PORTLAND – Lee Marquis and Jim Bilodeau were just about to give up.

The two men had seen countless properties, hoping to move out of their large Freeport home into something smaller in Portland. They wanted something downtown, a place within walking distance to restaurants, arts venues and other amenities.

They were just about convinced they would find nothing in their price range and nothing that would suit their tastes. Then, agreeing to see one more listing, they looked at a carriage house being used as a garage. The place was old, cavernous and not at all suitable for living in.

But they liked what they saw.

“We were able to look at it then, with nothing in it, and see this,” said Marquis, standing in the renovated carriage house recently. “We felt like it was something we could work with.”

So the men bought a historic building in an area they really liked, and turned it into a two-story, 1,400-square-foot home with tons of custom features. They bought the property in 2007, and have lived there for about two years.

From the outside, the building still retains a lot of its original look. It’s long and narrow with plain brick walls, a steep roof and a garage door. But it has new windows and doors, plus a small, gated brick courtyard, all of which help give it the look of a brick cottage.

Located near busy State and Spring streets, the building was used mainly as a garage for a long time. So Portland architect Nancy Barba and builders Papi & Romano of Portland basically had a blank slate when it came to designing and constructing the interior as living space.

One of the first things to be done was to crack through the cement slab under the carriage house and dig a basement for utilities and other uses.

While digging, workmen dug up some of the building’s history.

“They found a layer of ash — several inches — and we think it was probably a remnant of the Great Fire (of 1866), but we have no way to know for sure,” said Marquis.

And while working on the interior of the carriage house, tiny squash balls were found imbedded in rafters and elsewhere. The balls were so old, they basically disintegrated upon touch. There were also lots of black scuffs on the white walls that looked like ball marks.

So Marquis and Bilodeau did some more digging, in historic records, and found that the property the carriage house is on was once owned by Frederick Hale, who represented Maine in the U.S. Senate from 1917 to 1941.

Further digging, in a “who’s who”-type directory of prominent Mainers in the early 20th century, found that Hale was listed as a member of at least two “tennis and racquet” clubs, in Boston and New York. So the idea of the carriage house being used as a squash court is at least plausible.

Inside, the vibe is contemporary. There is lots of warm-colored woodwork and many industrial, modern touches such as a black granite and glass fireplace and steel cables as stairway railings. There are oversized windows for light, and an upstairs den that is open, without walls, creating a floor from first floor to second.

“Outside, we had to conform with historic standards, but inside, we really wanted it contemporary,” said Marquis.

The house is filled with detailed accents, such as a kitchen counter that is rounded at one end to mirror the kitchen floor, which is rounded where it meets the living room floor.

Both the counters and fireplace were done by Morningstar Stone and Tile in Topsham.

Many of the light fixtures are from Vermont-based Hubbardton Forge. Several black light fixtures that mimic lanterns are hung over a giant black iron beam in the entry for a look that hints at olden times but feels modern. The renovation’s light consulting was done locally through House of Lights, and that’s where the Hubbardton fixtures were purchased.

Although the home is basically surrounded by parking lots, Marquis and Bilodeau were able to capture a little bit of outdoor seclusion by attaching a 10-by-20-foot brick-walled courtyard. The small space is filled with greenery, and the brick wall is topped with plants as well. Double doors lead from the living space to the courtyard.

“It’s small, but we feel lucky to have an outdoor space here, so we tried to make the most of it,” said Marquis.

Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at: rrouthier@pressherald.com