ST. GEORGE, Maine — Russell Porter was an adventurer, artist and inventor who built more than a dozen tiny cottages in an effort to create an artist’s colony in Port Clyde in the early 1900s. Those cottages recently were added to the National Register of Historic Places for their unique architecture, the role they play in Maine’s tourism history and because of the historical significance of Porter.
Between several visits to the North Pole and pioneering amateur telescope making, Porter settled into the seaside village of Port Clyde. He bought 50 acres and began building cottages along the harbor, where he hoped to form an artists’ colony called “Land’s End.” The artists didn’t flock to the area, but a community of out-of-state people did.
Christi Mitchell of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission filled out the application to get the housing cluster on the national register. She said although Porter is famous for telescope-making and Arctic exploring, “no one, through the register, had recognized his architectural importance.”
Porter traveled to the arctic at least nine times as an artist and surveyor in a 13-year period ending in 1906. On his last journey, “he was stranded for three years after the boat was iced in, according to the Maine Historic Preservation Commission. In the time he was stuck he began to develop his interest as an astronomer and telescope-maker.
“After three years on the ice, Russell yearned to find a place where he could live close to nature and experience a relatively quiet, simple and self-sustaining existence,” a news release from the commission states.
Another reason Land’s End is considered historically significant enough to add to the national list concerns the insight it offers into Maine’s early tourism industry. Before the 1880s, tourism in Maine mostly meant out-of-state visitors living a rustic life in the woods. This changed around Porter’s time.
“[These cottages] represent a pattern of development that attracted out-of-staters to the area to form communities,” Mitchell said. “That trend started in the 1880s with the cottages. That’s very important to the history of Maine. It changed the way we developed in terms of tourism.”
Land’s End, which is still lived in by summer people, is located in the village of Port Clyde, which is part of the town of St. George in Knox County. It starts with two square, stone pillars with a plaque: “Land’s End A.D. 1906.” The first cottage on the left is Christmas Tree House. It’s a gable-front Swiss chalet. According to the application to get the properties on the national register, the house’s footprint is 17 feet by 18 feet.
“It’s tiny,” said Christmas Tree House owner Anne Moore, who said the cottage is her favorite place in the world.
The house got its name from Moore’s husband’s great aunt Fanny, who bought the home in 1925 and thought it looked just like an ornament on her childhood Christmas tree.
The small cottage has a bright white kitchen with robin’s egg blue features, like the kitchen table. A small kitchen is attached and an inglenook gives a view of a pebbly beach and the open ocean.
Upstairs has two bedrooms, one with a balcony to catch the sea breeze. The cottage, with low ceilings and a narrow staircase, has a cutesy gingerbread house feel.
By this time of year, all the other residents have moved out of their cottages. Moore is staying a few more weeks to close up her summer place, the only one of the Porter cabins facing the open ocean. The others cluster around Port Clyde’s harbor.
“When you see [a Porter cottage], you recognize the features,” said Ann Snow, who summered in one of them through her childhood until college.
She lived in one of three upstairs bedrooms and remembered the practical features of the cottage, like how she used to stand on the inside balcony and pull a rope to open a window across the house. She also had built-in bureaus and shelves in her cottage.
When she was 10 years old, Ann Snow met Porter, who came to check on the cottages he built. Her father told her Porter’s story, about how he used to travel to the arctic and how he helped invent a telescope, and it sparked Ann Snow’s curiosity. She now has books on the man, and her husband John requested that his buildings be added to the National Register of Historic Places.
“This [colony] is all because of the man,” Ann Snow said, thinking about Porter.
In 1978, a winter storm blew Snow’s childhood cottage away. Now she lives year round on the same land in a house that doesn’t resemble the Porter cottage.
Being on the register “encourages people here to maintain [the cottages]. Let’s say there’s a change of ownership — which happens very infrequently — it lets the new owner know what they bought,” John Snow said.
Being on the register doesn’t prohibit the owners from making changes to the homes, so most of the owners were happy for the recognition. Although there seemed to be one major concern.
“We had a concern of privacy,” John Snow said. “There are thousands of people who go to the [Marshall Point] lighthouse, but [people who live in the cottages] didn’t want that traffic around here.”
To get around this concern, the National Register of Historic Places agreed not to give the exact location of Land’s End.