Mount Desert Island
MAINE STREETS – AUGUST 2007
By Carl Little
In 1990, not long after moving from New York City to Somesville, the oldest settlement on Mount Desert Island (1761), I sent a letter to a friend in the art business suggesting he consider opening a gallery in the old Fernald warehouse, which was then sitting empty on the mill stream next to the tiny library on the town’s main street (a.k.a. Route 102). The setting seemed ideal: lots of light, shimmering water, and a bald eagle that appeared just about every day during the summer to perch on a nearby tree.
The gentleman graciously declined, intimating that he was actually seeking to divest himself of a gallery or two. Yet the following year, my neighbor Linda Lewis leased the building, renovated it with the design guidance of Bar Harbor architect Roc Caivano, and opened Port in a Storm Bookstore, one of the finest purveyors of new books on the coast of Maine.
A student of Vincent Scully Jr. (of Shingle Style fame) at Yale, Caivano designed several notable buildings on Mount Desert Island, including the Wendell Gilley Museum in Southwest Harbor. This handsome suite of galleries is devoted to showcasing the remarkable bird carvings of Gilley (1931–1983), a plumber by trade who supplied his avian creations to Abercrombie & Fitch back in the day. The museum hosts visiting carvers and mounts special shows every summer, from the bird prints of Hiroshige (borrowed from the Rockefeller collection) to last year’s homage to the late Maine master painter Neil Welliver (1929–2005).
Another Caivano project is the Blair-Tyson student residency on the College of the Atlantic campus in Bar Harbor—about as nice a dorm as one will find on the East Coast. Two of Caivano’s classmates at Yale also contributed to the remarkably diverse architectural display that the COA campus boasts. In 1993, Vermont architect Turner Brooks designed the Gates Center complex, while Stewart Brecher, another Bar Harbor architect, oversaw the transformation of the original Lafayette (now Acadia) National Park headquarters into the college’s George B. Dorr Natural History Museum in 2001.
The campus also features one of the few Bar Harbor cottages not destroyed in the fire that swept across the island in 1947. Inspired by the Chateau Blois in the Loire Valley, the Turrets (1895) was designed by Bruce Price (1845–1903), the architect of, among other significant edifices, the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City. The college has worked hard to bring the castle-like structure, whose granite was quarried on the island near Eagle Lake, into modern-day compliance without marring its stately demeanor.
A stone’s throw from the Turrets one finds gardens designed by the renowned landscape architect Beatrix Farrand (1872–1959), who made her home on Mount Desert Island—first at Reef Point and then, in her final years, at Garland Farm, both in Bar Harbor. Patrick Chassé, an authority on the island’s garden history (he wrote the guide to the Rockefeller Gardens in Seal Harbor, also designed by Farrand), led the successful campaign to purchase Garland Farm in 2004. A year later, the Maine-born landscape historian—Caribou, in Aroostook County, is his hometown—was named the first “curator of landscape” at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.
John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), who painted several portraits of Mrs. Jack (as Gardner was known) in her lifetime, visited Mount Desert Island in the 1920s. He stayed with a cousin, Mary Hale, in Bar Harbor, and with fellow artist Dwight Blaney at his home on Ironbound Island in the middle of Frenchman Bay.
In her memoir “The Sargent I Knew,” published in 1927, Hale provided an amusing anecdote related to her renowned relative’s 1921 watercolor showing the ship Catherine docked in Somes Sound. “Change of light Sargent could understand and condone, but change of tide affronted him,” she wrote. “When he was painting the Schooner Catherine and got the row-boats where he wanted them in the foreground, he was most resentful when the tide changed their position. He kept us hauling the ‘bestial boats’ into place, and was afraid that we could not get them back in place the second day, as of course we did.”
Skipping ahead about half a century, another famous painter visited Mount Desert Island—and ended up staying. Richard Estes first arrived in the early 1970s as a guest of his long-time New York City dealer, Alan Stone. When the former home of American impressionist painter Carroll Tyson (1878–1956) in Northeast Harbor came on the market in 1975, the artist bought it, wanting to continue his seasonal getaways. Today, he spends at least half the year in Maine.
In 1980, Estes was commissioned by the French Academy to paint a portrait of fellow Northeast Harbor resident Marguerite Yourcenar (1903–1987), one of the great writers of the 20th century. Yourcenar had been elected to the French Academy, the first woman so honored since its founding by Cardinal Richelieu in 1635.
By dint of her last will and testament, Yourcenar’s white clapboard house set on a shady back street in Northeast Harbor is preserved as she left it. “Petite Plaisance,” French for small pleasure, is a permanent memorial to her genius as a writer. In addition to her masterpiece, Memoirs of Hadrian (1951), Yourcenar wrote novels, essays, memoirs, poetry, and plays. She also translated an assortment of literature and other writings into French, from novels by Virginia Woolf and James Baldwin to spirituals by Leadbelly and Bessie Smith.
The author’s home is open from June 15 to August 31 by appointment only, but the book Petite Plaisance: Marguerite Yourcenar 1903–1987 by Yvon Bernier, a trustee of the author’s estate, offers a peek into the interior of an out-of-the-ordinary abode. Certain details and objects in each of the eight rooms in the house are highlighted, as is their relation to Yourcenar’s writings. There are, for example, prints by Piranesi, the 18th-century Italian artist who was the subject of one of her finest essays, and unusual lampshades bearing inscriptions and motifs in Latin and Greek that reflect her lifelong passion for the ancients.
And then there are the items that carry what one might term “private significance.” Among these objects is a Swiss music box that Yourcenar played for her companion and translator, Grace Frick, as she lay dying, with the thought, the author once said, that “this light sound that she loved might perhaps still reach her.” Yourcenar and Frick are buried at Brookside Cemetery in Somesville, where the pair spent their first summers on Mount Desert Island.
Island residents still tell stories about Yourcenar. Kathy Sprague, who once worked at the post office in Somesville, will recount the time that Madame, as she was commonly known, sent a horse she had once ridden and grown fond of a bag of oats for Christmas.
In a 1980 interview, Yourcenar was asked what it was like to live on Mount Desert Island. “You feel that you’re standing on the border between the human world and the rest of the universe,” she replied. I would add that you also feel that any street or road or byway you might traverse on the island holds a strand of history, each a part of a rich interweaving of the lives of remarkable individuals and the homes, bookstores, museums, and castles they constructed.