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Tour a 170-Year-Old-Church That’s Now an Art-Filled Curator’s Home

October 20, 2023

Curator Donna McNeil renovated her Rockland, Maine, home to celebrate the artists she loves — and to invite them all over for creative gatherings. Might she have HGTV’s all-time longest dining table?

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Photo: Danielle Sykes

Turning Private Space Into an Artistic Sanctuary

Like countless renovators before her, Donna McNeil bought her Rockland, Maine, home with decidedly lofty plans. As the founding executive director of Rockland’s Ellis-Beauregard Foundation (a nonprofit that spearheads arts education and supports creators) and lifelong curator and arts advocate, her vision encompassed much more than her own day-to-day needs. “I [bought] this place to share it; I like to host people,” she says. “I don’t have a family or partner, and so I create one through community. There’s been so much partying and dancing in this space, and it [now] functions exactly as I envisioned in terms of welcoming folks in.”

Getting to that point involved both polishing up the massive (and now-171-year-old) former church’s beautiful bones and revisiting its previous caretakers’ decisions. Join us for an intimate look at how she has spent the last seven years honoring its origins, giving it a cost-conscious makeover and creating a public-facing private home that’s even greater than the sum of its parts.

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Photo: Courtesy of Donna McNeil

(Long, Long) Before: The Exterior

“This church was built in 1852 [for the Second Baptists] by a man named General Hiram Berry, who sadly lost his life in the American Civil War,” Donna explains. Berry served in Maine’s state legislature and as Rockland’s mayor; he was also a carpenter and a builder, and the edifice he raised at the corner of Cedar and Brewster reflects his expertise and connections.

As depicted here, the church has not a single nail. “It’s pegged together and the beams are hewn,” Donna says. “It’s remained over all these years pretty plumb, which says a lot to the quality of building in [this] area. Furthermore, Rockland’s famous for shipbuilding, and I think some of those shipwrights came and worked on this house. It’s incredibly well built.”

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Photo: Courtesy of Donna McNeil

Before: The Exterior

Sadly, the church’s original clock tower, steeple and large Gothic window are now long gone — and so was much of its most recent coats of exterior paint. “The outside of the church was so in need of a paint job that I thought I just might polish the aluminum siding and have it turned into a big tin can,” Donna recalls. “I mean it was really down to the metal, pretty much!”

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Photo: Danielle Sykes

After: The Exterior

Donna made the then-unusual decision to repaint the church black. “That was seven years ago [and] black houses have become more in fashion [lately],” she notes. Furthermore, “black churches are traditional in Iceland, so I wasn’t that weird. But the neighborhood …” she laughs.

She didn’t mind causing a bit of a stir. “It makes [the building] less dominant in the neighborhood,” she says. “I think that it quiets it down. If I had made it another color, or even white, it would [look] even larger. I think it works, and I love the way that the black works with green.”

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