SFDC Designwire

When Lightning Strikes Back ~ Fannie Allen



Chapin House on Isle au Haut in Maine was hit by lightning in 2009, as its owners were close to completing a yearlong renovation. Credit Courtesy Fannie Allen

Late one July night in 2009, George Cogan, a financial consultant, and his wife, Fannie Allen, an interior designer, got a nightmarish phone call. Chapin House, their early 1900s gabled summer retreat on Isle au Haut in Maine, had been struck by lightning in a violent thunderstorm. A neighbor who spotted the flames around 3 a.m. roused the town. About 50 islanders and park rangers, forming a bucket brigade, needed five hours to put out the fire.

The news was particularly devastating because the homeowners, who lived with their three children in Atherton, Calif., had nearly completed a yearlong restoration of the property.


A wintertime view of lobster boats off Isle au Haut. Credit Stacey Cramp for The New York Times

Isle au Haut is a fishing community six miles south of Stonington, Me., with a year-round population of about 40. It’s “not Martha Stewart’s or George Bush’s world,” Ms. Allen said recently, but its relaxed charm suited the couple.

In fact, Mr. Cogan, 60, had visited the island since boyhood. His family vacationed in a house where salt once was stored for a lobster-canning factory near the town dock. As a teenager, he mowed lawns for neighbors who were like extended family.

When a nearby two-story wooden house with a dock of its own came on the market in 2008, he and Ms. Allen, 59, bought it for $650,000, with the plan to use it throughout the year.


Chapin House in the mid-20th century and today. Credit Left, courtesy Fannie Allen; right, Stacey Cramp for The New York Times

Mr. Cogan knew a few things about the property — including how Lidie Chapin, who lived there decades before and whose family gave the house its name, had once seen lightning flow down an interior pipe and jump across the living room. Neighbors said lightning had struck even before that, and Ms. Chapin predicted a return appearance.

But Mr. Cogan brushed aside the childhood memory and focused instead on insulation. Chapin House had none. It also had an addition with vinyl siding that marred the facade. “Everything had rotted underneath,” Ms. Allen said.

To update the house and its barn, they hired Elisabeth Doermann, a San Francisco architect and an old friend of Mr. Cogan, who had also grown up summering on Isle au Haut. She gathered a team from the town of Blue Hill on the mainland and all available locals.


A view from the dining room, which features posts and brackets from a porch of the original house. Credit Stacey Cramp for The New York Times

Upstairs, they added dormers and skylights. Downstairs, they ripped out the addition and extended the central foyer by 12 feet for extra living space and a larger kitchen. The back porch was enclosed for a dining area with insulated windows overlooking the water.

Nearing the end of her work, Ms. Doermann went to inspect the house. All that remained were final decisions on the interior paint colors and spots to be patched on the siding and roof. Lightning rods lay on the living room floor, ready to be installed.

And so they remained the next day, when lightning hit. “If the barn had caught, the fire would have spread to the whole town,” Mr. Cogan said. The bucket brigade saved it and the century-old one-room schoolhouse next door, but not Chapin House. The top floor was incinerated and water ruined the rest.


Fannie Allen owns Chapin House with her husband, George Cogan. Credit Stacey Cramp for The New York Times

The couple discussed remodeling again. “But nobody could guarantee that we would get rid of the burnt smell,” Mr. Cogan said. Anyway, it would have been just as costly to salvage the remains as to knock them down and rebuild. This time, they started from scratch.

The couple decided the 2,500-square-foot replacement home would be a replica of the destroyed one. “Context was important,” Ms. Allen said. A modern building would have clashed with the nearby gabled stone town hall and 19th-century Congregational church. So a new Chapin House rose on the old stone foundation.

To save time, even mainlanders on the construction team lived on Isle au Haut on and off from August 2009 through June 2010. “During the winter, it was hard enough to get materials to the island and get waste off it,” Ms. Doermann said, never mind the workers. The mail boat that ferried between the mainland and town dock could transport small loads, but large barges were needed for lumber and Dumpsters and were often delayed by tides and weather.


A replacement for an original square stained-glass window came from Portland, Ore. Credit Stacey Cramp for The New York Times

“Perhaps that’s why islanders don’t get rid of things and reuse what’s there,” Ms. Doermann said. “Many houses have pieces from other houses because of that ingrained mentality of recycling.”

Indeed, Bill Stevens, the roads commissioner-turned-contractor who did the septic site work, gathered Chapin House’s charred but usable frame and windows to build a painting studio for his wife.

Ms. Doermann turned her energies to reclamation, as well. Pine beams from a Boston warehouse were milled for the new house’s main-level flooring (now with radiant heat), while the hand-hewn floorboards upstairs came from a Nova Scotia barn.


A new Bertazzoni stove and its backsplash of tiles made of recycled airplane aluminum were reinstalled in the kitchen. Credit Stacey Cramp for The New York Times

Pressed-tin ceilings that survived the fire were reused in the sunroom. A new Bertazzoni kitchen stove and its backsplash of tiles made of recycled airplane aluminum were reinstalled, as were vintage hardware and the paneled front door. (Both were in refinishing workshops off the island the day of the storm.)

Ms. Doermann also rescued the lathe-turned posts and arabesque brackets of the former back porch and split them in half to form pilasters flanking new dining room windows.

Ms. Allen, for her part, borrowed from the local landscape palette of aquamarine, cobalt blue, wildflower red and foggy gray, using it in upholstery fabrics, painted doors and kitchen cabinetry.


A guest room features vintage metal bed frames, a painting by a local artist and a chest of drawers painted by a neighbor. Credit Stacey Cramp for The New York Times

She bought metal beds and wood dining chairs originally from Maine that had made their way to vintage stores in California and New York. A replacement for an original square stained-glass window came from Portland, Ore. Deer Isle granite counters in two of the bathrooms are from a Stonington quarry.

Rebuilt at a cost of about $360 per square foot, Chapin House is a vivid reflection of its old self. But there is also something conspicuously new: lightning rods on the roof, grounded with concealed copper cables connected to steel plates buried far from the house.

“Twenty-five other houses got lightning rods that year,” Mr. Cogan said. That’s how the installer’s business works “right after a burn.”

A version of this article appears in print on March 8, 2018, on Page F10 of the New York edition with the headline: When Lightning Strikes Back.


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