Driving on the west bank of the Kennebec River just south of Gardiner Maine, past the usual New England assortment of small towns, frame farmhouses, pastures and forests, one is suddenly confronted with a most unexpected sight. Across the road from the railroad tracks that parallel the river, is a small English gothic country house, sitting in a picturesque parkland, with cattle grazing, and even the remains of a ha ha bordering the highway The architectural tourist rubs his eye in amazement, and can be forgiven for thinking he has wandered past the set for a Masterpiece theatre production, perhaps something by Mrs. Gaskell or a Bronte sister.  Where are the ladies and gentlemen in period costume, where are the carriages?  Perhaps one of Sir Walter Scott’s knights will appear on the battlements?

The Oaklands.  River Front

The resemblance to an English seat is in no way an accident, for this house, so unusual for its time and place, with its surrounding landscape virtually unchanged in the last 175 years, is The Oaklands, ancestral home of the Gardiner family of Gardiner, Maine, and it was once the grandest house in Maine, the center of a 100,000 acre tract, now reduced to about 400 acres, still actively farmed.

The Oaklands, entrance front

Dr. Sylvester Gardiner, of Newport, Rhode Island, was a leading 18th century nabob. Having abandoned the practice of medicine in favor of drug importing, he made a fortune in business. He then invested part of that fortune in a 100,000 acre tract along the Kennebec River in what was then thought of as central Maine, where his entrepreneurial streak found a new outlet.  He started mills, sold lots to settlers at favorable rates, and founded a town, Gardinerstown, later Gardiner and Pittson.

The rear of The Oaklands reveals its true size, and quite resembles a small Scottish castle.

A loyalist, Dr. Gardiner’s lands and properties were confiscated at the end of the Revolution, and he was banished to England.  Luckily for his family, there were errors in the documents of confiscation, and they were able to reclaim their lands.  Although Boston based, they maintained a near-manorial presence in Gardiner, with all the perquisites of country squires, appointing clergy, donating churches, opening fairs.

John Singlton Copley’s portrait of Dr. Gardiner reveals a canny, intelligent personality.

His daughter married into another family of the Kennebec proprietors, the Hallowells, who also founded a town named after themselves, a few miles upriver from Gardinerstown. Having no male heir, Dr. Gardiner would leave the bulk of his fortune to his grandson, contingent on the grandson’s taking the Gardiner surname, which he did.

Upjohn’s elevations and plans show a glassed in clerestory or conservatory on the rear corner, apparently never built (Upjohn Papers, Avery Architectural Library, by way of Historic American Buildings Survey)

Plans of the two main floors of The Oaklands (HABS)

Robert Hallowell Gardiner, as he was known, built the first Oaklands a georgian mansion with columned portico, very similar in composition to James Madison’s Montpelier in Virginia, in the late 18th century, where he lived in aristocratic splendor until 1833, when the that house burned. Fortunately, the family portraits, including the great Copley portrait of Sylvester Gardiner, were saved. There was no question but that the family would rebuild, and Richard Upjohn, a young English architect who had emigrated to America on four years before, eventually winding up in Boston, was hired. It was his major commission to date, in the modern gothic style, predating the works of Andrew Jackson Davis on the Hudson by nearly a decade., to be as fireproof as possible using Hallowell granite from the family’s own quarries, and no expense was to be spared. A desire to reuse the earlier foundation placed certain restraints on the picturesque composition and plan.

 Christ Church, Gardiner, Maine, from a lithograph by Pendleton of Boston

Robert Hallowell Gardiner had already made an earlier foray into the new  Gothic style, providing the funds for  Christ Church in Gardiner in 1819, which was designed by his  new English minister, Samuel Farmer Jarvis, who had been serving as rector in the Bloomingdale parish of New York.  It was the third Gothic church in New England, the first Gothic inspired building in Maine, and one of the earliest in the country.

The stair hall, looking down the cross hall to the garden entrance

View from Drawing Room to Library, with Copley’s portrait of Mrs. Sylvester Gardiner at the right. A Boston sofa, Greek inspired, sits below her, showing the parellel affection of New England for the Greek and the Gothic through the 1830s – 50s. (HABS)

The Drawing Room bay looks out to fields and the Kennebec River (HABS)

The new mansion was one of the wonders of Maine, and writing in his American Notebooks in 1837 Nathaniel Hawthorne described the house in breathless superlatives:  “The new building was estimated, I believe, to cost about thirty thousand dollars; but twice as much has already been expended, and a great deal more will be required to complete it.  It is certainly a splendid structure; the material, granite from the vicinity.  At the angles, it has small, circular towers; the portal is lofty and imposing; relatively to the general style of domestic architecture in our country, it well deserves the name of castle or palace.  its situation, too, is fine, far retired from the public road, and attainable by a winding carriage drive, standing amid fertile fields, and with large trees in the vicinity.  There is also a beautiful view from the mansion adown the Kennebec.”

 The Copley portrait of Dr. Gardiner above the Dining room mantel.

Sitting Room, The Oaklands (Habs)

The design and building process did not always go smoothly, and in 1837, Upjohn was forced to write Mr. Gardiner a letter defending his fees and asking for payment.  Apparently, the bill was eventually settled to the satisfaction of all.

A stone bridge leads to the walled gardens (Photographer unknown, Down East Magazine)

One of Robert Hallowell Gardiner’s daughters, Delia Tudor Gardiner, married a southern plantation owner, George Noble Jones. After the first Oaklands burned, the Jones came to Gardiner to visit. her parents. Her father became alarmed by her color, and a doctor was summoned. Finding her lungs ‘diseased beyond cure’, the Jones stayed with the senior Gardiners, even as Upjohn was working on the new house., for which Jones apparently functioned as clerk of the works In January 1836, she died. Three years later, her widower decided to build a summer house in Newport Rhode Island, and remembering the excellence of his father-in-law’s architect, he summoned Upjohn, who designed a gothic villa for him, which is now acknowledged as one of the masterpieces of the style, Kingscote.

Upjohn’s Drawing for Kingscote, Newport (Avery Library via HABS)
A Gardiner grandson, William Tudor Gardiner, who lived on the estate, became a 20th century governor of Maine, his son married the Olympic figure skater Tenley Albright.  The Oaklands remains in the Gardiner family, and is private.