact rooms are a clear contrast to the airy brightness of the addition. The little house now serves as a private space for guests, often housing grandchildren. The former kitchen is a billiard room and a front porch has become an enclosed, sunny reading room, warmed with an Oriental rug.

“We were looking to make life easier,” says the wife. Through the creative thinking of Mercadante and his team, the functions of “big house little house back house barn” were rearranged. And by looking to that historic convention, they found a way to make the home work for family, now and in the future.


Dominic Paul Mercadante Architecture
Dominic Mercadante

Omni Construction 
John Frye, general contractor 
Adam Durkee, job supervisor

Landscape Architecture
Mohr & Seredin Landscape Architects 
Stephen Mohr, landscape architect

Structural Engineering
Gartley & Dorsky Engineering & Surveying 
Carmen Bombeke, PE 
Erik Piel, EIT

Civil Engineering, Site Planning
Gartley & Dorsky Engineering & Surveying 
James Dorsky, PLS 
William Lane, PE

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