As my youth took place pretty much between the two gilded ages, both of which produced lavish summer architecture in this part of Maine–for the millionaires of the first, and the billionaires of the second—I’ve had a front row seat for the decline of the first age, and the rise of the second.
Blueberry Ledge, Entrance Front
Forty years ago, many of the large houses on the strip of coast from Camden to Winter Harbor were being reduced or demolished, in favor of something less taxable, and easier to paint. Many fine buildings, even some seminal works by great architects of a hundred years ago, were lost, or became institutions. New construction was almost inevitably modest and tactful, even when expensive. In those years there was also very little innovation. All this changed, as taxes were lowered, and deregulation of financial industries enabled very large fortunes to be made very fast, and old fortunes suddenly gained new life. Handsome old cottages were no longer being torn down or reduced because they were too large, but rather, were being torn down because they were too small. It’s been startling to watch, as billionaires start to outnumber lobstermen along the coast, as old shingled bungalows on splendid sites give way to McMansions or orgiastic arts and crafts fantasies, all stone and tiresomely earnest joinery by craftsmen imported from unpronounceable countries—the new equivalent of Lord Duveen providing his clients with 18th century boiseries.
Blueberry Ledge, water front.
One example of the new trend is this house, Blueberry Ledge, in Northeast Harbor. Designed in the 1880’s by the important firm of Peabody & Stearns for President Charles Eliot of Harvard, not a masterpiece, it was relatively small by the standards time and place, and was the setting for a simple, high minded summer life. Roomy, unpretentious, full of pleasant crannies and old fashioned porches, it was spectacularly sited on a rocky bluff at the Eastern Way entrance to the Harbor, overlooking the islands offshore.
Later the house was acquired by Mrs. Peter Jay, who had given up ‘Breakwater’, her enormous Tudorbethan pile in Bar Harbor, left to her late husband by an Astor aunt. Mrs. Jay in turn left it to her daughter, the noted Washington hostess and writer Susan Mary Alsop, one of the glittering figures of her day, and possessor of one of the finest cases of lock jaw to ever grace the East Coast (I actually do not intend that remark unkindly. Her diction was remarkable to the ear, redolent of another time, another world). Here, in the summer, she gathered and entertained many of the most prominent figures of arts, politics and society. After Mrs. Alsop’s death, her heirs placed the house on the market. It was snapped up for $5,500,000, a pittance by Hamptons standards, but substantial in our part of the world, by a billionaire whose privacy I’ll respect, and almost immediately razed, with plans for a new complex, covering far more of the site, designed by Hamptons favorite Gwathmey & Siegel. The building permit, issued three months after last year’s economic crash, was for $22,000,000.
Views of two of the buildings by Gwathmey Siegel that are replacing Blueberry Ledge (and yes, the Dilettante obeyed the ‘Keep Out’ signs. They seemed very sincere.
And by the way, about Mrs. Jay’s pile in Bar Harbor? After years of benign neglect by the next owner, a dissolute oil heir given to importing beautiful German boys for parties in the seventies, it was sold again, and in the spirit of the new gilded age, restored to a splendor far beyond its original, with hundreds of feet of gilt spike iron fencing surrounding it.
Breakwater, Susan Mary Alsop’s childhood summer home at Bar Harbor, designed for her great aunt, Mrs. John Innes Kane (Annie Schermerhorn) by Fred Savage
I’ll let my gentle readers draw their own conclusions from here.