Maine Gothic

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.


New Meaning to 'Blogger Burnout'

Well, nobody asked, but I'm going to tell you anyway.

When I started this blog, I had no interest in writing about myself.  Although utterly and unrepentantly self absorbed, I leave the  'my day' style of blogging to the original blogger, the estimable Eleanor Roosevelt, and her spiritual descendants.  I wanted to improve my writing skills, and I thought I'd stake out a relatively untapped area of the blogosphere---architecture, design, gardening, and landscape with a New England, and in particular, Maine, bias. Although I'd cover contemporary work,  I would emphasize older work.  This choice was not from any bias toward old or from a sense of nostalgia, although nostalgia is the inevitable result, but because the newer work is already being well covered by a number of magazines and blogs, and because I noticed that too much of the good stuff that had gone before was not being valued on its considerable merits as it once had been or should be.  I wanted to make a gentle plea for a gentler hand on the work of the past.   As I continued to post, I found myself rambling around, and sometimes surprising myself with where I wound up.  And I found delight in the thoughtful, intelligent responses that came as some posts resonated with readers.

In the last few weeks, several months of cumulative overload have caught up with me and slowed down blogging.----especially store renovations that seemed to go on far longer than they logically should have.   This of course was the fault of my cheap labor, who seemed to learn on the job: my electrician,  Dilettante Electric, my sheetrocker, Dilettante Drywall, and my carpenter, All Thumbs Dilettante.  And we won't even talk about the incredibly sloppy Dilettante Painters.  The worst of all.

 A corner of the renovations that never end:  Notice test vignette in background, with unfinished window frame at left, mitre saw at the ready in foreground, track lighting (finally installed eight hours ago) on the floor.  The end has been in sight for days, yet it doesn't arrive.

Just as I was beginning to see daylight, my marvelous father, 84, a delightful guy who has been refusing all entreaties to visit his doctor for months, finally capitulated---as in "okay Dad, you have two choices:  come willingly, or over my shoulder, but whichever choice, it's going to be NOW"  A former politician, pragmatic, he chose willingly, and off to the emergency room we went, followed by ten days of follow up visits and tests.  With the store opening date well past, and my inner electrician, drywaller and carpenter all preoccupied with worry for my  elderly father, I was needless to say, fully booked.

The awful moment has arrived.  Exterior painting.  What color shall the doors be?  Tasteful, classic Essex Green?  Boring Taupe?  Orange Popsicle?  Maybe Sky Blue?  This is the sort of decision that can paralyze me.  As it is, I've left the interior in Primer White for the summer.  Oh dear, I feel an attack of Exterior White coming on.....

 Then, just as my father was stablizing and improving, came the heat wave.  If there's one thing in the world the Dilettante hates more than mean conservatives or silly social climbers, it's heat and humidity in Maine.  Perversely, I find it very appealing in tropical locations in all winter months, and will willingly pay thousands to put myself in the same soupy weather I get for free up here every July. Here I just fold up and melt.  And complain.  A lot.  My brain and body both turned to thick syrupy goo, unable to function at any speed, yet there I was, hammer in one hand, paint roller in the other, and wire crimpers held in my teeth.   Life just couldn't get better.   Or could it?

Now, for those who think this is leading up to a decision to stop  blogging, or continue the hiatus, guess again.  I'm going to tell you even more about my week, and as promised, burnout is the operative phrase. 

I was driving the official Dilettante minivan (yeah, I know, antiques dealers drive the coolest cars.  Try hard not to be jealous), returning from a trip to the dump (the perfect errand for 95 degree weather----one comprehends the Decameron far better after such a journey. I was watching the heat shimmer on the highway ahead, when suddenly, a pick-up truck appeared behind me, in high agitation, honking horn, flashing flashers.  Pulling over to let him by, he didn't go by, but rather stopped alongside and announced in an urgent tone:  "your car is on fire".   I got out, he pulled over, we dialed 911, and then, a minute later, the car exploded.   By the side of the road, in 95 degree heat.  It was most spectacular.   Traffic piled up in both directions, tourists with movie cameras took pictures, as the flames and smoke spiraled up 30 feet, a neighboring tree caught fire, and yes, it really does look just the way it does in the movies, only without Vin Diesel.  Then arrived the fire department.  They sprayed some goo, and the fire was out.   Unfortunately, I was planning a trip to Brimfield the next day, and the car was packed with overnight clothes, and with some architecture and decorating books and magazines en route from office to home.  Oh, and some gardening stuff, likewise homeward bound.   And some tools, including my great-grandfather's level.  But I was unharmed.   And the Good Samaritan stayed for the whole thing.  Friend Sidekick came out to get me, and here I am.  On rte. 172, the burn site, with its scorched earth, and crater created by the explosion, remains a minor tourist attraction.  Obama is visiting nearby Mt. Desert next week, and I expect the interest in my crater will die down while he's here.

And you thought I was joking about blogger burnout?  How about blogger flameout?  Do you prefer your Dilettante fried or broiled?

Beirut by the sea: The remains of the van were towed to the local garage, which enjoys a pleasant harbor view.  From this angle, although twisted and battered, it doesn't look so bad. Notice the remains of engine on the ground in front...

But, from the side, the effects of the explosion and fire are more clearly seen.

 Inside, the manufactured interior of the car---upholstery, dashboard, carpet, door panels, are completely destroyed, yet a magazine ad with a picture of Penshurst place survives.  Notice the skeletal seat frames.  Not comforting to know that we are riding on something so combustible.  Thanks to Sidekick for the shots

And that's how I've spent the last couple of weeks.  Down East Dilettante will be back, blogging about the usual--pretty houses and pretty things, in a couple of days.  Maybe I'll start with my Fourth of July post...