From Sea To Lake

Nautical Collector Mare Culnane

By Ann Dermody

Photo of Mare Culnane

Mare Culnane spent years visualizing the dream home she'd build in retirement, a nautical treasure trove packed with decades of collector items she'd picked up during a remarkable career as a chief engineer in the Merchant Marines. "I spent years shipping boxes back to my brother to store," she laughs. "He was very patient."

Photo of Mare Culnane's nautical collection

Photo of the head and galley all in one space

Every nook and cranny of Culnane's house reveals a new maritime jewel, and she admits there are still many, many boxes that haven't been opened. It's not surprising that the first female engineer graduate from the Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, New York, would be singular in her approach to her dream house. In 1994, she bought an existing cottage with a picture-perfect view on a rural Pennsylvania lake, waited a decade to start building, and finally moved there full-time in 2009 to complete the project during her retirement. Every last splinter seems to have a story to tell. Portholes on the garage level were salvaged from a tugboat in Mobile, Alabama. A 1950s door to a cocktail lounge, from the British passenger liner SS Iberia, scrapped at a breakers yard in Taiwan, leads from the engine room to her upstairs stateroom. The stateroom's ceiling is an inverted ship's hull design, its beams dotted with models of all the ships Mare worked on, several of which she created herself during quiet hours at sea. Her workshop is the "engine room," her bathroom the "head," her kitchen "the galley."

Photo of Mare Culnane's flatware collectionMare Culnane spent years sending back an extensive cup and flatware collection from the various shipping lines she worked on, before integrating them as a show piece behind specially-built glass cupboards. Less dusting she says.

Photo of a collection of key rings from the ships Mare Culnane workedA collection of key rings from the ships she worked on hangs in her garage.

Culnane is refreshingly honest about the open plan of the stateroom's design. "The house was built just for me to use, so why not have it exactly as I wanted it?" she asks. That means little privacy in the bed or bathroom, as bulkheads are no more than 45 inches high, so the 360-degree windows create the feeling of being on the bridge of a large ship. "They're too beautiful to hide," she says with a grin when talking about the combo stainless steel-and-mahogany toilet and nickel-lined copper tub for which she trolled the Internet. Absolutely everything is chosen to re-create a career you can't help feeling was perfect for the Pennsylvania native. Her dining room table is made from a porthole door, and every dish, piece of flatware, glass, and cup she uses are from various shipping lines she's worked on, several now out of business. For galley lighting, she has six brass-and-copper mid-century ship's cargo lights, and over the dining room and the head vanity are beehive-style brass-and-copper ship's cargo lights. Her dressers are two cabinets salvaged from a Great Lakes British freighter and from a tramp steamer in Taiwan. And on and on it goes, until finally she reveals an old engine order telegraph presented to her on her retirement. "Its handle is pointed to finished," she beams. 

— Published: December 2015

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