A house that’s more than a home: Couple restores historic house in Robbinston

The Capt. John Brewer House in Robbinston was built in 1828 and served as the last stop in Maine of the Undreground Railroad during the 19th century.  Now the house is the home of Trond Saeverud and Joan Siem who bought it in 2001.
The Capt. John Brewer House in Robbinston was built in 1828 and served as the last stop in Maine of the Undreground Railroad during the 19th century. Now the house is the home of Trond Saeverud and Joan Siem who bought it in 2001.
Posted Aug. 19, 2011, at 1:14 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 24, 2011, at 4:02 p.m.
The Capt. John Brewer House in Robbinston that was built in 1828 and served as the last stop in Maine of the Undreground Railroad during the 19th century.
The Capt. John Brewer House in Robbinston that was built in 1828 and served as the last stop in Maine of the Undreground Railroad during the 19th century.
The interior of the Capt. John Brewer House in Robbinston that was built in 1828 and served as the last stop in Maine of the Undreground Railroad during the 19th century.
The interior of the Capt. John Brewer House in Robbinston that was built in 1828 and served as the last stop in Maine of the Undreground Railroad during the 19th century.
Artist Joan Siem and her husband Trond Saeverud (not pictured) own the Capt. John Brewer House in Robbinston was built in 1828.
Artist Joan Siem and her husband Trond Saeverud (not pictured) own the Capt. John Brewer House in Robbinston was built in 1828.
Violinist Trond Saeverud and his wife Joan Siem (not pictured) own the Capt. John Brewer House in Robbinston was built in 1828.
Violinist Trond Saeverud and his wife Joan Siem (not pictured) own the Capt. John Brewer House in Robbinston was built in 1828.

ROBBINSTON, Maine — Trond Saeverud is a world-class violinist who has performed concert tours in the U.S., Japan, Scandinavia, and Europe, as well as founding the Passamaquoddy Bay Symphony Orchestra.

His wife, Joan Siem, is a world-class artist who has taught art in California, Maryland and Denmark and has exhibited her paintings and mixed-media artwork throughout Europe, the U.S. and Japan.

So what in the world is this duo doing in Robbinston, Maine?

“It’s the house,” Siem said during a recent tour of their 1828 sea captain’s home. “It was the power of this house.”

The Brewer House is named for Capt. John Nehemiah Brewer, who built the Greek Revival mansion that has been on the National Registry of Historic Places for 20 years.

Painstakingly restored, the house has a deep, rich history — a 183-year history that is almost palpable while strolling through the rooms.

“One of my most favorite things to do,” Saeverud said, “is to walk around after dark with all the lights off. You can really feel the atmosphere of the house. You can feel it speak.”

And, oh, what stories it could tell — a novel’s worth, at least.

There would be the voices of the fleeing slaves that legend holds were hidden in the attic. What must they have thought as they peered out the tiny third-floor window and spied Canada — that they were actually looking at freedom? What prayers did they whisper as they were brought out of hiding in the dark, scuttled across the road and into waiting boats that took them across Passamaquoddy Bay to Canada? What incredible sacrifices and losses had they undergone as they made their way to Maine?

There would be conversations in Passamaquoddy, as natives slept on the sweeping front and rear porches while traveling into Calais to trade. There would be the strong voices of native singing as the Passamaquoddy harvested the sacred sage they had planted along the mansion’s foundation.

There would be the lilting voices of schoolchildren in the 1960s who learned lessons in the long parlor, the 9-foot-tall mahogany doors closed to separate the younger children from those more advanced. What learning songs were sung, leaving their musical notes inside the walls? Did the children dance on the wide board flooring where the slaves so lightly had trodden?

There would be the pleading voices of the many patients who sought out Dr. Armstrong in the 1930s and ’40s, whose little pills seemed to heal everything from heartache to arthritis. What stories did those patients whisper to their physician?

And there also would be the voices echoing from the nearby art gallery, which was once the mess hall for loggers in Baileyville. The stories most certainly would include tales of daring and recklessness, boldness and hard work.

The Brewer House is a treasure — northeastern Maine’s only amphiprostyle Greek Revival building (it has a colonnade on each of its gable ends). Every room has a marble fireplace, complete with the original inserts. Doors have sterling silver carved doorknobs. The kitchen counter is the original 2-inch-thick piece of white marble.

“People have actually stopped by just to thank us for taking care of the house,” Siem said.

Saeverud and Siem lived in a tiny house in Prospect Harbor in 2005 and had no intentions of moving when they spotted an advertisement for the home.

“Right on the spot, we fell in love,” Siem said. They bought it immediately, despite that it meant Saeverud would have to commute to Bangor and Farmington, where he taught.

Although the home was in good shape, Saeverud continued to restore and uncover details, such as hand-carved woodwork and original flooring.

“The entire basement began to cave in and so we had to literally lift up the house and replace it,” Siem said. “It has been so much work but it has been so worth it.”

For six years, the couple ran the Brewer Inn as a bed-and-breakfast inn.

“Our guests just loved the history of this place,” she said. “But we just got worn out.”

Each of the six bedrooms — with names of the surrounding places such as Campobello, St. Andrews or The Little Dipper and the Captain John — are still lovingly appointed with handmade quilts, antique beds with massive, carved headboards rising to the ceilings, original chandeliers and the interior shutters used to keep out winter winds from the sea.

Modern bathrooms have been created from servants’ rooms but despite those conveniences, each room remains historical and true. The Brewer House is one of three on U.S. Route 1 in Robbinston built by the Brewer family.

The Mansion House was built by John Brewer, the brigadier general of the Washington County Militia during the War of 1812, and John Nehemiah Marks Brewer’s father. Siem said that when the militia surrendered, Brewer persuaded the British not to burn the homes. The third Brewer home is the ornate Redclyffe, built by Capt. Brewer’s widow. All three homes would have risen high above the family’s shipyard, of which all evidence is gone; the space is now a city park.

A family cemetery behind the Brewer House is still accessible.

“The local schoolchildren come once a year and clean it up,” Siem said. But evidence of the family’s legacy still remains, not just in the house, but on the grounds. “We are surrounded by it,” Siem said.

There are heirloom apple orchards and fruit gardens that include red and black currants and other berries. An ancient chestnut tree that once graced the home’s front lawn was removed recently to accommodate widening of the road.

“The materials and the quality of this house are incredible. It was easy to get motivated to continue the restoration,” Saeverud said. “We feel a real responsibility to the house, not a negative responsibility. It has been an amazing education.”

Because they no longer operate the house as a bed-and-breakfast, the mansion was listed for sale just last week, after this interview took place.

“This is the third summer that we haven’t opened the house as a B&B,” Siem said. “Without that, it’s too big and expensive for just two people to live in. We expect it to take several years to sell, and doing the upkeep doesn’t get easier with age. Trond has done most of the upkeep himself, and doesn’t feel he can devote that much time and energy to it much longer. That much hammering, scraping and painting isn’t good for his hands for his violin playing.”

Siem said the couple has spent years loving the history and restoration of the Brewer House, but they feel that it’s time to give it over to others who will use the whole house again.

“With such a house as this, it’s never really yours,” Siem said. “You are a caretaker for as long as you can do it, and hope that others will come along with the same respect for its past. We are just a short chapter in the life of this house.”

CORRECTION:

An early version of this story incorrectly reported that the home’s owner, Trond Saeverud, founded SummerKeys in Lubec. SummerKeys’ founder was Bruce Potterton. In addition, Saeverud’s name was misspelled in the caption with the story.

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