A second-story room in David Lee’s newest house features a hanging bed. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

BOOTHBAY — David Lee builds houses that seem like they leapt from the pages of “Sleeping Beauty” or “The Hobbit.” They’re loaded with whimsical, escapist features like towers, turrets, stained glass, lampposts topped with wizard hats and beds that hang from the ceiling. Lee says he builds them to be energy-efficient, durable, practical and livable, as well as creative and inspiring. And by building them, he’s also putting a happy ending on his own family’s tale.

Lee, 73, who was born in western Maine, spent most of his childhood in Windsor, Vermont. His father worked in a factory as a machinist, but spent his spare time trying to build his family a better home, by improving and expanding the shack where they lived. He said he watched his father struggle with things like getting a septic system dug. He’d hire someone to dig the hole, then the contractor wouldn’t come back to finish the job, Lee said. The money would run low and construction would be put on hold.

It wasn’t until Lee’s mother died, when he was 17, that his father was able to finally build the home he had envisioned, with the help of insurance money. But his father’s troubles with builders and contractors stuck with Lee when he discovered his own love of home-building. He was determined to build houses on his own, and in his own way.

Lee’s latest creation is a 2,200-square-foot, three-bedroom, two-bath home in the woods of Boothbay. It has a castlelike tower, steep roof peaks that evoke a Brothers Grimm cottage and lots of tiny colored glass pieces in windows that Lee says is “elf money,” left to him by the elves that visit his wooded building sites. Over 45 years, he’s built 21 of these storybook-style homes, including 15 in Maine. He’s written magazine articles and a book, with his wife, aimed at empowering people to do what he does.

Lee didn’t always know he wanted to build houses. As a young man, his dream was to run his own machine shop and work on race-car engines. After high school, he entered a machinist apprentice program at Pratt & Whitney, an aerospace manufacturer in Connecticut. He ended up moving back to Windsor and taught high school industrial arts. There, he bought a “fixer-upper” house – his first foray into home construction.

David Lee’s newest storybook house, in Boothbay. The thick oak shakes that he uses for siding will last a couple hundred years, he says. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

He worked on other home improvement projects and around 1974 built his first house on his own, on a pond in New Hampshire. From there, his life’s path was set. He wanted to build houses and see new places. So he taught himself, finding the systems, technology and aesthetics that worked for him. The designs are inspired by the storybook architectural style, which traces its roots to cottages the French queen Marie Antoinette had built in the late 1700s, meant to be humble but beautiful. He and his wife, Jenny, lived in other parts of the country in the homes they built – including in Ohio and Washington state – then sold them and moved on, settling in Maine in the early 2000s.

“When I started doing this, I wanted a house that was different and worked for me, and I wanted to avoid contractors and real estate agents as much as possible,” said Lee, who lives in East Boothbay.

As well as having a fairy-tale look, the latest Boothbay house features thick oak shakes for siding, to help keep in heat, and a gravity-fed water tank system in the attic to keep the well pump running even when the power is out. Like most of his other houses, it has a “forever floor” made of rolled roofing material painted to look like multi-colored tiles. The house will be auctioned off online this week.

David Lee and his wife, Jenny, have published a detailed guide to building houses like his. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

NOT FOR EVERYBODY

Bidding began July 31 and is scheduled to end Wednesday, with the opening bid set at $100,000. An auction allows Lee and his wife to control the time frame of the sale. Instead of letting the house sit on the market for months or years waiting for a buyer who appreciates its unusual look and features, they are reasonably sure someone will be the high bidder when the auction ends.

Lee hopes the auction is also a way to draw attention to how the state’s building codes are enforced. After several visits from Boothbay code enforcement officers, who Lee says found something different to correct each time, he’s convinced the house won’t be approved for occupancy while he owns it. Lee said the code issues pointed out by inspectors were minor, including an electrical outlet that was open and a stair handrail that didn’t extend far enough. Anyone who buys the house from Lee would be approved for occupancy only after correcting any problems found in a final inspection by the town, said Jason Lorain, a Boothbay code enforcement officer. Lorain did not say what problems, if any, code enforcement officers found at Lee’s house in the past.

Another reason for an auction, as opposed to a traditional sale, is that it would be nearly impossible to find comparable home values to set the sale price, said Ruth Lind of Tranzon Auction Properties in Portland, who is handling the auction. With most three-bedroom, 2,200-square-foot homes, an agent would look at other homes of that size in the area that sold recently and use those sale prices to set a listing price. But in the case of Lee’s house, with so many fanciful design elements and so many systems and techniques unique to him, finding comparable homes is not an option, Lind said. To get the house listed on real estate sites like Zillow and Trulia a price of $299,000 was attached to it, Lind said, but that number is not necessarily what the right buyer might pay.

“The decor is not for everybody, but we hope to find that buyer who can appreciate what an innovative house it is,” said Lind.

The Mushroom House built by David Lee in East Boothbay. Photo by Ray Routhier

Two people who appreciate the style are Claudia Rourke and Lori Murray, who both own Lee-built houses in Boothbay. Rourke and her husband, who were living in Boston, were driving around East Boothbay about 19 years ago and happened to see what’s known as the Mushroom House,  for the way its oversized roof dwarfs the first story and looks something like a mushroom cap. It has a three-story rounded tower with a sunroom on the top floor. They drove by a second time, then stopped and saw some sales information posted in the window, so they made an appointment to see it. They quickly decided to sell their New Hampshire vacation house and buy this one instead.

Rourke, who worked for an energy consulting firm, says the house is snug; it keeps cool in summer and holds in heat in the winter. She also said the house is an inspiring place in which to create. She paints and makes quilts there.

“It’s a fairy-tale house. We never loved a house as much as this one,” said Rourke, 75. “All the stone and colored glass are wonderful.”

But Rourke does admit that selling it at some point might be a challenge. She figures most people who can afford the house and who want to live in Boothbay probably want to be near the water. And not everyone wants to live in a mushroom-shaped house. But she has had a lot of people come visit who have seemed pretty enthused by the house and all its unusual, handmade elements. The house is assessed for tax purposes at $278,900, according to Boothbay assessment records. Lee says one of his houses today would probably cost about $100,000 to build, by him or someone doing the work themselves.

“We’d have to find someone who loves this house and has the money to buy a house in a vacation area,” like Boothbay, said Rourke.

A decorative window graces the first floor of David Lee’s newest storybook house. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Murray, who works at the YMCA in Boothbay Harbor, had seen Lee’s houses around town, including Rourke’s, and was enthralled by them. But she didn’t know Lee or his wife, or seek them out. Then one day she took a self-defense class at the Y and soon found she was “beating up” Lee. After her husband died, Murray decided she wanted a whimsical, magical sort of a house where she could escape. So she hired Lee to build a three-story, steep-roofed cottage in the woods of Boothbay, not far from the ranch house where she still lives year-round. She calls the storybook house Whit’s End at Hoot’s Hollow. She says it makes her feel like she’s in Ireland, or at least her idea of a peaceful, idyllic Ireland.

The storybook style has been modified over the years and resurfaced in the U.S. and England in the 1920s. During that time, many of the houses were not nearly as starkly storybook as what Lee builds, but had elements that made them look like the cottages of fairy tales, including rounded doors, half-timbered facades, steep roofs and small turrets. Lee says the style works best with the materials he likes to use, including thick, oak shakes for siding. Over the years, he and Jenny have split logs themselves to make the shakes. Each shake is so unique in shape that Jenny says sometimes she can look at one of the houses and remember splitting a particular one, like it’s an old friend.

Lee’s newest house has a rustic feel inside, with lots of exposed wood. The cottage feel is enhanced by window seats and little, half-hidden nooks for resting or studying. There is nothing in the house that looks like it came from Home Depot; it all comes from Lee’s mind and his workshop.

Lee says that with each house he’s built, he’s learned more about how to self-build a house efficiently, keeping costs down and using materials that are long-lasting and durable. His shakes, for instance, don’t ever need to be painted and he says they should last for a couple hundred years. And his floors last “forever,” he says. Plus the look of his houses could never be called cookie-cutter, or dull.

Lori Murray of Boothbay calls her house, built by David Lee, a “peaceful and magical” place to get away to. Photo courtesy of Backwoods Home Magazine

Lee says he’d like to do more to encourage others to take charge of their own home-building, and embrace some of his methods and techniques. He and his wife’s book, “Creative Home Improvement,” published by Oregon-based Backwoods Home Magazine in 2014, is a detailed guide to building homes like his, with chapters on shake siding, roofs, towers, solar panels, floors, hinges, windows and vents, “creative” plumbing, heat and the “art and science” of chimneys.

Though he doesn’t have any specific plans, he says he would like to start an apprenticeship program and teach young people. He would build a home with them, sell the house and give them some of the profits, and they could use that for their own house. But he also cautions that his book is not house-building for “dummies” and someone needs practical skills before tackling his methods and designs. He cautions people to start small, not start with a whole house.

A home’s true value, Lee wrote in his book, is “how well it takes care of its owners.”


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