I first consciously saw these buildings when I was five or six, and my little eyes nearly popped out of my head—veritable fairy tale houses sitting at the edge of the woods in the enchanted landscape of Mt. Desert Island.  Whither Hansel?  Gretel?  Sleeping Beauty, are you there?
Designed in 1930 by Grosvenor Atterbury, they were built by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. as protective entrances against motor cars for his great public/private project, the network of carriage roads that traverse Acadia National Park and the Rockefeller estate in Seal Harbor on Mt. Desert Island.  Rockefeller’s vision for the park was one in which the  public could travel and recreate quietly within the wild landscape.  With the gatehouses, beautifully designed and maintained carriage trails and their ornamental bridges, the effect is often less of nature unspoiled than of a very sensitively landscaped country estate amidst spectacular surroundings, and very beautiful it is, regardless.
The two structures, with their unlikely evocation of rural France, one at Brown Mountain in Northeast Harbor, and the other at Jordan Pond in Seal (we’ll deal with the Jordan Pond House and its famous popovers another time, class) are far more charming than they have any right to be.  Textures and picturesque details are all at high volume, but in the hands of a master designer like Atterbury, they are always under control, each playing its part in the whole.


Drawings and b&w photos from Historic American Buildings Survey
The larger of the two gatehouses is at Brown Mountain.  Long used as housing for park staff, it is no longer in use as an entrance, in favor of a new gate a hundred feet away.  


Details count:  Naturally, masonry repairs have been necessary over the years.  Originally, under Atterbury’s watchful eye, local craftsmen carefully distressed brick, and used dark mortar.  Repairs have been made with smooth modern brick, and wide white mortar joints.  While obviously the work of a good mason, they stick out like the proverbial sore thumb.  Yeah, I know I’m a grump, but details count. (When I’m King, things will be different. Fake plastic shutters will be first to go).  We so need to give the National Parks more money—or is this one of those sometimes misguided but well intentioned edicts from the Department of the Interior in which new work on historic buildings must be identifiable from the old?

Looking at  the new gate, I am reminded of Vincent Scully’s great quote about the new Pennsylvania Station after the demolition of the old one: “We used to enter the city like Gods, now we scurry in like rats”.   And so though luckily the Gate House is in no danger of demolition, one still enters more like a racoon.   When these gate houses were built, Frederick Law Olmstead Jr., Beatrix Farrand and others, as well as Atterbury, were involved in the design of public circulation and space and they chose their materials wisely to integrate with the landscape and designed entrance to the beautiful land beyond as an event.  We so need to give the national parks more money. And who designed those Leaning Tower of Acadia trash cans?
I had originally intended to natter on at length about the story of the Gate Houses (the Dilettante does tend to go on), but in the course of research, I came across a piece in the National Park Traveler by Aimee Beal that covers the story so well that anything I wrote would be tantamount to plagiarism.  For that account, click HERE.

For the Dilettante’s account of another section of the Rockefeller Carriage Roads, click HERE