BAR HARBOR, Maine — Like erratic boulders that were left behind by glaciers that scoured the landscape, they sit perched along the shore or on hilltops, pointed toward panoramas across the island and out to sea. The tide, ships and seasons may come and go, but for decades or more the mansions of Mount Desert Island have withstood winter storms and held fast to the island’s rocky forested terrain.
Fortunes also have ebbed and flowed, however, since the heyday of the island’s grand cottage era in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Some mansions may remain and though new ones are being built, the prominence in Bar Harbor of these mansions has faded.
Even before automobiles were first allowed across the narrows from the mainland in 1915, Mount Desert Island has been a place where wealthy people seeking to get away from the summer heat and squalor of Boston, Philadelphia and other East Coast cities came to enjoy the cool ocean breeze and spectacular views. The creation in 1916 of what is now Acadia National Park from land donated by some of these elite has helped preserve the beauty and appeal of MDI for their heirs and, to an extent, the island’s legacy of grand shorefront homes.
The summer rusticators used to arrive by boat and often stayed at grand hotels in Bar Harbor, where many mansions later sprung up as they sought their own pieces of Eden, as the town used to be known. Similar summer rusticator colonies sprung up at the edges of Frenchman Bay at Hancock Point, Sorrento, and on Grindstone Neck in Winter Harbor.
But as cars, highways and airplanes became more common, and as much of Bar Harbor was rebuilt in the wake of the massive 1947 fire, Mount Desert Island’s summer visitor demographic evolved, according to Deborah Dyer, curator of the Bar Harbor Historical Society. The Great Depression and World War II had undermined the wealth of the town’s grand cottage owners, Dyer said recently, but it was the fire, which burned 17,000 acres of eastern MDI and destroyed dozens of these cottages, that really changed the town.
“It destroyed the old-time gilded age of Bar Harbor,” Dyer said. “Many of [the wealthy rusticators] didn’t come back.”
Bar Harbor “went commercial” as a tourist destination, as Dyer put it, because the number of jobs as gardeners, caretakers or household staff were in decline. The old Bluenose ferry service between Bar Harbor and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, was started up in 1956 to attract more tourists, she said, and year-round employers such as College of the Atlantic, The Jackson Laboratory (which also burned in 1947) and MDI Biological Laboratory either did not yet exist or were not yet major components of the local economy.
“We didn’t have any tax base,” Dyer said.
Architects & millionaires
Most of the Bar Harbor mansions that survived have changed hands. Cottages with grand names such as East of Eden, Breakwater, and Redwoods remain privately owned. Others are owned by local nonprofit organizations such as or College of the Atlantic, Maine Sea Coast Mission, and Jackson Laboratory, which use their former shorefront mansions for office space or institutional programs. The mansion La Rochelle on West Street in downtown Bar Harbor, and a dedicated endowment for its maintenance, were donated to Maine Sea Coast Mission in 1972.
Many of the wealthy families that built these mansions still have a presence on MDI, but several have shifted their focus to the neighboring town of Mount Desert, away from the traffic, hotels and tourist shops that now dominate downtown Bar Harbor. In the quieter Mount Desert villages of Northeast Harbor and Seal Harbor, which did not burn in 1947, so-called “old money” millionaire families such as the Rockefellers, Millikens, Astors, Fords, and Strawbridges have summered for generations while others such as Martha Stewart or billionaires with last names of Bass, Rales, and Butt families are more recent arrivals.
According to Roc Caivano, a longtime Bar Harbor architect, the mansions that exist on MDI are, for the most part, smaller and more modest than mansions that were built by the same families in their winter locales. “Dozens and dozens” of the old mansions were destroyed in the fire 66 years ago, he said, but many of those that survived stand out.
Turrets, designed by Bruce Price, who also designed the Chateau Frontenac hotel in Quebec City, and Redwood, which was designed by William Ralph Emerson and is considered the oldest example of “shingle style” architecture in the country, are two local mansions Caivano mentioned. Buildings like these lined the shoreline in downtown Bar Harbor they way they do now on West Street, which escaped the 1947 fire and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, he said.
“These places were fancy for old folks but now they’re kind of charming for our generation,” Caivano said. “They were kind of McMansions in their day. They were kind of cheek-by-jowl [along the shore].”
Caivano said that the rusticators took advantage of exceptional craftsmanship offered by local carpenters and shipwrights and, for the most part, were keen to use local materials such as cedar shingles that blended in with MDI’s dramatic terrain. To this day, most of the modern rusticators on MDI take pains to preserve the historic character of their cottages or, if they are building new, to construct buildings that do not visually contrast too much with their surroundings, he said.
“They get infected by the landscape up here and don’t want to dominate it,” Caivano said. “They kind of want to nestle into it a little bit.”
As much as Bar Harbor’s seasonal character has changed, none of the old local mansions has seen its fortunes vary more dramatically than Turrets, which College of the Atlantic now uses for classrooms and administrative offices.
The mansion originally was built 120 years ago by John Emery, heir to a soap and candle fortune his father made in Cincinnati, for his teenaged bride. It cost $100,000 and took 100 men two years to build between 1893 and 1895, according to COA officials. But by the 1960s, after the family sold it and it went through a series of absentee owners, the stone structure fell into disrepair and abandonment.
Millard Dority, the college’s director of planning, buildings, and public safety, said recently that when he first started working for COA in 1971, at the age of 18, one of the first routine tasks he was assigned was clearing out transient squatters who were camping out in the abandoned mansion.
“It was so scary. It was dark and ceilings were hanging down,” Dority said. “People had actually used the toilets even though the building had no [working] plumbing for 15 years. [It had] hypodermic needles stuck in the walls.”
The college rented the building at first and then, in the early 1970s, bought it for $1, according to Dority. Since then, COA has upgraded Turrets piecemeal, one project at a time. Currently, the college is completely renovating the old mansion’s exterior — repointing the masonry, putting new slate on the roof and installing 99 new windows — to the tune of $3.4 million.
About a mile down the road toward Hulls Cove is another old mansion that is in transition. La Selva, an 8,600 square foot home that used to belong to a member of the Astor clan, is on the market for just under $2 million. John E. Pelletier, a local hotelier whose estate now owns the property, passed away this past January.
The online real estate listing describes the cottage, which used to house the L’Acadie summer French language immersion school, as a “grand historical waterfront mansion in need of loving restoration” and says it is located on a section of shoreline that used to be known as “Millionaire’s Row.” It was built in 1890 and has five bedrooms, five full baths and seven fireplaces, according to the listing.
Veena Gaines, the real estate agent marketing the property, said Tuesday that La Selva is under contract but added she could not release details about the potential sale. She said it would take a lot of money to restore the mansion but that the abutting shoreline and its proximity to Bar Harbor make it a distinctive property.
“The potential is there,” Gaines said. “Someone with pretty deep pockets would have to do it.”
Dyer, the local historian, said she has heard who the likely buyer might be. She wouldn’t disclose his or her name but did say that it is someone who already lives in Maine and who seems to have the resources to restore the house to its former glory.
“I only hope that they do it right,” Dyer said.
La Selva is right next door to another eye-catching mansion that needs no such restoration. East of Eden is a 12,000 square-foot Italian-villa style home owned by gun manufacturing heir William B. Ruger Jr., who has a right of first refusal on La Selva, according to people knowledgeable about the history of two abutting properties. Originally built in 1910, East of Eden also once was part of L’Acadie. It sits on nine acres and has an assessed value of $5.1 million, according to the town’s assessing database.
However, the surest sign that Mount Desert Island’s legacy of privately-owned mansions is alive and well sits on a sloping lot about 10 miles away near the mouth of Northeast Harbor.
Mitchell Rales, a billionaire who for several years has been on the Forbes 400 list of richest Americans, built a summer home on Peabody Drive in Northeast Harbor in 2010, three years after he bought the property for $5.5 million from the estate of Susan Mary Alsop, the widow of former syndicated Washington columnist Joseph Alsop.
Rales razed the old Alsop cottage and built a 8,100 square-foot shingle and stone mansion that has an assessed value of $14.6 million. In addition, the property has a guest house and a caretaker’s house, each of which has an assessed value of about $3 million, and a 400 square-foot boathouse that has an assessed value of $123,000.
All told, the buildings and the 4.6-acre lot they sit on have a total assessed value of $24.5 million, making the three year-old Rales estate the most valuable developed property owned by a private individual on all of MDI.