The Pinafore Sails Down East

 Prelude:  Pinafore makes the Dilettante long for Cosi
 I should like Gilbert and Sullivan better than I do.  But I don't. I'm fairly well rounded musically, but I need only to hear the opening strains of  "I Am The Captain of The Pinafore", or "Three Little Maids Are We"  (am I the only one reminded of the Andrews Sisters?)  and I'm looking for the exits.
It's interesting, because in Blue Hill, the town where I grew up, Serious Music is a Big Deal, and in addition to our better known musical attractions, like the Kneisel Hall Music Festival,  we claim two major footnotes in the history of Gilbert and Sullivan performance in the United States.

Act 1. Miss Ober and the Ideals
Effie Hinckley Ober was born in Sedgwick Maine, a few miles from Blue Hill, in 1844.  In an unusual path for a single young woman from the hinterlands in the 19th century, she found her way to the city, where she launched a career as a theatrical agent.  In due course, she caught a performance of Gilbert & Sullivan at the D'Oyly Carte in London, and decided  to bring Pinafore to the United States.  Thus was started the Boston Ideal Opera company, specifically to stage an 'ideal' performance of the operetta in November,1878.   The performances took place on a 'ship' in a lake in Boston's Oakland Park. Within weeks, 'Pinafore had captured the popular imagination, and Miss Ober and her top notch troupe of performers took to the road, performing Gilbert & Sullivan and other light opera across the continent.  They were for a time probably the premiere touring company in the country---a fact memorialized in a scene from the movie Tombstone', in which the Ideals come to perform, prompting one character to ask, "who'd ever expect to hear Gilbert & Sullivan in a town like this?".

Georgia Cayvan, a popular actress of the late 19th century, made her debut as Hebe in the Boston Ideal Opera Company's America premiere production of 'HMS Pinafore' in 1879

Miss Ober did not forget her distant home on the Maine coast, and in 1883 commissioned a small shingled summer villa on Parker Point in Blue Hill, designed by George Clough, a Blue Hill boy, who trained under Snell & Gregorson in Boston, and was named official City Architect there in 1874.  Her tidy little cottage, on a cliff facing the Blue Hill Mountain, was called La Mascot, after an Audran opera that was one of the troupe's early successes

'La Mascot' Effie Ober's the summer cottage Effie Ober built in 1883 with profits from her Ideal Opera Company

By 1884 the 'Ideals', as they were known, were suffering from artistic and internal struggles, including the business manager being found nude on a train, babbling that spirits and the Devil were causing Miss Ober to conspire against him, and Miss Ober suspended touring for a time.  In Cleveland, she met  abolitionist publisher and attorney Virgil P. Kline, who  had come to prominence successfully defending Teagle & Schurmer, the last independent oil refiner in the city from being gobbled up by John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Trust.  Mightily impressed by his work, Rockefeller, did take over Virgil Kline, hiring him as his lead counsel.  Eventually, Teagle & Schurmer did merge with Standard Oil, and a Teagle, Walter, became Kline's protogee, groomed to become chairman of Standard of New Jersey, which under his guidance became Esso, later Exxon.  But I digress. Back to Effie:

The Ober homestead before 1888,
The same view after the remodeling of 1888.

In 1888, Effie Ober & Virgil Kline were married in Blue Hill, and moved into her parent's former home, which they had had George Clough remodel in the latest style.   This remodeled cottage was known, of course, as 'Ideal Lodge' after the new Mrs. Kline's opera company.   Heavily inspired by recently published works by McKim, Mead and White (notably the Narragansett Casino and the Osborne house at Mamaroneck) and William Ralph Emerson, the house, with its two story great hall with divided staircase and internal oriel window, was a suitably theatrical backdrop for Mrs Kline.

The service wing of Ideal Lodge with carriage arch inspired by the Narragansett Casino.

Oriel window in the great hall at Ideal Lodge

After Mrs. Kline's death, Ideal Lodge became the summer home of another colorful woman, the Countess of Santa Eulalia, born Elizabeth Shindler of Indiana, made rich by her second husband, hat manufacturer John Stetson, and a countess by her third, the former Portuguese consul in Chicago.  After her death, the house was owned for a time by her Stetson children.   In the 1960's, the once elegant summer neighborhood it had  anchored began a slow drift toward commercialism, and the cottage, after falling on hard times, is now a restaurant and inn known as Barncastle, for its combination of gambrel roofs and chateauesque turrets.

Act 2. Hey Kids, Let's put on a show!
In the early 1900's, the granddaughters of John Ellingwood Donnell traveled up to East Blue Hill, Maine, to visit a defunct granite quarry that he had purchased years before.   Delighted by the rocky oceanfront meadows they encountered, one of the granddaughters pursuaded her surgeon husband, textile heir Seth Milliken, to build a large summer bungalow on the property.  In due course, other structures were added, and the property, known as Ellingwood after Mrs. Milliken's grandfather, became a considerable estate. The Millikens and their five children would arrive each summer, with a bevy of maids, chauffeurs, governesses and tennis coaches in their wake.

The Milliken estate in 1912, with the newly constructed main house, 'Wing and Wing', later setting for The Mikado', in the background.
  'Wing and Wing' as remodeled by Philadelphia architect Edmund Gilchrist c. 1920

In the summer of 1924, despairing of the pernicious influence of the roaring twenties on their five children, Alida, Martha, Minot, Seth and John, Dr. & Mrs. Milliken added a music coach to the summer staff, hoping to provide an alternative to movies and fast parties.  The idea was had to stage a performance of 'HMS Pinafore'.  Children from other social families on nearby Mt. Desert were recruited for starring roles and chorus.   The Milliken's 103 foot Herreshoff yacht, 'Shawna' would stand in for the Pinafore, classical music students, studying  with their instructors for the summer would provide musical accompaniment, and car headlights would provide illumination.  The commodious stone porches of the boathouse would house the audience, which included, by the way, the Dilettante's grandmother, who remembered it as 'just magical'.

One wonders if Effie Ober Kline, who had brought 'Pinafore' to America 45 years earlier(damn her), by then 80 and still summering in Blue Hill, was in the audience.  It seems very likely so, but there is nothing in the record to answer the question, and all who would know are now dead.  I wish I had wondered a decade ago.

The Milliken yacht 'Shawna' the stage for 'HMS Pinafore", in front of the boathouse

The performance was a great success, and the following autumn, when everyone was back in New York, it was decided to put on another performance, this time in the marble stair hall of the Milliken's townhouse at 951 Madison Avenue (now the site of the Whitney Museum).

The courtyard of Wing and Wing decked out for the 'Mikado'

By the next summer, the performances had become a tradition, and they mounted a performance of 'The Mikado', at 'Ellingwood', using the formal garden and courtyard of the main house, known as 'Wing and Wing', decorated for the occasion as a Japanese temple.  Another rousing success, the group decided to become an official entity, and perform in New York for the benefit of charity.  And thus was born the Blue Hill Troupe, possibly the most respected, and social, amateur Gilbert & Sullivan troupe in the country, which has since raised millions for charity, including a return engagement to Blue Hill a few years ago. 

 Mrs. Milliken had yet another claim to fame.  Rich, fashionable and social, she was also a fanatic right winger,  and as mother of one of the John Birch Society's major supporters, she derived great pleasure from playing bridge with her friends, using her special set of John Birch playing cards.


Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery: Homewood

As regular readers know, I am fascinated by design sources in architecture and the decorative arts---I love the way designs of different cultures get interpreted and re-interpreted as they travel.   

Nashville Parthenon

Equally interesting to me, in architecture, are copies and adaptations of iconic buildings---the copy of the Parthenon in Nashville Tennessee, or Mad Ludwig's Herrenchiemsee Palace, a copy of Versailles, or the copies of La Lanterne that I documented in an earlier post, to name several examples. (Click here for the Lanterne copies)

 Bavarian Versailles.  Ludwig II's Herrenchiemsee Palace

 Malibu Mt. Vernon.  The house designed for actor Rob Lowe by Don Nulty (AD photograph)

In the United States, a wave of Americana fever swept the country for a century after the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876, and copies of favorite American houses became all the rage.  The most popular were houses that were both fine examples of their types and had association with famous persons.   The prime example is, of course, George Washington's Mt. Vernon, which has spawned thousands of imitations, from gas stations to actor Rob Lowe's overblown evocation published in Architectural Digest a couple of months ago.

 Homewood, the Original

Homewood, pictured on the center panel of a chair from a set depicting Baltimore landmarks.

One of the most frequently copied houses was Homewood in Baltimore, Maryland, one of the most sophisticated early 19th century houses, a Palladian composition with neoclassical details, which was built in 1800 by Charles Carroll, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, for his son and new bride.  It is a rare American suburb that doesn't contain at least one house with a version of its superb portico.  Herewith, a few examples of Homewood adaptations  from coast to coast.
In 1907, the Salem Athenaeum, in Salem Massachusetts, used Homewood's center block, with slightly steeper pediment, as inspiration for their new building.

The interior of the Salem Atheneum, above, pays homage to the original, below.

The two postcards above show the Maryland State Building at the Panama-Pacific Exposition of 1915 in San Francisco, an exact copy of Homewood.

In 1916, Charles Adams Platt, better known for his Italian inspired country houses, created a two story version of Homewood blown up to a very large scale for the John Teele Pratts at Glen Cove on Long Island's North Shore

And in Hallowell Maine, Homewood was the inspiration for the Post Office, here translated with limestone portico, rather than the wood of the original.  The purple painted window trim is probably a corruption of the original color chosen by the architect 70 years ago.

  Other popular early American houses to copy were The Lindens, built in Danvers Massachusetts and now in Washington DC, the John Hancock House in Boston, the Hammond Harwood house in Annapolis, and the Longfellow House in Cambridge.  As the months go by, I'll post about their doppelgangers.  If you're interested, of course.


The Frescoes of South Solon Maine

The Dilettante's curiosity frequently diverts him from his intended path.  This was the case a couple of Sundays ago, as I was returning from Newport, Rhode Island, where I'd viewed an exhibit of Gothic art in the opulence of Marble House.   It was a grayish day, with more than a hint of late fall, but as I reached Fairfield, Maine, the sun broke through, and I decided to veer off I-95 and head up to see the South Solon Meeting House, a place I'd known about for 45 years, and had always wanted to see, and on this day I decided the time had come.

To get to South Solon takes some perseverance.  One drives up Rte. 102 to Skowhegan, and then up Lakewood Avenue and out of town, on the path for Canada.   The convenience stores and car lots of outer Skowhegan rapidly give way to open country----hardscrabble farmland, fewer houses, more forests.  It's a wilder, poorer, remoter Maine than the one on the south, coastal, side of Interstate 95.   As I approached Solon, I kept watching for some sign that I was there---I knew I was south of Solon village proper, and logic dictated that I must be in South Solon now, but nothing, almost literally nothing, was to be seen to give a clue.

The next day was the opening of hunting season, a serious event in this part of Maine, and in the village, I stopped to ask how to find South Solon and the meeting house at a convenience store adorned with a huge banner welcoming the hunters who would be arriving the next day.   The nice guy at the store directed me 'a mile back down the road, turn at the Quonset hut, and go about two miles'.  He said the road would get 'wicked curvy', and he did not lie.  It also went relentlessly uphill on its winding way, and after passing a certain elevation, I found myself driving on the first snow covered ground of the season, past evergreens and stone walls frosted with fresh snow.   At the crossroads, where once a little village had prospered, there now remained only a couple of old farmhouses, and the object of my quest, the 1842 meeting house.  It sat on its corner, a spartan little early clapboard structure in the beautiful, unlikey, mix of Gothic and Greek revivals that is often seen in New England Churches, a wonderful contrast to the Gothic and classical splendors I'd just seen in Newport.  The sun had disappeared again, and I went inside, to view the wonder of South Solon Maine.

The South Solon Meeting house interior has been barely altered since construction, with only original coats of paint on what few surfaces ever were painted.   The interior is spartan, no more than is needed, with the box pew of an earlier age, and a high pulpit reached by double staircase, from which each Sunday the parson would endeavor to save his flock from eternal damnation.

Ah, but are you still with me?  As beautiful as I find all of this, it alone would not be enough to take me so far out of my way late on a chilly afternoon.  No, the real astonishment of this isolated structure is a series of frescoes covering  the walls and ceilings of the entire interior, executed in the 1950's by students at the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture.   The Sistine Chapel it isn't, and in fact the overall effect is both odd and beautiful, but the story of how this unexpected New England evocation of an Italian hill church came to be is fascinating.
As I was walking toward this section, the pew door quietly and slowly swung open.  It happened to be Halloween

The Skowhegan School was founded in 1946, concurrent with the rise of the New York School,  by portraitist Willard Cummings, muralist Henry Varnum Poor, stone sculptor Charles Cutler, and Sidney Simon.  It was, and remains, an art school governed by artists, and has been an influential presence in the American art scene since its inception.

A faculty seminar at the Skowhegan School in 1967
L-R:  Robert Mangold, Philip Pearlstein, James McGarrell, Sidney Hurwitz, Henry Varnum Poor, Ann Poor, and Ben Shahn (Skowhegan School Archives Photograph)

 In 1951,  Margaret Blake, a trustee of the Chicago Art Institute, who had been visiting the Skowhegan School, was driving on the back roads and came upon the Meeting House.  Moved by its shabby, untouched interior, she had the idea of a cooperative art project between the school and the church.  Working with the school, Mrs. Blake set up the 'Margaret Blake Fellowships For Decoration in True Fresco of the South Solon Meeting House'. A further statement was made that while there were to be no limitations in subject matter, the religious character of the non-sectarian building should be considered, and should have meaning for those whose worshiped there.  A national competition was held, and 11 artists were chosen.  The work was completed five years later, in 1956.

Frescoes on a convex wall in the narrow vestibule show the story of the meeting house, from original building to dedication of the paintings, with Mrs. Blake holding a bouquet of roses

The wall behind the pulpit, by William KingThe ceiling fresco is by Edwin Brooks

Sidney Hurwitz applying plaster to the wall for his fresco (Photograph by Paul Cordes, Down East Magazine Nov. 1957)

Michiline Beaumont and Philip Bornath transferring a design to the wall (Cordes, Down East(

(Unfortunately, it was a gray afternoon just before dusk, and this wall defied either available light or flash)
 One of Sidney Hurwitz's frescoes, flanking the Bryan mural.

Detail from a fresco at the top of the winding stair to the choir loft

A sprig of scented geranium, mysteriously and touchingly attached to a bench in the choir loft

View from the choir loft.  The frescoes on the right, by Thomas Mikkelson, depict scenes from the New Testament

Choir Loft Fresco

Another view of the Mikkelson mural

A 19th century pump organ is the newest furnishing in the Meeting House
View from choir loft to fresco depicting the trials of Job and the story of Abraham and Isaac by Alfred Blaustein

 In recent years, with the aid of grants, considerable funds have been expended on the conservation of the frescoes, now in the care of the South Solon Historical Society.  In 2007, a grant from the Maine Humanities Council supported the return of several of the artists, to discuss their work on the Meeting House.
Ashley Bryan working on his fresco on the curved rear wall

50 odd years later, Bryan returns to South Solon to discuss his part in the fresco project, and his subsequent career as an illustrator. (Garrett-Young photograph, Maine Humanities Council)
The South Solon Free Meeting House, never locked, is open year round.  Heat is not an option in cooler weather.

The Dilettante is indebted to an article by Lew Dietz, in Down East Magazine for Nov-Jan. 1957 for much of the information in this post.


The Lady From Maine. Mrs. Smith Goes to Washington

When I was growing up in Maine, there were certain constants.  There would be lots of snow in winter, lots of lobster in summer, and lots of Senator Margaret Chase Smith year round.  I'm older now, there's less snow, which I like, and I never cared much for lobster, but in this most disgusting of election years, I sure wish that the very sensible Senator Smith were still around.

Let's digress for a moment before I get  to the point of this post. Even here in sensible no-frills Maine, a state of only a million or so people spread out over a large geographical area---where it sometimes seems everyone knows everyone else---we are not immune from the relentless nuttiness and nastiness that has characterized this election year, more so than any other that I can remember.   Maine is traditionally a politically moderate and tolerant state, and whether Republicans or Democrats were in charge, things were always pretty much business as usual.  No longer.  The Palin and Tea Party wings, strident, proud, loud, and not always logical (like almost never),  have taken over the Republican party, shoving its moderate wing out of the way.  The moderate wing, marginalized, has mostly gone Democrat or Independent.   A loud mouthed, foul tempered buffoon who could not have made it past the primaries a few years ago is the Republican candidate for Governor.  His campaign has been characterized by tantrums, loud invective, and half baked populist claptrap that sounds good to people who have been listening to too much talk radio, but makes little sense when actually put to the logic test.

You may be thinking 'ah, the Dilettante is obviously one of those bleeding heart liberal Democrats'.  Yes, proudly so, but sad to report, the Democratic party in Maine is also not safe from my contempt this year  The state has been controlled in recent years by the Democrats. The most recent governor, a former senator, has been the most tepid, invisible and ineffective in my forty years of following state  politics.  The current Democratic candidate for Governor, the first woman house majority leader, is sensible and polite, unlike her Republican opponent.  Unfortunately, she is also a business as usual politician with few strong ideas. She has also been dragged down by a new nastier side to the Democratic party, apparently trying to emulate the Republican attack methods.  She is splitting the majority moderate vote with  an Independent candidate, a lawyer and former lobbyist, who is by far the smartest kid in the room, and the one with the best articulated and sensible ideas.  He has also been running the politest campaign.  Sadly, sensible doesn't fly this year.  Long story short, although only something like 35 per cent of the voters want the mean candidate, the other sixty five per cent is split in the polls, in order, between the the Independent, the Democrat, the fringe candidates, and our old friend, the undecided.  Only a miracle will elect one of the sensible candidates.

 'Fair View', the Smith estate in Skowhegan

Which brings us to Margaret Chase Smith.  She was born in 1897 in Skowhegan, Maine, a pleasant small city on the Kennebec River, the last big town on the Northern route to Canada, whose other chief claim to fame is having been the location for Paul Newman's film version of  Empire Falls.  She was of that first generation of woman who came to age with the suffrage movement and the right to vote.  As a young woman, she worked as a teacher in a one room school house, as a telephone operator and as communications director for the local paper.  She married Clyde Smith, a respected local politician in 1930, and went to live in his big old second Empire mansion in Skowhegan, all varnished woodwork and stately gloom.  When he was elected to to Congress, they went to live in Washington, where in due course Mr. Smith suffered a heart attack, and before he died, urged that his wife, who had served as his assistant, be elected to his seat, and in 1940, she was, becoming the first woman in Maine to serve in the house.  In 1948, she ran successfully for the Senate, becoming the first woman to serve in both houses.  As a senator, she had a long and successful career, ranking 11th in seniority, serving until 1973.  She was famed for her clear speech and thought.  She said what she meant, and meant what she said.

 Senator Smith at home on Newark Street in Washington

With fellow representatives Jessie Sumner Clare Booth Luce and Frances Bolton and Speaker of the house Sam Rayburn
And here we get at last to what brought moves me to write this post.  As I look with horror at the money unleashed by the actions of the Roberts Supreme Court, now flowing even into local Maine elections, and consider the Palinesque nuttiness that has overtaken the Republican party, I have found myself thinking a great deal about Senator Smith's finest moment.   It was June of 1950.  The country was in the grip of McCarthyism, red-baiting and communist witch hunts, and madness and fear dominated the political scene.  Sound familiar?  The difference was that someone from within McCarthy's own party was willing to stand up and say 'enough is enough'.  That someone was Senator Smith, and her 'Declaration of Conscience' is considered one of the finest speeches of the 20th century.   A plea for a return to common sense and fairness in the Republican party, it also, without naming him, took direct aim at Senator McCarthy's tactics, and was the beginning of the end of his reign of terror.  It was a brave and lucid speech.  Senator Smith once famously said that her method in speaking was to speak very slowly, very clearly, using simple words and give her listener plenty of time to think about her points, all delivered in her clear, lady-like Maine diction.  In it she stated her belief that the Republican party was necessary to the well being of the country and the two party system, but that: "to displace it with a Republican regime embracing a philosophy that lacks political integrity or intellectual honesty would prove equally disastrous to this nation.  The nation sorely needs a Republican victory.  But I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny—Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear".  

'Senator Smith with Leverett Saltonstall and Lyndon Johnson

In the senate, she became a foreign relations and military specialist.  Her achievements include the Armed Services Integration Act, granting women permanent status in the military.  In 1964, Smith became the first woman to be nominated as a presidential candidate for a major party in the primaries.  Her wonderful dry speech announcing  her decision to run may be heard by clicking here.  Her campaign song, decidedly pre-feminist and sung by Hildegarde, can be heard http://www.mcslibrary.org/program/library/hildegard.wav

Although she worked hard in the New Hampshire primary, traveling 5,000 miles to visit 50 towns, she garnered only 2,812 votes from our neighboring New England state (spending only $250 in the process!).
Undaunted, she went on to the Illinois primaries, where she covered nearly as much territory, this time spending only $82.   Yet, in Illinois, she astounded all the pundits and even her own campaign manager by receiving 208,000 votes, 26% of the total.   She had made history.

The kitchen of the new house, as it appeared in Ladies Home Journal in 1956.

In 1972, in her mid-seventies, she was defeated for re-election.  Conservatives found her refusal to support Nixon's Supreme court nominees too liberal, and liberals found her support of the Vietnam War too conservative.  She retired to the simple ranch house she had built on a bluff overlooking the Kennebec River, and died there in 1995.  Her house is now a museum with library adjoining.   The house, designed by Harriman Associates, will win no design awards, but is a perfect time capsule of its era, and a moving testimony to the remarkable woman who lived there.

 The Living Room (MCS Library)
Senator Smith entertains President Eisenhower, 80 guests and 150 members of the press corps for lobster dinner at home in Skowhegan (MCS Library)

I am not the only one who has been thinking longingly of Senator Smith and her high-minded politics lately.  Here is Katrina Vanden Heuvel, editor of the Nation, on Margaret Chase Smith and the Declaration of Conscience.

 I'll be spending the next few days in mourning for the loss of commons sense in politics, but I promise, nothing but houses and decoration for a few weeks after this political interlude.