Past Perfect

The front of Elin Elisofon's 1843 Greek Revival farmhouse on Vinalhaven shows the central chimney around which the house is organized. An old apple tree punctuates the yard; to the right is a lilac.
Elin Elisofon’s mother, Joan Tower, added a guesthouse/barn to the saltwater farm property in the 1960s. By the twenty-first century, the structure didn’t seem in keeping with the farmhouse’s aesthetic, so Elin renovated with the help of architect Denise A. Hall of Philadelphia. The large central room (shown here) is full of family treasures, including a work table from a local artist’s studio, at right, a blanket chest in the foreground, a gaming table and two chairs with horsehair fabric at left, and glass fishing floats on the shelving. The artwork includes photographs by Loring McAlpin above the fireplace, by Allison Smith to the chimney’s right, and by Vincent J. Panetta to the chimney’s left.
The guesthouse/barn kitchen was renovated with help from Hall. To the right of the sink is a watercolor by Eliot Elisofon, Elin’s father, a renowned twentieth-century photographer. Beneath the window is one of Eliot’s photographs of Vinalhaven that appeared in Life magazine. The “island” in front of the Wolf stove was previously used to hold records. Elin painted it and put it on wheels.
The farmhouse kitchen is largely original and features open shelves stacked with blue-and-white Willow dishware and other china. Through the door, one can see the dining room with its original fireplace and wood surround. An old wooden grain shovel hangs to the left of the mantel.
A view of the head of Crockett Cove shows the Elisofon property to the left; the other conserved land is to the right.
Elin uses this antique chest in her studio for art supplies, as her father had done before her; the booties hanging on a knob are foot protectors Elin made for a disabled dog.
Next to a window box by the farmhouse entrance is a sign that says “Beware Crazy Dog” in French.
The former outhouse is now a garden shed.
This antique dresser once belonged to Elin’s mother; the watercolor above is by her father.
On the shelves behind the living room’s chaise lounge is a gilded horse weathervane, whirligig sailors, and a variety of bird decoys.
Elin describes Eleanor Roosevelt, the chicken pictured here, as “very independent.”
A rock that Elin’s father found on a beach in Java sits among irises in a garden near the farmhouse.
On a table next to the daybed in Elin’s studio is a rubber dog toy and a Japanese lamp that was a gift.
The studio desk is topped with brushes in tin cans and other artist’s materials.
She rents out the guesthouse/barn on
Elin is pictured in her vegetable garden.
Elin has changed few things in the house, but she did refresh the wallpaper above the curved staircase and in the upstairs bedrooms.
The farmhouse living room is filled with antique French furniture and more family treasures, including antique hooked rugs, decoys, and whirligigs. To the right of the rooster weathervane is a mixed-media sculpture by Elaine Niemi of Waldoboro; a cigar store Indian stands on the far right. The wood floors throughout the house are painted gray.
The dining room has an antique table, hutch, chairs with pads that Elin hooked, and a painting by Eliot. Other paintings of his are available at the Hopkins Wharf Gallery in North Haven; his photographs are handled by Gitterman Gallery in Manhattan.
The guesthouse/barn features an airy loft furnished with twin beds.
A watercolor by Suzanne Heller, who lives on Vinalhaven, and an oil painting of hollyhocks grace the guesthouse bathroom. The tiles are from New York’s Solar Antique Tiles, and the jar on the table at left is from the North Haven Gift Shop.
This bedroom/sewing room­—decorated with a wood chest and a watercolor on rice paper by Eliot—gives way to the “keeping room,” a former storage room that during Elin’s childhood became her sister’s bedroom.
The farmhouse's curved staircase is one of three on the island.
Peonies bloom near the vegetable garden.
In the guesthouse/barn living room is a French daybed and tray table that belonged to Elin’s mother and a driftwood-framed collage by François Deschamps, who has a summer home on Vinalhaven. It depicts a lobster boat made out of found pieces of wood on a painted background. Elin purchased the Mongolian fur rug at a yard sale.

A photographer’s daughter offers a snapshot of history on Vinalhaven

It’s hard to imagine Eliot Elisofon ever took a vacation. The wildly productive, socially conscious photojournalist was also a war photographer, longtime Life staffer, painter, filmmaker, and author. He traveled the world, working tirelessly and often in harrowing conditions. He once photographed a plane crash after surviving it, and he came under fire during World War II, which he covered on three continents. One iconic image: his portrait of Major General George S. Patton for the cover of Life magazine. Patton, who had trouble pronouncing Eliot’s surname, nicknamed him “Hellzapoppin.” In fact, Eliot managed to take not only vacations but repeated trips to Vinalhaven, which, despite all its beauty, is not the most convenient of destinations. For Eliot, visiting the island meant a drive with his family, which came to consist of a wife and two daughters, from their Manhattan home to Boston (for a brief overnight), then to Rockland (for a second overnight), and then a ferry ride to Vinalhaven. After that, it was a short drive to a parcel of land that managed to have everything beautiful about Maine all in one spot: a freshwater pond, a salt marsh, an ocean cove, a forest, meadows, fruit trees, and a lawn with a handsome old horse chestnut tree and row of cedars. Eventually, gardens—flower and vegetable—would be added to the mix. And that just covers the outdoors.

Eliot initially visited the island because his first wife had a connection to it through her uncle. Together, they purchased an 1843 Greek Revival farmhouse with a steeply pitched roof, broad fascia, and multiple small rooms, upstairs and down. It had the distinction of having been owned by several generations descended from the original builders, Joel and Mary Jane Philbrook. Among its features was one of the three curved staircases on the island, according to Jeannette Lasansky, who wrote a book on Vinalhaven’s saltwater farms. When the house passed out of the original family, it went to a neighbor, whose descendants still help care for the property. Eliot came to the island as an outsider and purchased the property in 1942, but he and his family became summer regulars. The property is now used by his daughters, Elin and Jill. It has been conserved in perpetuity with an easement held by Maine Coast Heritage Trust. Elin and Jill’s neighbors at the head of Crockett Cove have also conserved part of their land so all of what is now called Whitmore Pond will remain undeveloped forever.

The house is now principally occupied by Elin, who makes, among other things, multimedia assemblages out of natural materials. She is also a realtor whose priority is preservation. Her hope is that the island’s vernacular architecture, historic land uses, and wildlife habitats will be maintained. She encourages residents to “cherish and not destroy” what’s on the island. When she sells a house, it is with the hope that the buyers will not raze and rebuild. She also wants those already on the island to be able to stay. To that end, she is the president of Vinalhaven Eldercare Services, which helps achieve this goal through assisted living facilities and resources for aging in place.

As for Elin’s home, it too is a trouble to the past. The house hasn’t changed much since her childhood. It has the same plaster ceilings, open shelves stacked with dishes, closets whose wood doors close with a single rotating wood latch, and small rooms. The central chimney still boasts three fireplaces with original surrounds and mantels, one with a baking oven and iron hooks for hanging pots. The furnishings consist mostly of early American wood pieces and white-framed French furniture with fabric patterned with roses and birds on a yellow background. Like the furniture, items throughout the house—frilled curtains, rose-covered wallpaper, crocheted blankets, white and pink bedspreads, and multicolored quilts—are distinctly of an earlier generation. Blue-and-white Willow plates and platters line the open shelves of the kitchen, where teacups and saucers are also perched, one on top of another. The original wood floors of the house are painted gray. There are also hooked pillows and rugs with images of things like mermaids, goats, or doves. Elin hand hooked many of these rugs herself, including one of a beloved dog that makes use of both the dog’s hair and Elin’s own hair.

When Elin shows visitors the rooms in the house, she often refers to their pre-Elisofon functions. She calls one of the upstairs bedrooms, where her younger sister used to sleep, the “keeping room”; it is where previous owners stored molasses and flour. A small room now used for listening to records or playing cards is the “birthing room.” And two sitting rooms are “Elsie’s rooms,” as they were once a sitting room and kitchen for a married Philbrook granddaughter.

What makes the house clearly distinct from its time with earlier owners, however, is that the walls and shelves are full of artwork and Elin’s parents’ collection of folk art objects. The former includes Eliot’s own paintings, and the latter, a huge variety of items, including whirligigs, old weathervanes, antique children’s toys, and decoys. One weathervane depicts the angel Gabriel blowing a horn; another, a whale. An upstairs bedroom holds an antique tricycle whose body is a wooden horse. Two bird’s nests sit at the feet of a cigar-store Indian with a tomahawk and headdress. The emphasis here is on American collectibles. In the property’s barn (built as a guesthouse in the 1960s) and art studio (converted from a chicken shed), there are items from Eliot’s travels, including Cambodian dolls from when he photographed at Angkor Wat and animal skins (deer, cow, and what appears to be cheetah). An outdoor sculpture was made from a large egg-shaped rock that Eliot rolled off a beach in Java. Although the art studio features an intricately carved wooden granary door from a West African tribe, Eliot’s collection of African art—so significant that it eventually became the cornerstone of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art—is otherwise absent.

There have been some repairs over the years: masons from Warren rebuilt the central chimney of the main house, and the second-floor wallpaper was refreshed. Across the front lawn, the guesthouse was renovated with help from architect-friend Denise A. Hall of D.A. Hall Architect in Philadelphia and island builders Mike Bunker Jr. and Dave Moyer III. The guesthouse now consists primarily of a kitchen and open space with a mezzanine reached by a wood ladder. The same team updated the main house kitchen. But in general the improvements were kept to a minimum to preserve the original character of the house.

Other outbuildings include the former outhouse, which is now a garden shed; a pump house that brings water from the spring-fed pond up to the buildings and gardens; and a workshop, which Eliot and friends built to house a car, but that was not wide enough to allow automobile doors to open once inside. “He was many things, but not a builder,” Elin opines.

Four gravestones—for Eliot, his second wife, Joan, and their two children—mark the property. Elin and her sister, of course, are very much alive. Still the stones serve for remembrance, as does so much on the property. Elin’s mother’s gravestone says, “She lived with grace and beauty.” “That was very true of her,” says Elin. Eliot’s gravestone reads, “He helped the world to see,” referring to something he once said about his own photographic objectives.

Eliot grew up as a poor child on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, so Vinalhaven was a distinct contrast to his personal past. “He loved Vinalhaven,” Elin says, “being surrounded by nature, and cooking and eating delicious things from the land and the sea. This was heaven for him.” And so it is for Elin, who has made the island her year- round home.