The Willows in 1958
Located immediately south of the E.T. Stotesbury cottage on Eden Street in Bar Harbor, ‘The Willows’ was built in 1913 as a summer home for Miss Charlotte Baker. Miss Baker, an heiress to the fortune of her aunt’s husband, railroad financier John Stewart Kennedy, was also a major benefactress to and later head of the Spence School.
The 27 room cottage was designed by the prominent Boston firm of Andrews, Jacques & Rantoul,, who maintained a practice in Bar Harbor. While not an architectural masterpiece, The Willows was nevertheless a comfortable and gracious design in a modified Regency style that architects used to do so well, set on rolling lawns at the edge of an ocean bluff. Here Miss Baker spent her summers pleasantly, entertaining the many Spence alumna who summered nearby, painting in the mornings in her large conservatory, giving musicales, and visiting her aunt at her vast fortress-like summer home, Kenarden Lodge.
In 1938, the estate was purchased by the legendary Sir Harry Oakes. Born in Sangerville, Maine, Oakes studied to be a doctor at Bowdoin, but, lured by the adventure of prospecting, he instead went to the gold fields of the Yukon in 1898. Failing to find fortune there, he moved on to California and Australia, before finally striking a lode in Kirkland Lake in Northern Ontario in 1912. And what a lode it was. It proved to be the second largest strike in the Americas, and within a decade was the most profitable mine in the Western Hemisphere. By 1920, he was one of the world’s richest men. Married to Australian beauty Eunice Bailey, Oakes became a British citizen in protest of high Canadian taxes, and in 1939 was created a baronet in recognition of his philanthropic endeavors.
On July 8, 1943, Lady Oakes and three of their five children were in residence at Bar Harbor, with Sir Harry expected to arrive the next day from their home in the Bahamas. He never arrived. That morning, he was found murdered in his bed, in what became one of the most sensational murder cases of the day, temporarily blowing World War II from the top of the headlines. The stylish but not very bright former King of England, Edward, Duke of Windsor, was governor the Bahamas at the time. Feeling that local police were not up to the investigation, he imported two detectives from Miami, whose methods were later found suspect. Count Alfred de Marigny, the new husband of Oakes’ 18 year old daughter Nancy was arrested and tried, but not convicted for the murder, which was never solved.
In 1947, a devastating forest fire swept through Bar Harbor, destroying much of the town, including seventy of the summer estates that had survived the twin depredations of the Great Depression and WWII. In 1953, the abandoned Stotesbury estate next door was demolished and replaced with a Canadian National Railways ferry terminal, providing tourist service to Nova Scotia. Across the road from the rolling lawns of The Willows, two burned out estates were replaced by motels. In only a few years, the neighborhood around the Willows had changed irreparably. In 1958, Lady Oakes donated The Willows to Bowdoin College as a conference center.
By the late sixties, the Oakes Center of Bowdoin had become an expensive luxury for the college, and the estate, still holding graciously against its changing neighborhood was sold to a local developer, and the coup de grace arrived soon after.
The Willows today
In their report of the Bar Harbor Fire, the radical French newspaper Le Figaro reported that the local peasantry, to protest the long occupation by the landed aristocracy, had taken torches to the homes of the rich. There may have been some metaphorical truth to this, as in the decades following the fire, several local developers, correctly divining Bar Harbor’s future as a tourist destination for visitors to nearby Acadia National Park, bought many of the estates and almost willfully destroyed them, and the lovely landscape their grounds created, in the rush for a buck. (see Sonogee). The new owner of The Willows first leveled the grounds, filling them with cheap and poorly sited motel units. Then, he turned his attention to the main house.
The stucco exterior was stripped of detail and clad in vinyl siding, (and the Dilettante’s bete noir, poorly scaled plastic shutters) and the third floor dormers were replaced with a ‘penthouse’ that more resembled a mobile home that had somehow landed on the roof—one half expects to see a pair of ruby slippers peeking out above the gutter. The new resort was christened The Atlantic Oakes.
Sic transit gloria. The new corporate owners, with all good intention, like to refer to their recent elegant restoration of the estate, but I think the pictures speak for themselves. As for the interior decor, don’t ask, don’t tell.