Leon L. Bean Home & Archives
Restoration peels back layers to reveal the historic beauty of entrepreneur Leon Leonwood Bean’s longtime home.
The sprawling L.L.Bean campus in Freeport attracts nearly three million visitors a year. A good number of them approach the famous retailer from the south on Route 1, but with shopping on their minds, it’s unlikely that many take a look to their left as they pass Holbrook Street, just three blocks from the flagship store. If they do, they see a distinctive Queen Anne–style house painted in earth tones and creamy white trim, with windows whose upper sashes are bordered in stained glass—the home of company founder Leon Leonwood Bean and his family for more than 50 years. Following a 10-year restoration project that garnered a 2018 Honor Award from Maine Preservation, the Leon L. Bean Home and Archive Center looks much like it did when the family lived there.
The two-story house at 6 Holbrook Street was designed by Portland architect Francis Fassett for F.W. Nichols, a local hotelier and businessman, in the late 1800s. In 1912, the same year Bean began selling his iconic Maine Hunting Shoe, he and his wife, Bertha, purchased the house and moved in with their three children, Barbara, Carl, and Warren. The comfortable residence had a front entrance hall with doors leading into the front and back parlors, and a staircase to the second floor, which had four bedrooms. The first floor also had a kitchen and a study. On the east side of the house, wooden steps led from the yard to a side entrance and a small, set-back porch between the main house and the ell, which connected to a carriage house, also facing east. A photo from the L.L.Bean Archives taken around that time shows Barbara (the mother of late company president Leon Gorman) standing in the yard as a little girl. Even in black-and-white, the photo makes clear many of the home’s decorative details, which were accented by its five-color paint scheme: lattice work in the peak of the gables and above some of the windows, clapboard on the lower story, scalloped wood shingles on the second floor, and bay windows with recessed panels.
Over time, the house was significantly altered and much of its Victorian character was lost. After Bertha Bean died in 1939, Leon Bean remarried; his second wife, Claire, was responsible for a Colonial Revival–style renovation that included replacing the stained-glass-bordered windows with clear glass, adding a large porch with both open and enclosed spaces on the east side, and painting the exterior white. An enclosed porch was also built on the west side, off Bean’s study, and shutters were added to some of the windows. In a photo from the 1950s on the Maine Preservation website, a car is parked in a paved driveway in front of the carriage house, whose double doors have been replaced by a single wide garage door.
The home remained in the family until 1968, when it was sold following Leon Bean’s death. The entire east-side porch was eventually enclosed, and subsequent owners continued to paint the entire exterior white, which shrouded the Victorian detailing. In 1987 L.L.Bean bought the house and in 2005 constructed a modern addition to house the company archives while planning a major renovation. Longtime L.L.Bean archivist Ruth Porter led the effort, beginning by hiring local historical architect Malcolm Collins (who designed the L.L.Bean Bike, Boat, and Ski Store with Portland architect Buell Heminway) to under-take a historic structures report. “Ruth asked me to do the preliminary planning work to see if the house could be rehabilitated,” says Collins. From 2007 to 2010 he created the report, which he explains as “an academic research approach to determining what the house was like originally, what changes had been made, and when, and by whom.” Schematic designs for the project took another two years, and in 2013 work began on the exterior renovation, with Collins joined by Barba and Wheelock Architects and Consigli Construction. The three porches were removed, and Marc Bagala of Bagala Window Works in Westbrook restored the windows, returning the borders of stained-glass squares to the upper sashes. Asbestos shingles on the roof were replaced by Maine-made eastern white cedar shingles, and while the house now has just one fireplace, in the back parlor, two additional chimneys were added to reflect the original roofline pictured in historic photographs. In Freeport, where homes are predominantly painted white, restoring the Victorian-era colors was perhaps the most dramatic aspect of the exterior renovation. “Working with Benjamin Moore, we were able to recreate the exact original colors of the house,” says Collins. “When the house was built it raised quite a few eyebrows with its five colors, and it did so again when we started putting the historic colors back on. The paint picks up all the details and makes them much more obvious.”
Work on the interior, which also involved architect Bruce Butler of By Design in Yarmouth and contractor Rob Barrett of Barrett Made, began in 2015 and was completed in 2017. This phase included the first floor, the ell, and the carriage house; the second floor has not yet been renovated as L.L.Bean decides what ultimately to do with the house. In a quick tour of the upstairs, Porter says that Bean and his wife slept in the front bedroom, with his daughter in the next room and the two boys together down the hall. In a large space at the back of the second floor, she points out sturdy hooks in the ceiling. “That’s where Warren hung his punching bags to practice boxing,” Porter says. Back on the first floor, she explains that, prior to the renovation, the kitchen cabinets and appliances dated from the late 1960s. “The kitchen caused more discussion than any other room because we didn’t have any photographs showing what it was,” says Collins. Save for an antique stove that is not plumbed, the room is being left as a blank slate, as are the other first floor rooms, which have period-appropriate, dark-painted trim work but are empty of furniture.
Collins also designed a new entrance on the east side between the carriage house and the modern building that houses Porter’s office and the climate-controlled archives. He mimicked the home’s front door with the same glass pattern and size, adding sidelights to create an airy vestibule connecting the old and the new. Paneled with rustic barn board, the restored carriage house was conceived as a meeting space, and it, like the house, is largely empty. Furnishings and decorative items may eventually be added, but for now, a single piece of furniture stands out: a somewhat battered, low leather desk chair with a wooden base tucked into a corner near the entrance. “Yes, it was L.L.’s,” says Porter. In a home that holds decades of Bean family memories, the unassuming chair in which its patriarch built a retail empire surely has its fair share.