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When Lauren and Greg Soutiea bought the Craignair Inn in St. George in fall 2018, they had plans that included renovations, solar panels, a greenhouse — but, as everyone knows by now, nothing changes plans like a global pandemic.
The Soutieas' plans didn't dissolve, though, they evolved. And one of the linchpins, using adjacent Clark Island as a complement to the inn and restaurant, became even more vital.
"We had plans to rebrand and renovate the restaurant within the next three years, but when the pandemic hit we decided that we should take advantage of our time at home to move the project forward," Lauren Soutiea said. The couple live at the inn, so their time at home put them in a great position to tackle interior upgrades.
Meanwhile, the Maine Coast Heritage Trust was finalizing conservation of 120 acres on Clark Island, which is the inn's second front yard, accessible by a granite causeway at the end of Clark Island Road in St. George's Spruce Head village. The deal was finalized July 6.
The inn's name, the Craignair, comes from the Scottish Gaelic for "black rock," and is a reference to the quarrymen the building was constructed for as they cut granite on Clark's Island. The Soutieas went all in on the connection — the restaurant and its outdoor space, including a pandemic-spurred serving window on the porch, are now The Causeway Restaurant and Clark Bar.
The restaurant has long been a feature of the inn at 5 Third St., which is on 1.5 acres and has 13 rooms and the restaurant in the 7,518-square-foot main building and eight in the 2,160-square-foot adjacent Vestry.
The Soutieas had planned to renovate the restaurant three to five years down the road, once they gained some traction with the 92-year-old inn. But, with the shutdown, the time was right.
The space is 900 square feet with wide windows that overlook Clark Island and the southern end of Penobscot Bay. When they started the restaurant renovation, all they had was the new name — The Causeway. Their friend Haley Mistler, who is a partner at Suprette Studio, a design and branding firm, also had some downtime. She had her partner, Sonja Haviland, helped the couple come up with what they'd like the restaurant space to be, as well as rebrand, including menus, logos and more.
"Haley and Sonja helped us to think about how we could honor the past, using as much local inspiration as possible from the history of the Clark Island quarry," said Lauren. "Our goal was to create a casual but elevated look that speaks to both our local community as well as appeal to travelers."
They took cues from the region in the year the causeway was built, 1892, to inspire the design, which includes nods to the granite quarry and one of the favorite pastimes of the quarry workers, baseball.
The renovations were a family affair. Lauren's parents, Cheryl and Steve Wooley, and sister Kate Wooley moved into the inn for nearly three months during the pandemic to help with renovations. Her other sister, Myra Popejoy, lives on the West Coast, but checked in frequently on the progress via Zoom calls.
The project started with wrapping the lower walls of the dining room in wainscoting, painted with a high-gloss dark muddy green to
reflect the natural light. The windows were redone using Shaker-style trim. Some of the furniture was moved out to make more space, and the walls got a fresh coat of paint.
The couple also removed rugs and spruced up the original hardwood floors, installed new lighting fixtures and added to the lighting, including Shiplight sconces. In order to keep 6 feet of distance between tables they changed the planned table layout in the dining room significantly. They said they hope int he future to revisit the plan, and also add more two-person tables.
A part of their plan from the beginning was to add a cocktail bar to the restaurant, and that was the focus of the restaurant upgrade, guided by Greg. The bar, in the corner of the dining room next to wide picture windows, offers spectacular Penobscot Bay and Clark Island views.
The bar top was originally going to be granite. That wasn't in the budget, though, so Greg came up a plan to use poured concrete and paint it dark gray to mimic Clark Island granite.
They poured the concrete bar into a mold on the dining room floor, which was the most stressful part of the renovation, the Soutieas said. When they took it out of the mold, it cracked.
"At first we were upset, but now we think it adds character to the bar," Lauren said.
The bar frame was built by Lauren's father, Steve Wooley, and the bar face, a V-groove, was stained by Kate Wooley. The bar back is a light green beadboard, with simple shelving for glassware. The shelving was repurposed from a server station that they removed as part of the renovation.
Lauren's father also built the sliding cabinet doors for the back bar, as well as cabinets for storing linens, with with the same design.
They added a drop ceiling with eco-friendly wood fiber acoustic ceiling tiles over the bar and nearby alcove, and funky pendant
lights over the bar. The finishing touch is bright red bar stools.
The bar itself isn't open because of pandemic restrictions. "This is really just for decoration right now in the middle of the pandemic," Lauren said. "But we hope that one day it will be a great gathering place."
The restrooms also got a new look. They removed the "Ladies" and "Gentlemen" signs and relabeled them gender-neutral "Toilette." While a small change, it was an important one, they said, to be more inclusive for everyone who stays at the Inn or dines at The Causeway.
"Because the bathrooms are a small space, we decided to treat them like tiny jewel boxes, painting them all a saturated green cedar path paint color, including the ceiling, trim, baseboards and walls," Lauren said. They added pennyround flooring tile, reminiscent of the era when the inn was built.
In mid-July, they installed an outdoor tent with picnic tables to expand the outdoor dining capacity for the restaurant. They're still waiting for outdoor lighting to arrive, which is on back order, slowed by the pandemic. The Causeway Restaurant is open for dinner now on Fridays and Saturdays after being closed since winter.
A major pandemic-spurred addition is an outside walk-up bar ordering window. It's also poured concrete, and Kate, the resident artist, designed the "C" that is engraved into it. They hid some utilities pipes behind it, with an access panel that pops off. Other elements include side tables made of lobster traps, and Adirondack chairs that look out over the bay.
The walk-up window, which opens at 2 p.m. every day, features homemade ice cream, which can be ordered in the shape of a lighthouse or whale, a big hit with kids, Lauren said. And, like the inn itself, the outdoor space is dog-friendly, and serves peanut butter dog ice cream.
Besides ice cream, walk-up customers can order from a full-service drink menu, including a non-alcohol cocktails list, as well as small appetizers and snacks.
Another pandemic element is the increased number of people visiting Clark Island, and, therefore, walking by The Causeway's window. The Soutieas said it's the most exciting feature of the redesign.
"It gives us a chance to reconnect with our community and also has brought in some new people," Lauren said.
Before the pandemic, the Soutieas were already part of the island conservation project.
"We just love Clark Island and all the MCHT has done to preserve it," they said. They worked with MCHT to expand and upgrade the inn's parking lot, on 3rd Street, and add eight parking spaces, which is the only parking for those visiting the island. Many visitors park at the end of Clark Island Road, where there's no turnaround. The causeway is closed to traffic, except for the two residences on the island, so the parking lot was necessary for the preservation project.
Tim Glidden, executive director of the MCHT, that the trust is always working with preserve neighbors to ensure good management on the conserved lands.
"The formal arrangement specifically for parking at the Craignair Inn is a little unusual. but is essential for the project’s success and we are deeply grateful for their willingness to partner with MCHT," he told Mainebiz.
The trust, in the coming months, plans to improve access on the island, including installing signs, clearing trails and making other improvements.
The island is not only a walking destination — it has a flat 1.5-mile trail, part of which is an old road that looks around the former quarry — but it also is one of the few remaining unfragmented coastal habitat blocks in the region, the trust said. It supports a diversity of wildlife, including more than 100 species of migratory birds, otter dens and many vernal pools. Much of its intertidal salt marsh, mudflat and beach are designated as Significant Tidal Waterfowl and Wading Bird Habitat by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
The couple says that every day, regardless of the weather, they see people walking out onto the island. "I see how special the place is to the local community," Greg said. He said every day, including in the winter, people walk out onto the island.
Other projects that were going to happen soon were put on hold. They had plans drawn up for a greenhouse that they were planning to install this spring, but when they reprioritized big project,s it was put on hold in favor of the walk-up window. They still hope to build the greenhouse in a few years, "once we get back on our feet and recover from the financial loss of this year."
"We see a future where we are able to grow most of the vegetables and herbs that we use in our restaurant," Lauren said. They buy most of their produce from Beth's Farm, and would still have to tap into them for things like potatoes, which they use a lot of.
Before the pandemic they'd applied for a grant from the USDA to help with 25% of the cost of buying and installing solar panels. They found out at the end of March they'd been awarded the grant, just as the shutdowns were beginning. While it was bad timing, they have up to two years to move forward.
Greg said they hope to cover the majority of their electricity use, as well as store energy in a backup battery so that when they lose power, which happens on the peninsula, they'll be able to run the inn off the generator.
The main building of the inn has 13 rooms, and there are another eight, which are pet-friendly, in the Vestry building, which was once the chapel when the inn was a residence for the quarry stonecutters. That building was added to the inn by Terri Smith, who owned the inn before the O'Sheas, who the Soutieas bought it from. Smith is still a neighbor.
The Soutieas said now that the Causeway and Clark Bar and outdoor dining projects are mostly finished, they're taking a break from renovations and focusing on maintenance.
While the pandemic upended their plans, "I’m really proud of what we’ve done," Lauren said. "We hope we’ve created a place where guests feel safe and comfortable, and they can escape.”