A Magical Renovation
A Seacoast couple transforms a former summer retreat into an imaginative home whose style is inspired by rustic Adirondack camps.
Lynne Monroe and Frank Whittemore’s Kensington home is accented with natural materials—such as curved branches and fieldstone—giving it the look of a fairytale cottage. Kensington artist Dan Dailey created the four-point compass rose on the walkway, seen in the lower portion of this photo.
Home is where the heart is, as well as memories. Sunny Knoll—the imaginative Kensington home of Lynne Monroe and Frank Whittemore—is filled with both.
Taking its cue from nature, the cedar-shingled home, accented with natural materials—such as curved branches, rustic tree trunks and fieldstone—looks like a fairytale cottage. Monroe, a historic preservationist and founder of Preservation Company, bought the home in 1984 and painstakingly researched, restored and re-imagined Sunny Knoll as an Adirondack Great Camp. It has been a labor of love, one that she says has been driven in part by the house itself.
“Everything in the house has a story,” Monroe says. “It was a discovery process for me, but the house knew what it wanted to be—it helped me make decisions.”
The Adirondack camp spirit—and whimsy
Sunny Knoll’s story begins circa 1900, when a local tenant farmer, John Knight, built a home from pieces of timber-frame buildings from a nearby abandoned farm (his original rooms are now Preservation Company offices). In 1912, the home was purchased as a summer home by Dr. Leon Kenniston, a physician from nearby Exeter, and his family. “They were into ‘rusticating’ and gardening,” says Monroe, who has old photos showing the home’s lush gardens and arbors.
Renaming the property Sunny Knoll, Dr. Kenniston’s wife Inez and daughter Faith created living space in the barn and ran a summer camp for young girls (Faith was married in the barn in 1919). A camp flyer notes that Sunny Knoll “combines the atmosphere of a home with camp spirit.” That camp spirit appealed to Monroe. When she started renovating the property, she consulted regularly with Faith, at the time in her eighties, asking for her opinions and brainstorming ideas.
Honoring the home’s summer camp past, Monroe envisioned remaking Sunny Knoll in the style of an Adirondack Great Camp. Built using natural materials and local labor, the Great Camps of the Adirondacks in upstate New York represented the Naturalist movement of the late-nineteenth century. The homes—built by wealthy families, such as the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts—were designed to blend in with their surroundings and embellished with natural materials like timber, granite and stone.
Sunny Knoll is filled with whimsical touchstones of Monroe’s youth and family (her father was chief engineer of Levittown, New York, and Levittown, Pennsylvania, two of the country’s earliest planned communities; her mother was a naturalist and mycologist). Monroe rented out half of the original home until the late 1990s, when she started renovating the property. As a preservationist and fine artist, Monroe became enmeshed in researching the home as well as incorporating work by favorite artists and the Adirondack style. “Every single piece of the house meant research,” Monroe says. “It really became my life.”
Lynne Monroe and Frank Whittemore on the stairs in the
She worked closely with her long-time friend, architect Paul Gosselin (now retired) of Salmon Falls Architecture in Biddeford, Maine, to develop plans for the home’s addition and turned to Whittemore to implement those designs. Whittemore, a contractor and builder of timber frame homes, met Monroe when she had added a garage to the property in 1992. “Though this house wasn’t the kind of project I’m used to,” Whittemore says, “it was a lot of fun to work on.” Monroe adds, “This project couldn’t have happened without Frank.” The house was under constant construction for three years; shortly after it was finished, Monroe and Whittemore married there October 6, 2001.
The original section of the house is Monroe’s office, lined with floor-to-ceiling built-in bookcases. The airy two-story room features a high, blue ceiling sprinkled with gold stars, mimicking a similar ceiling at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts, where she attended school. The original sun porch is now a sunny music room, where Whittemore can play piano and other musical instruments. The small, original kitchen has simple pine walls and floors. Floors in the older part of the house are native pine.
An imaginative interior with a sense of humor
Monroe’s imagination and sense of humor are on full display in Sunny Knoll’s primary living spaces. She hired Brooklyn artist Bruce Gundersen, who’s also fascinated with the Adirondack Great Camps, to design Sunny Knoll’s front hallway. Gundersen created three dioramas, set into the rough, white cedar bark walls. A humorous commentary on man’s relationship to nature, each depicts humans and animals in natural settings. “He’s brilliant,” Monroe says. “I just left the design up to him.”
Gundersen also designed the massive chandelier hanging in the great room. Inspired by elaborate hunting lodge chandeliers, the work is a mass of curved wooden branches, hung from the ceiling by tractor chains.
The two-story great room, with its exposed rough log beams, has two massive fieldstone fireplaces made from stones collected in Maine; the granite hearths are from cellar stones found in Exeter. The room is framed by a window seat and bookcases on one side, and—hidden behind a real tree with intact bark—there’s a spiral staircase to a second-floor balcony. Banks of windows are set off by dark pine walls, stained to match the original barn’s walls. A large, stained-glass window of a woman playing a medieval shaum is set in one wall. The comfortable furnishings, many of which belonged to Monroe’s family, are anchored by a hooked wool rug featuring a mushroom motif, created for Monroe’s mother.
The second-floor balcony overlooks the great room on two sides, with a railing made from rough cedar tree trunks; the railing with its elaborate bump-out was crafted by carpenter Larry Haas of Portsmouth, an important contributor to the building process. Haas created much of the twig work inside and outside Sunny Knoll. “Working with all that snaky wood was a great challenge and a lot of fun,” he says. “I like projects that are outside the box and creative.”
No camp-style home is complete without animals. Taxidermy creatures at Sunny Knoll are found in unexpected places: a beaver nibbles on a tree in the hallway; a gray fox peers from the branches of a tree in the great room; a coyote lurks by the piano; mice are hidden in the chandelier. Monroe even displays books on taxidermy on an end table.
A tangled grove of white cedar trees— complete with metal trail markers—screens the great room from the dining area. Monroe’s inspiration was Marjorie Merriweather Post’s boathouse in upstate New York. “It has a scramble of twig work that fascinated me,” she says. The solid dining table was made by Haas from chestnut boards that were once the floor of the threshing room at Brookdale Fruit Farm, Whittemore’s family farm in Hollis.
The large kitchen, with its dark-pine bead board walls, evokes a service kitchen in the style of Newport mansions or British manor houses. Casement windows line the curved walls, adding light to the space. The large service table in the center of the room is made from the same floorboards as the dining table. There’s a sink on both ends of the kitchen: a Vermont soapstone service sink near where most cooking is done; and a stainless-steel sink for washing up. Monroe and Whittemore enjoy their morning coffee and breakfast in a built-in dining booth, overlooking the back yard. “I liked that detail from my parents’ home so Paul and I designed a booth for our kitchen,” she says.
Upstairs’ spaces contain more details from Monroe’s past, including her father’s original drafting table as well as quirky collections of miniature animals that Monroe has been given or collected over the years.
The master bedroom, which she’s nicknamed the Pennsylvania Room, contains more memories. A highlight is the large fireplace, faced with ceramic tiles from Moravian Pottery & Tile Works in Doylestown, Pennsylvania; Monroe and Whittemore’s wedding date is inscribed on the fireplace and framed with ceramic tiles of flowers, woodland animals, farm animals and musicians. The tiles were created by ceramicist and scholar Henry Chapman Mercer (1856–1930), whose Pennsylvania estate, Fonthill Castle, is one of Monroe’s “favorite places on earth.” The bed is inspired by the furniture of Swedish artist Carl Larsson. Walk-in closets contain ample storage to eliminate the need for dressers and additional furniture. More of Monroe’s miniature animals—deer, cats, dogs, geese—decorate the master bath, which is highlighted by a large built-in bathtub and an old-fashioned overhead cabinet toilet, built into a red pine cabinet with a bookcase.
Outdoors, Sunny Knoll is every bit as magical as indoors. The roof, windows and overhanging eaves are forest green, set off by brown shingles and elaborate gable screens made of curved, unpeeled cedar branches. Adirondack chairs grouped on the back porch welcome visitors to relax while watching squirrels snack nearby on pinecones. While the arbor and gardens from the original summer camp are gone, there’s a large vegetable garden with birdhouses and a gazing ball connected to the house by a fieldstone retaining wall. A sculpture of rusted farm machinery by Kensington artist Harlow Carpenter stands in the yard near a small pond.
The couple have invested much time and energy into Sunny Knoll, and have no regrets. “It never gets old,” Monroe says. “It’s our home.”
The two-story great room is filled with fascinating details, including an elaborate carved chandelier and second-floor balcony fashioned from tree limbs; a massive fieldstone fireplace; a stained-glass window; and taxidermy animals, including a coyote (lower right) that was an engagement gift from Frank Whittemore to Lynne Monroe.
Right: A detail from one of Gundersen’s dioramas, depicting nature’s control over man.
Right: The cozy dining room, accented by a large fieldstone fireplace, includes a table made of threshing floorboards with legs shaped from tree branches. The hickory chairs were purchased in the Adirondacks.
Right: On the upstairs landing is the drafting table that once belonged to Monroe’s father, Clarence Monroe, the planner and chief engineer of all the Levittown projects, including the well-known neighborhoods in New York and Pennsylvania.
Right: The painted pine bed in the master bedroom was built by Donald Taylor of Lee. Built-in storage eliminates the need for dressers and additional furniture in the room.
Right: The fireplace in the master bedroom is framed with fanciful ceramic tiles of flowers, animals and musicians—and also includes Monroe and Whittemore’s wedding date. The tiles were made by Moravian Pottery & Tile Works in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.
With its forest green roof and elaborate wooden gable screens, Sunny Knoll is a natural extension of its lovely rural setting.