Edmund Beaman Gilchrist (1885-1953), was a gentleman architect, Philadelphia born and bred His specialty was residential design, although he also created some notable smaller public structures.. He was part of that distinct group practicing in Philadelphia---the firms Mellor, Meigs and Howe, Duhring, Oakie and Ziegler; and Tilden, Register and Pepper---who were leading the pack in the design of beautiful houses that somehow managed to be picturesque and vernacular, and at the same time, imaginative, modern and new. These architects were among the most imaginative, and most influential of the era in residential design.
In the first half of the last century, this stretch of the Maine Coast, and Northeast Harbor in particular, was known as 'Philadelphia on the Rocks', and indeed it sometimes seemed in this Dilettante's youth that there was a Philadelphian behind every tree in the summertime. Thus it was only natural that Gilchrist and his peers would receive many commissions for summer houses in the region. Collectively those cottages constitute some of the best architecture produced up here during the 1920's and 1930's and five of those houses have been chosen for inclusion in my book. (For those, the faithful reader will have to wait. And it will be worth it) .
For my entire life, I've enjoyed looking at--and learning from--Gilchrist's work here in Maine. Picturesque as his buildings are, they are also at home in their surroundings, precise, elegant, understated, but never under designed, and not without surprises and mystery, and in that eclectic age, he proved himself an adept player of the game, always creating something fresh from traditional idiom. Here are three buildings whose small size belies the vast quality of their design, making mockery of so many of the overblown structures of today.
Eleanor Denniston, like Gilchrist from was from Germantown. She summered on remote Petit Manan Point, far from the social whirl of Mt. Desert Island. In 1911, she commissioned Gilchrist to design a chapel for her property at Petit Manan. It is a simple, almost miniature building, in the English tradition, but nearly reductionist in its design. A tower was built of stones hauled up from the beach, the slab siding was cut from trees on the property, and the interior was left unfinished, dependant entirely on simplicity, light and proportion for effect. Click HERE for an evocative series of photographs which give a far better idea of this building.
As one approaches Islesford on Little Cranberry Island off Mt. Desert, if one can take one's eyes off the spectacular scenery for a moment, a little cluster of buildings comes into focus on shore, Most are vernacular structure of clapboard or shingle--boathouses, sheds, small cottages--but soon one spots this sophisticated little brick building sitting tactfully in their midst, different from them yet, fitting in. This is the Islesford Museum, built again for a Philadelphian, Dr. William Otis Sawtelle, an Islesford summer resident strongly interested both in local history and cultures, as well as the ancient history of the Mt. Desert region. He commissioned Gilchrist to design this elegant reductionist structure for his collection in 1927. It is now the museum for Acadia National Park. I could happily live there, should the Park ever tire of it..
|The view from Little Cranberry Island. We may not have a Barneys up here, but there are compensations|
Outside, it is as reductionist and as imaginative as a Delano & Aldrich design, beautifully detailed, its unusual hooded fanlight echoed by another, this time antique, over a door within. The brick is handmade, the details no more and no less than are needed for effect. Inside, a hall connects three rooms on a 'T' plan with brick walls and gray painted floors, a fireplace in each room. It is spartan, quiet, and cool, and for all its city airs, feels exactly right for its island location. Sadly, I have no interior photos available.
|The spring house at Sieur de Monts|
At the other extreme, Bar Harbor in the 1920's was at the height of fashion. Through much of the early 20th century, the Italian styles were popular there, being thought appropriate to the scenery and as a backdrop for summer gaiety, and many of the large cottages there were veritable replicas of Tuscan villas. Even new Lafayette (now Acadia) National Park, designed to keep the landscape forever wild, did not escape. At the Park's Sieur de Monts Springs, local architect Fred Savage was commissioned to design a protective structure over the spring, based on a design by summer resident Egisto Fabbri, that would not look out of place in the countryside near Florence.
|Dr. Abbe's sketch for his museum (National Park Service)|
Thus in 1926, when Robert Abbe, a pioneering radiologist who was also an amateur archaeologist made plans to create a small museum for his collection of Stone Age antiquities, it did not seem incongruous that he would commission Edmund Gilchrist to design the museum in the style of a Florentine chapel at Sieur de Monts. (Okay, it is incongruous, an Italian chapel in the middle of the forest, housing ancient Native American artifacts. But it works.) Dr. Abbe died before his museum was completed in 1928
Even with Savage's spring house as introduction, it is a surprise to walk up a gentle wooded trail and suddenly be faced this exquisite little echo of the Renaissance in the forest. Yet, it is a tribute to Gilchrist's skill that the building also seems inevitable and appropriate, even right in its surroundings, against all logic. A critic once wrote of the unexplainable alchemy and mystery of Gilchrist's architecture. All of those qualities are present in this cool, understated building.
|Are those signs flanking the entrance really necessary? Really? I've barely forgiven the park for the asphalt path|
The domed main room maintains its period museum charm, with original display cases, dioramas, and relief maps created by Dr. Abbe. These maps were in great demand among his friends and were decorative features of several Bar Harbor cottages.