LITTLE DEER ISLE — Walk into a Coakley house and you’ll be surrounded by wood, space and light. A designer and builder who can slip a line from “Moby Dick” into the conversation with ease, Coakley has been creating homes for about five decades, first up in the Pembroke area and for the last 35 years on the Blue Hill Peninsula and Deer Isle.
Haidan’s Rock Lane, a long dirt road off Eggemoggin Road on Little Deer Isle, is Coakley’s latest playing ground. Pitched rooftops and gables loom out of treetops, a handful of houses tucked at the ends of winding driveways that lead to the shore. Over one shoulder, the Deer Isle-Sedgwick Bridge hangs suspended in the air. Handcrafted wooden docks jut out into the Reach. Coakley builds them, too.
“I’m kind of a proponent of the person who builds a house can also be a designer,” he said, sitting on a beach chair by the stairs of his current work-in-progress. “This one here is mostly about light. Sort of, slightly. I hope to have it, kind of the mix of horizontal and vertical and maybe the feeling of lightness of mass.”
To talk design — exterior and interior — with Coakley is to step into a world that is very much his own and that he is loath to let go of.
“It’s just the way it is,” he said. “I want to go to the very end, and I want to put my judgment into it. Like the bathrooms. I’m going to go crazy on them.”
A Yale-trained sculptor, Coakley dismissed his Ivy League education with a flick of one hand.
“No matter what, even before I was in school, I liked making stuff,” he said. “In school, I always liked doing art. I struggled with everything else. The only thing that got me by was hard work.”
Coakley builds in the post-and-beam style but with digressions. He is more about the beams than the posts — his wife’s 1620-built family home in Massachusetts featured hand-jammed, edged elm beams, including the “summerbeam” running the length of the home and holding the weight of all the beams.
“It really was an incredible house,” he said. “It felt like shelter should feel.”
Coakley named his building company after that beam and threw in a 54-foot summerbeam in the Sedgwick home he built 35 years ago for him, Betsy and their two sons. But while he likes the coziness and warmth of a 6-by-5-foot ceiling, as in his own house, Coakley said that times have changed. The Haidan’s Rock Lane houses are “the beginning” of new designs featuring higher ceilings that flood open spaces with even more light.
Coakley said he lifted his recent style from an old Maine postcard. “I kind of call these boathouse houses. The idea is that this structure could have existed prior to this as a boathouse and someone came and remodeled it into a house.”
In his work-in-progress, windows soar high, walls stop short of ceilings, and the first-floor living room rises up two stories tall. Designed with three bedrooms and two baths, the house’s upstairs sitting space has built-in seating to throw a couple mattresses on, and one bedroom with built-in bunks. And nearly everything is built-in and built by hand. Closet doors and shelves, kitchen cabinets and dressers. A staircase leads upward, its railing curving along a gallery above the first floor, was crafted from lengths of black locust scavenged from a Bangor Hydro pole.
Pine floorboards of different shades were laid in the kitchen — “The idea is to make it look a little recycled,” Coakley said — and the upstairs flooring is spruce, which Coakley wants to leave unfinished to “let it naturally burnish.”
Coakley has built roughly 45 houses in his career — he’s now 75 — with nearly half built from the ground up. But he’s had some local help the last 13 years from two lobstermen who turn to carpentry during their offseason, Casey Ryan and Aaron Lyman, whom he speaks of in the highest terms on carpentry skills, ingenuity and character.
Most houses he builds take 9 to 11 months, he said. “This one here I think I’m going into year number five.” Cancer treatments, and now chemotherapy, “slows me down a lot. I’m getting older. I just can’t do what I used to. And I’m just taking my time.”
Plus, he loves his work.
“Just say, if I had all kinds of money, I’d do this anyway. Maybe,” he said. “I’m kind of obsessed a little. That’s why I like ‘Moby Dick.’”