Down East Tear Down

As my youth took place pretty much between the two gilded ages, both of which produced lavish summer architecture in this part of Maine--for the millionaires of the first, and the billionaires of the second---I've had a front row seat for the decline of the first age, and the rise of the second.

Blueberry Ledge, Entrance Front

Forty years ago, many of the large houses on the strip of coast from Camden to Winter Harbor were being reduced or demolished, in favor of something less taxable, and easier to paint.  Many fine buildings, even some seminal works by great architects of a hundred years ago, were lost, or became institutions.  New construction was almost inevitably modest and tactful, even when expensive.  In those years there was also very little innovation.  All this changed, as taxes were lowered, and deregulation of financial industries enabled very large fortunes to be made very fast, and old fortunes suddenly gained new life.  Handsome old cottages were no longer being torn down or reduced because they were too large, but rather, were being torn down because they were too small.  It's been startling to watch, as billionaires start to outnumber lobstermen along the coast, as old shingled bungalows on splendid sites give way to McMansions or orgiastic arts and crafts fantasies, all stone and tiresomely earnest joinery by craftsmen imported from unpronounceable countries---the new equivalent of Lord Duveen providing his clients with 18th century boiseries.

Blueberry Ledge, water front.

One example of the new trend is this house, Blueberry Ledge, in Northeast Harbor.  Designed in the 1880's by the important firm of Peabody & Stearns for President Charles Eliot of Harvard, not a masterpiece, it was relatively small by the standards  time and place, and was the setting for a simple, high minded summer life.  Roomy, unpretentious, full of pleasant crannies and old fashioned porches, it was spectacularly sited on a rocky bluff at the Eastern Way entrance to the Harbor, overlooking the islands offshore.

  Later the house was acquired by Mrs. Peter Jay, who had given up 'Breakwater', her enormous Tudorbethan pile in Bar Harbor, left to her late husband by an Astor aunt.  Mrs. Jay in turn left it to her daughter, the noted Washington hostess and writer Susan Mary Alsop, one of the glittering figures of her day, and possessor of one of the finest cases of lock jaw to ever grace the East Coast (I actually do not intend that remark unkindly.  Her diction was remarkable to the ear, redolent of another time, another world).  Here, in the summer, she gathered and entertained many of the most prominent figures of arts, politics and society.  After Mrs. Alsop's death, her heirs placed the house on the market.   It was snapped up for $5,500,000, a pittance by Hamptons standards, but substantial in our part of the world, by a billionaire whose privacy I'll respect, and almost immediately razed, with plans for a new complex, covering far more of the site, designed by Hamptons favorite  Gwathmey & Siegel.   The building permit, issued three months after last year's economic crash, was for $22,000,000.

Views of two of the buildings by Gwathmey Siegel that are replacing Blueberry Ledge (and yes, the Dilettante obeyed the 'Keep Out' signs.  They seemed very sincere.

And by the way, about Mrs. Jay's pile in Bar Harbor?  After years of benign neglect by the next owner, a dissolute oil heir given to importing beautiful German boys for parties in the seventies, it was sold again, and in the spirit of the new gilded age, restored to a splendor far beyond its original, with hundreds of feet of gilt spike iron fencing surrounding it.

  Breakwater, Susan Mary Alsop's childhood summer home at Bar Harbor, designed for her great aunt, Mrs. John Innes Kane (Annie Schermerhorn) by Fred Savage

 I'll let my gentle readers draw their own conclusions from here.


Anonymous said...

'Money Cant Buy You Class'

As beautifully sung by the oh so "classy" Countess LuAnn de Lesseps. A cast memeber of the reality show NY Housewives.


Raina Cox said...

The kid from "The Wonder Years" is an architect?

All kidding aside, I'm a little sad now.

Blue said...

Frightening, Dilettante, disappointing but not surprising. Your post leaves me in wonderment on a number of levels. It's not often I'm at a loss for words but this is one of those times.

Barbara Wells Sarudy said...

"Roomy, unpretentious, full of pleasant crannies and old fashioned porches" sounds simply divine. "Years of benign neglect" (perhaps without the boys) even sounds acceptable. But dealing with total destruction & change is indeed sad. At least the view will remain.

Turner Pack Rats said...

that new 22M construction sure is attractive like rats and sewers. i think the robber barons would be agog at this excess.
your term tudorbethan is perfect for that house and i'm glad to see it survived. also glad to see fred could emerge from not being typecast as a child star. so inspiring.

security word def - "rallyz" - what the gop thinks they will do in nov. (they have no alternative plans to the prez so they might as well party.

ArchitectDesign™ said...

hmm -size queens no doubt. I never quite understand why people buy expensive homes to tear them down. It happens so often here in dc as well. I mean...buy an UGLY house or mcmansion and tear it down please! All of the great views can't already be taken can they?!

home before dark said...

Insanity in an insane world. So sad. Look forward to your book, which has to happen, as you had the front-row seat to so much goings on.

Anonymous said...

Your readers are indeed drawing their own conclusions
and the picture is bleak. The prevailing trend among
clueless billionaires for gargantuan and utterly bogus
architecture is rife, not only in beautiful Maine, but
everywhere else, as Stefan pointed out. But somehow,
it's slightly more obscene in beautiful Maine.

magnus said...

You raise an issue that I have long pondered: Are we at the tail end of this new gilded age? Will future generations look at these monsterously sized houses with their mouths agape thinking "what could possibly have been going through the builder's mind". And during the last period of mansion building ending in 1929, well trained servants were plentiful cheap and ubiquitous. As we all know, that is hardly the case now. I can tell you first hand that many of those building these houses today didn't grow up with daily household help and have no intetion of having it now. They build these vast piles then spend all of their time in some horribly overscaled "great room" connected to, or part of an equally vast and impractical kitchen. And, God forbid you have a drink in the rarely used living room: A request for another cube of ice for your drink obliges your host to embark on a quarter mile jog to the ice maker. As for gilded finials in Maine- there's not much to be said.

The Ancient said...

I was always very fond of Joe Alsop, ridiculous old fool that he was.

He had one of those great antediluvian voices, all of which are now extinct. (Along with the expression, "Who was she?")

One bad winter, thirty years ago, I had his sidewalk shoveled. (He was really helpless.)

The Ancient said...

I think magnus is quite right.

The old world required immense numbers of servants -- more than most people today could possibly imagine. World War Two changed all that. No one wanted to be in service -- and with crushing income taxes, the third-generation rich (in other words, people who were the grandchildren of men who were effectively billionaires in the Eighties or Nineties) could no longer afford them -- at least in large numbers.

I remember a social gaffe many decades ago when I referred to the absurdly expensive landscape architect who looked after our city garden as "our gardener."

My aunt dropped on me like a panther from a tree: "Oh, you have a gardener? When I was a girl, we had six, each with his own cottage."

magnus said...

And I think that there's nothing better than those plummy accents of well bred Easterners from yore, like the Alsops. I live on the North Shore of Long Island which used to be the epicenter of "Locust Valley Lockjaw", our localized version. Sadly, and I mean this truthfully, it is going the way of the whale bone corset. My mother told me that the old broads were given diction lessons at Miss Porters, Foxcroft, etc and that's its genesis. Do any of your readers know if this is so? And then, of course, 1930's Hollywood picked it up which is why so many stars of that era, from very unpromising backgrounds I assure you speak like New York society dowagers.

I vote that we bring it back. I'm going to fill my mouth with marbles when I get back from the office and start practicing.

The Ancient said...

1) In those days (before WW2), there was no television to flatten out small differences in pronunciation, and the movies were filled with stage and British actors. That's crucial. (Just look at how rapidly that vapid Valley Girl twang has metastasized through the country.)

2) Locust Valley Lockjaw was just one of the old accents, and not necessarily the most patrician. Maybe we assume it was because actors can easily copy/parody it.

3) BTW, "Locust Valley Parties" -- before WW2 and for some time after -- was North Shore shorthand for evenings where everyone drank too much and often went home with someone other than their spouse. (I used to think of LV as our own version of Kenya's Happy Valley.)

magnus said...

Now Ancient- this may not be the proper venue BUT-

A friend's mother swears that Locust Valley, rightly viewed by many as a hotbed of reactionary politics and anti-diluvial views, was famed for "Locust Valley Sheet Parties" where everyone would drink too much, then hang a sheet with holes cut in it. The men would stick their privates through the holes and the wives would attempt to identify their spouses thereby. And my friend's mother SWEARS this is true- and used it as a cautionary tale when her daughter announced she was coming to our (to me at any rate) very staid and stuffy hamlet for a dinner party.

Now, I've lived in the vicinity for most of my life,but have never been invited to, nor even know anyone who admits to being invited to a "Locust Valley Sheet Party". Hope springs eternal, however, so perhaps I just have to broaden my circle of friends. I'll keep y'all posted.

The Ancient said...

Sounds like Dartmouth men run amok.

I'm afraid I never heard of anything much beyond this:

"The husbands would deposit their car keys in a bowl by the door when they arrived, and the wives would go home with whomever's keys they pulled from the bowl at the end of the evening."

(I suppose it would make a good season closer for Mad Men.)

The Down East Dilettante said...

Anonymous, thanks for the video of Mme. La Comtesse --- she really is a piece of work, isn't she?

Raina, funny, funny

Blue, it would appear. Although some lovely stuff is being built too, rarely anymore does someone improve on what they find when they start.

Barbara, we'll make sure the house is fumingated for boys before you arrive for the summer

Turner, thanks for ascribing such cleverness to me, but I cannot take credit for Tudorbethan.

Magnus, I too have experienced the loneliness of a party stuffed into one room of a vast soulless new house. It does indeed perplex. People have ever liked to show off their success with size, and I think many just don't realize what those pretty drawings will translate into when built.

Stefan, I don't get it either. I think they must be size queens. Why oh why tear down something pleasant, when there's so much dreck around?

Magnus and Ancient: Wow. I never know what conversation a post will begin. A casually tossed off comment about Mrs. Alsop's world class case of Accentus Patricianitis, and see what sparked! Seriously, for a moment, one of the great surprises of my near six decades of observing the world has been the almost overnight disappearance of regional accents across the entire class spectrum. The south seems to be holding on, and maybe parts of the Bronx and South Boston, maybe, but one rarely hears the either the famous crystal cleah Maine accent, ayuh, or the above mentioned lockjaw, the two accents one heard most up here in my youth. Both are practiced by only a few elderly survivors. I chanced to hear a teenager with a Maine accent recently, and it was such a surprise that I had a P.T. Barnum moment, thinking that we could make a fortune on tour, the last surviving Maine accent....

The Down East Dilettante said...

PS, Magnus & Ancient: I cannot speak for Locust Valley, but when I was younger, I occasionally would find myself at parties where the young WASPS were so completely cut out of a cookie cutter that I remember wondering how they would ever notice if they went home with the wrong spouse after too many drinks.....All those identical guys with identical haircuts in identical blazers with their ash blonde wives with identical pageboys with identical grosgrain ribbons

but thanks for your lively discussion of regional dialect and social mores. Gave a real Cheever/Updike tone to the proceedings...

The Down East Dilettante said...

Oh, and Magnus: Be careful not to swallow any of those marbles, and yes, practicioners of the accent have always told me it was a combination of French governesses and Miss Porter's, Foxcroft, and the ilk.

Have always loved that 30's Hollywood version of the accent...

The Ancient said...

Once more into the breach:


The Down East Dilettante said...

Ancient, Interesting review. I read Bill Patten's childish score settling memoir and was fairly appalled. Badly written, didn't add up. By coincidence, not design, the very next book I read was Christopher Buckley's memoir of his parents, 'Losing Mum & Pup'. Lots to compare---Alcoholic hostess mothers, a political columnist father, a political columnist stepfather...Patten's book was just embarrassing to read, and said volumes about how much he hasn't come to terms, and Buckley's was graceful and knowing---and far better written.

Patten was just whiney.

The Ancient said...


Around here, everyone seems to have had that reaction to Patten's book. But of course something similar might have been written about Evangeline Bruce or even Bunny Mellon. (The latter will get the full treatment only once she and her lawyers are no longer an impediment to publication.)

I couldn't bring myself to look at Buckley's book.

Every family has its skeletons. It just strikes me as wrong to rattle those bones for fun, profit or self-therapy. (Modern though -- very, very modern. See, for example, Wendy Burden's new book, which in addition to everything else recycles the demonstrably false claim that CV died of syphilis. Disgraceful.)