IT WAS GHOSTLY AND ALL BOARDED UP 10 years ago when photographer Joyce Tenneson first saw her fantasy house in Maine, near Rockport, where she was teaching at the Maine Photographic Workshop. But the house wasn't abandoned, merely put on hold by a woman who no longer lived there but wouldn't sell. All Tenneson could do was take a picture of the place, pin it up in her studio back in Washington and tell all those who asked, "That's my dream house."
Set among huge trees at the end of a long moss-covered driveway, the place sat on a spit of land jutting out into Penobscot Bay -- "a 180-degree view of water and trees," Tenneson says. "And the rustling of the trees is almost hypnotic. The whole atmosphere was very spiritual." The place was perfect, Tenneson thought.
That was the outside. It wasn't until December 1985 that Tenneson got a call saying the house was on the market. The timing wasn't great: She had just quit her job as an art-school teacher and opened a commercial-photography studio in New York, shooting, for Italian Vogue and others, gauzy pictures as mysterious as her dream house. "But if you have a dream, you should go for it," she says. And so she did, buying the house without ever seeing the interior.
Her first visit inside the house, built in 1870 as a cottage, revealed small rooms, low ceilings, a hot-water heater in the living room and sheets and towels in the closets. "It was so ugly, and looked as if the owners had just gone away for the weekend." Then she and Flint Whitman, a local carpenter and graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, got to work.
A new kitchen was installed and walls re-Sheetrocked. But the most fulfilling change, probably, was expanding the master bedroom. Whitman raised the ceiling by opening the gable overhead and extended the room to encompass what had been a dispiriting second-story porch.
The renovation took three months, during which time Tenneson was able to visit only three times. "Flint is one of those visual geniuses," Tenneson says. "He can look at a space and 'see' it transformed. He could also see my fantasy."
Now, the fantasy realized, Tenneson and her husband and son spend whatever time they can there. "It's not like going to Rehoboth, with the boardwalk and the kids screaming to go to the amusement parks," Tenneson says. "It's a real retreat."