YORK, Maine — Elizabeth Perkins and her mother Mary loved to entertain in their summer home on the banks of the York River, which they bought in 1898. In the attic of the servant’s wing a trunk chock full of costumes that Elizabeth often made herself from scraps of old dresses and other clothing was found, said Joel Lefever, director of the Old York Historical Society.
In the summer of 1905, when the Russian-Japanese Peace Treaty was being negotiated in nearby Kittery, they held a Japanese garden party for the delegations, in what was described at the time as the “crowning event of the memorable season of 1905.” Many women were in costume and Elizabeth wore “a white gown of Mexican drawn work.”
In recent years, however, the house that served as a cornerstone to Mary and Elizabeth Perkins’ lives in the first half of the 20th century has been shuttered. In 2014, when it was discovered that the electrical system panels were dangerously corroded, the power had to be shut off. Public tours of this iconic colonial period home were suspended.
But the house is getting a complete facelift these days, with the goal of moving the Old York staff there in the spring and opening the house back up next summer, said Lefever. Those who want a sneak peak at the servants’ wing, where the offices will be located, are invited to attend an open house this coming Sunday, Nov. 18.
The renovations are a long time coming for a great old house, Lefever said, made possible by the sale last summer of the current OYHS office building in downtown York Village for $675,000. Under terms of the sale, the staff is allowed to remain in the building until next May, to provide time for the renovations.
OYHS is spending a total of $600,000 to renovate the Perkins house, as well as to retrofit a part of the organization’s curatorial center on Shapleigh Road in Kittery. The first floor of that building will house the OYHS library and archives, now currently in the York Village building. But the lion’s share of the funds are being used to bring the Perkins House up to 21st century snuff.
“There’s never been a complete redo,” said Lefever. “It was clear to us that little fixes weren’t going to do it.”
The entire building including the main house is being rewired, to include bypassing actual glass fuses that had been used to provide electricity to part of the building. “That’s the kind of thing we were facing,” said Lefever.
But most of the work is confined to the servants wing which will become the new administrative center. The quarters on the second floor were “fortunately” about the size of modern offices. All of the rooms on the second floor have been brought down to studs and many of the studs are being replaced.
The kitchen posed significant challenges. The floor was rotted in several places and had to be completely removed. The day the Weekly visited, that room had an earthen floor because there was no foundation underneath it. A nearby bathroom wall was actually open to the outdoors, so many squirrels and chipmunks had made their home inside, too.
Fortunately, much of the original furnishings there have been preserved, so the old cookstove will be returned to its rightful place, Lefever said, and the copper cooking pots and pans will be strung up on hooks like they used to be.
A small porch now covered with latticework and used to store outdoor equipment will be returned to its former glory as Elizabeth Perkins’ writing porch. Actually, writing was just one facet of Elizabeth Perkins’ talents. An only child who never married, she lived with her mother during the summers in York and the winters in New York City.
The two women traveled the world together. During World War I, Perkins served as director and third vice president for the American Committee for a Devastated France, heading up the publicity committee in NYC. For her work, she was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor by the French government.
Later, she and friend Mary Breckenridge — who owned the Goodrich estate on Route 1 in York — fundraised for a Kentucky nursing service, and she also made a film and wrote an article about that work. In York, she was laying the cornerstone for her historic preservation work, which resulted in the purchase and preservation of the houses and buildings that today make up most of the Old York Historical Society.
According to Lefever, while everyone knows the name of Elizabeth Perkins, her mother Mary loomed large in not only her daughter’s life but, in her time, in York’s life as well. Lefever said Mary has in many ways been relegated to obscurity, but OYHS intends to interpret the story of the house to include her contributions.
Lefever said he and the staff have been considering how to handle the public tours of the main house. Even when it was opened to the public, attendance was somewhat tepid, he said, because it’s so far away from the Village where the rest of the houses are located. So they are considering special events, a tea talk and tour, for instance, with advanced ticket sales. “So it kind of becomes more of a destination on its own,” he said.
A boat house nestled into the side of Sewall’s Bridge will also be repainted and renovated, and public programming can take place there as well, he said. Lefever looks forward to the day when the public can once again come to visit the estate and enjoy the home Elizabeth and Mary Perkins made.
“To have an historic property like this and not have people visit it is a shame,” he said. “It will be wonderful to see it once again become what it was meant to be.”
OYHS will host a public open house from 1 to 2:45 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 18, at the Perkins House, the intersection of Southside Road and Seabury Road. Visitors are invited to walk through the service wing, view the construction progress and enjoy light refreshments. Warm clothing and comfortable shoes are recommend, as the building is unheated and the floors are uneven.