Urban Rebirth

A couple downsizes and starts over on Munjoy Hill.


At dusk, Back Cove blushes with the colors of the setting sun, and the Portland skyline switches on for the night. Taillights and headlights form a steady stream over the streets leading downtown. If it’s a Friday evening and the weather is just right, a few neighbors might be on their way up for a cocktail; afterwards they’ll walk to dinner at one of the restaurants nearby. Life outside these walls is always calling. The city invites you to participate simply by virtue of existing, right there before your eyes.

For the Machesneys, this lifestyle came about intentionally, albeit abruptly. The couple had been living in a 4,300-square-foot house on five acres in Cumberland. One summer day, after receiving the tax bill, David came home from work and told Nancy that he was “done.” He was tired of the house maintenance, the property upkeep, the expense. The couple was at the age at which their children were grown and out of the house, but they were still working, still busy. As the owner of Pratt Abbott dry cleaners, which he bought with his father in 1991, David runs 14 locations in southern Maine, as well as a full-service uniform and linen rental business. Nancy is a physical therapist for Interim HealthCare. “We were finding that we couldn’t get out and do what we loved,” says David. “Weekends were spent working on the house.”

Within a week of David’s declaration, the Machesneys met with a real estate agent—“just an exploratory meeting, to see if Dave was serious,” says Nancy—and before the house even hit the market, they had an interested buyer and closed within 45 days. The search for a condo in Portland, and the simpler living that comes with it, was on. David wanted easy parking (“We’re not fighting for parking, not at this age”), and Nancy, with her experience in physical therapy, wanted a home where they could age in place. The brand-new Munjoy Heights development, with its two-car garage and option for an elevator, fit the bill.

The complex of 29 townhomes, developed by Redfern Properties and built by Wright-Ryan Construction and architect Ryan Senatore, sits on the western slope of Munjoy Hill and was designed to be highly energy-efficient. The Machesneys bought in early enough to choose a four-story unit plus roof deck with an especially open view of Back Cove. During their two-hour consult with interior designer James Light, a service Redfern provided to all potential buyers, the Machesneys clicked with him immediately and decided to bring Light on to do the interior design of their entire unit. Light was at a similar stage in his life, with a daughter in college, and he loved living on Portland’s West End. He helped the couple articulate their style, which was an extension of how they wanted to live: simple, yet sophisticated; not fussy.

The transition from big house in the suburbs to townhouse in the city included envisioning an untraditional floor plan. The ground-floor entry features a mudroom and off of it the garage. The Machesneys chose to make their second floor the guest area with a den where Nancy reads or practices yoga. The third floor is where the main living spaces are—a powder room and kitchen, dining, and living area with fireplace, as well as a deck overlooking the city. Above that on the fourth floor is the owners’ suite and sitting area, and then above that, the icing on the cake: a rooftop deck with panoramic views, making the four flights of stairs well worth the climb. This kind of stacked living is admittedly not for everyone, but the Machesneys don’t mind carrying groceries up two flights of stairs, and they certainly don’t mind having an entire floor between them and their guests.

One of the upsides of downsizing is that it forces you to reconsider everything you own. Over the years, Nancy and David had accumulated a lot of stuff in their Cumberland house: a collection of antiques, all the items you amass while raising kids, furniture from nearly every member of the extended family—a lot of things they no longer needed or wanted. “People are like goldfish,” says Light. “We grow to our containers.” With everything they owned out of sight in storage while their condo was being built, the Machesneys were able to “forget” what they had and start fresh. The purge was not without some hesitancy at first. “There’s this Yankee frugality that says ‘Oh my gosh, how much did we pay for that bed way back then?’” says Nancy. This is where Light guided them gently down the path of letting go. “The truth is, that bed would’ve never fit in this space,” he says. “We designed everything down to the inch.”

Portland living has not only simplified their lives, it’s made them healthier as well. The two traded in square footage for more time spent on their feet. Munjoy Heights is directly connected to Portland Trails for easy walking, and there is a bike path to Back Cove. After they wake up and eat breakfast, Nancy does her “loop” on the picturesque paths. Both of them live closer to work now, and with everything they need within walking distance, they spend far less time in the car. With a farmers’ market just down the street and easy access to Rosemont Market and Whole Foods, they find themselves grabbing whatever looks good on the way home to make dinner. “Not only do we walk more, we eat lighter and fresher since moving here,” says David.

As their amount of space and belongings went down, David and Nancy’s quality of life and freedom went up. “It’s really been a rebirth,” says David. Now, on a summer Saturday, instead of being strapped to the lawnmower or a rake, they’ll have a golf date or walk to the Old Port. “You can’t buy time,” says Nancy. “But in many ways I feel like we have.”

 

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