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Sweet seclusion


The living room opens to the second-floor loft. Interior walls are fitted fir and birch panels, and ceilings are raw textured particleboard.
By By Edgar Allen Beem

SNOW ISLAND IS 30 acres of dense cedar forest and fragrant fern, spongy moss and scaly lichen, cattail bog and rockweed shore smack in the middle of Quahog Bay in Harpswell, Maine. The island is home to a handful of moles, a furtive mink or two, five osprey nests, and one human being. A flotilla of watercraft — a 53-foot sloop, a 30-foot schooner, a 29-foot work boat, a single-cylinder diesel launch, a skiff, a kayak, and four inflatable rafts with outboard motors — suggests that the hermit of Snow Island is some kind of a sailor.

"I'm thinking of getting an icebreaker," quips island owner Dodge Morgan as he pilots the work boat, Wing Nut, up to his dock. "There's usually just skim ice on the bay in winter, but last winter, we had a long cold spell without any wind, and 2 inches of hard ice formed. It was the first time in 18 years that the bay had frozen."

At 69, Morgan is tall, trim, youthful, and resourceful. He is both a highly successful businessman and a world-class sailor. In 1985, after selling Controlonics, the security electronics firm he founded in Westford, Massachusetts, Morgan moved to Maine, commissioned a 60-foot sloop that he named American Promise, and set sail to break the world record for solo circumnavigation of the globe. His record-setting 150-day voyage was detailed in the 1989 cp9.5PBScp10.5 documentary Around Alone and in a book Morgan wrote about his experience, The Voyage of American Promise, published by Houghton Mifflin in 1989.

In recent years, Morgan has been the owner of the Portland-based alternative newspaper Casco Bay Weekly and a partner in cp9.5VXIcp10.5 Corp., a New Hampshire company developing speech recognition hardware and software, but his love of adventure and isolation also led him to make elaborate preparations for a voyage to Antarctica. His plan was to circumnavigate the Antarctic continent and then get his boat frozen in for the winter, but after all the research and planning, Morgan found he "no longer had the fire in the belly" for the voyage. So, instead, he decided to settle down and come ashore.

Well, almost.

With money raised by selling off his investment in another Maine company, Morgan purchased Snow Island in 1998 and commissioned Portland architect Winton Scott to design a home for him. Morgan chose Scott, who is perhaps best known for designing the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath, "because he listens." Morgan detailed the program for his new home in what he calls an "owner's document of use," describing how he wanted to live on Snow Island, then left the architectural form to Scott.

"For me," says Scott, "this project was about the continuing search for nontraditional Maine architecture."

Scott found it refreshing that, though he had the resources to do so, Morgan was not interested in building a lavish island estate. What Morgan was looking for was quality wsContinued on Page 76 of space, not quantity.

"There's so much wasteful opulence around," says Scott. "Five years ago, the average house we designed was around 3,500 square feet. Now, people routinely want 5,000- and 6,000-square-foot homes."

Asked to design a self-sufficient, low-impact island home, Scott broke Morgan's residence into three buildings: a 1,900-square-foot main house, a 685-square-foot guest cottage, and an 816-square-foot barn that houses a workshop, laundry, and storage. The compound, secluded on a narrow spine of ledge a short walk around the cove from the dock, is unified by a cedar-shingle skin and an elevated wooden walkway.

Scott says he envisioned the compound as "a family of buildings that would keep Dodge company."

The interior of Morgan's island retreat is simple and elegant — and decidedly masculine. Constructed over a steel skeleton, the house has the look and feel of the cabin of a yacht writ large. (Others have suggested a treehouse and a cigar box.) The walls are of fitted fir and birch panels, the ceilings a raw textured particleboard. The kitchen is a galley tucked into a corner, and there are no interior doors at all. On the first floor, which is without ornamentation, the main attraction is a free-standing fireplace.

"I expected it to have an industrial look and feel, but it doesn't," says Morgan. "The whole idea was a thrill in anticipation and a thrill in realization."

The first floor houses an open plan living/dining area, the kitchen, and an office nook. It is open to the second-floor loft, which contains the master bedroom, a spacious bathroom, and a balcony overlooking the first floor. The shower stall features a window with an unobstructed view of the main entrance. Obviously, Morgan is not expecting unwanted visitors.

The two-story guest cottage takes the form of a small lighthouse and adds a vertical element to the cluster, while the long, narrow barn has the look and feel of a boathouse. The compound is connected to the mainland by a 4,200-foot underwater power line that also includes a fiber-optic cable. Warmth is supplied by small propane heaters, and there is a backup generator for emergencies. To eliminate the problem of construction waste, segments of the compound were prefabricated on the mainland and then barged to the island for assembly.

The Snow Island compound won a 1999 design award from the Maine chapter of the American Institute of Architects, the jurors finding the design "a triumph of programmatic virtue in a natural setting that demands nothing less."

When not cruising the Maine coast in his schooner Eagle or sailing to the West Indies in his sloop Wings of Time, Morgan pursues his business interests and works on a pair of book projects. One is "a guerrilla business book for entrepreneurs," the other a study of the psychological impact of sustained solitude.

Having endured 150 days alone at sea, however, Dodge Morgan does not appear to be suffering greatly from the splendid isolation of Snow Island.

"Last winter, when the ice was making up, I had a feeling of isolation, yet I could see civilization all around," says the high-style hermit.

"It was a delicious feeling."

By Edgar Allen Beem is a freelance writer.

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