Summer Society has always needed its amusements, and Gilded Age Bar Harbor was no exception. Golf came first, as it often does. With the founding of the Kebo Valley Club in 1888, Bar Harbor was in the vanguard of the newly popular sport in America. The new club, with six holes designed by H.C. Leeds, was stated to be "cultivation of athletic sports and furnishing innocent amusement for the public (or at least that segment of the public listed in a new publication called The Social Register) for reasonable compensation." Or at least that segment of the public listed in a new publication called The Social Register, begun only two years earlier. With this, the transformation of Bar Harbor from hotel resort to fashionable summer colony had begun in earnest, and Society was--literally---off and swinging.
|The first Kebo Valley clubhouse, designed by Wilson Eyre
|Fifth Green, Kebo, c. 1915
“Kebo Valley aims to lead in things social, and is certainly in a way a sort of focus, though its claim cannot be said to be generally acknowledged yet. The transient people do not take kindly to it, as it tends to take away from the prestige of social affairs in the village. Nor are the cottage people by any means unanimous in its favor. It is for one thing,a bit away from the centre of things ...”
|Horse show at Kebo
Whatever aversion the summer colony may have had to traveling a mile from town soon forgotten, and in addition to golf, Kebo offered tennis, hosted Bar Harbor’s early horse shows, and contained a theater suitable for dances and performances, including the amateur theatricals and tableaux so loved by Society of a simpler time.
The club lawns and verandas also served an all important function as a place to be seen in the afternoon, just as the Swimming Club on the West Street shore provided a morning promenade as the members of the colony swam to music from the Boston Symphony Players.
|Society on parade at the second Kebo clubhouse (Maine Historic Preservation Commission)
In 1899, the clubhouse at Kebo burned. A new clubhouse was built, but lacked the performance space of the old, and by 1905 a few leaders of the summer community decided that the time had come to build for the Arts---Music, Theater, Dance--- the same quality of facility as those already already available for the Amusements---Yachting, Golf, Tennis and Alcohol.
The site for the Arts Building was secured on Eagle Lake Road, at the very edge of one of the Kebo Valley Club’s putting green, which doubled as an outdoor amphitheater.
Five prominent members of the summer colony stepped forward with funds Mrs. Henry Dimock, sister of W.C. Whitney, George W. Vanderbilt, George B. Dorr, who would become a founder also of Acadia National Park, Fifth Avenue Hotel heir Henry Lane Eno, and Mrs. Robert Abbe, wife of the pioneer radiologist.
|Plan of the Building of Arts
The architect chosen was Guy Lowell, a fashionable country house architect who also designed the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. With the usual logic of a committee, it was decided that a Greek temple under the pine trees would provided the most appropriate setting for the high culture they envisioned for the rocky island.
This temple was built not of stone, but stucco plastered over wood, “finished to represent Parian marble," and the red Venetian tile roof was supported by “the largest wooden columns ever turned in Maine.” Copies of the Parthenon Friezes, imported from Paris, were mounted on the facade. Inside, the walls and ceiling of the stage adapted the principles of the sounding boards of the great German concert halls, and the natural lighting was provided “from the top after the manner of the ancient Greek shrines.”
|The interior of the Building of Arts (Maine Historic Presevation Commission
A proscenium curtain of golden English damask, specially woven for the building and elaborately embroidered, was donated by Mrs. John Inness Kane and George Vanderbilt. The building immediately attracted national attention, an article by Owen Wister in Century Magazine, as well as a large photographic spread in The Architectural Review.
The opening concert on June 13, 1907 featured Emma Eames, then one of the world’s leading lyric sopranos. She was followed over the years by many others of the world’s greats including the violinists Kreisler, Zimbalist and Kneisel, singers Alma Gluck and Roger de Bruyn, pianists Paderewski, Schelling, and Iturbe,conductors Damrosch and Stowkowski, and monologists Ruth Draper andCornelia Otis Skinner. Acting troupes such as the Washington Square Players and The Theatre Workshop performed Bar Harbor seasons, as did local stock companies like the Surry Players, sponsored by Mrs. Ethelbert Nevin, whose numbers included the young Henry Fonda.
|Rendering of the Building of Arts by Jules Guerin, from Century Magazine
|Matinee at the Building of Arts (Maine Historic Preservation Commission)
|The Greek Tableau, as published in Architectural Review
|The Greek Pageant (Architectural Review)
In those days before Tanglewood and the Pops, the Boston Symphony lay idle in the summer, and members of the orchestra, as the Boston Symphony Players, would spend the summer in Bar Harbor, playing at the Swimming Pool Club during the morning swim, and popular tunes at parties and dances in the evenings (This franchise was to receive serious competition when a young bandleader named Meyer Davis broke onto the Bar Harbor scene and his eventually became the orchestra of choice from Bar Harbor to Palm Beach.)
|The Washington Square Players in costume for their performance at the Building of Arts (New York Times)
Meanwhile, golf and art continued to merge at the edge of the Kebo Greens, and the Symphony Players even provided background music for a ladies putting tournament.
For all the glamour of the featured performers, the most extraordinary performance at the Building of Arts there was not seen by the public. In 1916, Meyer Davis was playing for the evening dances at the Malvern Hotel. In her memoirs, Mrs. Davis recounts watching the orchestra through a glass door behind the ballroom stage when she suddenly witnessed a most extraordinary little scene. A compact man, dapper in a pearl gray suit, entered the back of the room, and rather than taking a seat, as she expected, he suddenly, unseen by the others focused on the band, broke into a little gavotte. Entranced, she made inquiries, and to her astonishment, the man proved to be the great dancer Vaslav Nijinsky.
|Njinsky (in costume for til Eulenspiegel, left)
|Robert Edmund Jones' costume designs for til Eulenspiegel
|A fashion columnist ponders Till Eulenspiegel's effect on fashion
There is no record of a public performance by Nijinsky in Bar Harbor that summer, the Building of Arts became his rehearsal space, and there the ballet was choreographed for its opening in New York that winter. He was joined there by set and costume designer Robert Edmond Jones and by Paul Magriel, who wrote that "invitations to the great houses of Bar Harbor showered upon me like gold,” in the hope that the great dancer could be lured along with him, but Nijinsky rarely went out in society, instead rehearsing by day and working on the production designs by evening.
After the 1929 stock market crash, the Building of Arts soldiered on for a time. New patrons were found, impresario Timothee Adamowski continued to book important performers, but the clock was running out. The Surry Players performed Aristophanes’ ‘The Birds’ in the outdoor amphitheater in July of 1935.
The coverage in the New York Times the next day was far more concerned with the quality of the audience than of the play. Notably absent from the impressive listing of names---among them Mrs. Reginald de Koven, Mrs. John D. Rockefeller Jr., Mrs. J. West Roosevelt, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Mrs. Gerrish Milliken, Mrs. Shepard Fabbri---were the husbands, who may have been back at the office in New York, or more likely, on their yachts or the golf course next to the amphitheater, where one assumes that the occasional cry of ‘fore’ punctuated the Greek chorus
In 1941, as America entered World War II, an exhibit was held at the Building of Arts for benefit of the American British Art Center, featuring Cecil Beaton’s then unpublished series “London’s Honorable Scars,” recent London war posters, and 25 sketches by J.M.W Turner. By the next season, Bar Harbor gas rationing had made remote Bar Harbor difficult of access, and the colony was a virtual ghost town, with many cottages shuttered, as some had been since the Depression.
John D. Rockefeller, Jr. had been among those who had quietly made up the Building of Arts deficit for years, and he had now taken stronger action, as the structure was about to be sold by the town for tax liens. Through his agent,Serenus Rodick, whose ancestors had built the largest of Bar Harbor’s early hotels, Rockefeller quietly purchased the building for $500, hoping to secure its future as a center for culture on the island.
By 1944, Rockefeller decided that adequate support was not forthcoming from the community, and he disposed of the building. It was acquired by Consuella de Sides, a pupil of Baba Ram Dass, who intended to make it once again a center of performance. In October 1947, the great forest fire that swept Bar Harbor in that driest of seasons swept across the Kebo Greens, destroying both the clubhouse and the Building of Arts. Bar Harbor’s temple for the high arts had lasted but forty years.
|President Taft, not attending a performance at the Building of the Arts.