Photographs by Irvin Serrano
At the dawn of the 20th century, Mount Desert Island was a playground for the world’s most prestigious families. The Pulitzers, Rockefellers, and Vanderbilts maintained opulent estates there, socializing against a breathtaking landscape that, in 1929, would be christened Acadia National Park. Among those rubbing elbows with the boldface names was George Sullivan Bowdoin, a treasurer at J.P. Morgan & Co. and great-grandson of Alexander Hamilton, who built a 13,000-square-foot Georgian Revival mansion, known as La Rochelle, on West Street in 1902.
With a dozen bedrooms, nine bathrooms, a staff of more than 20, and nearly three verdant acres kissing the shores of Frenchman Bay, the home — the town’s first built of brick — was considered extravagant even for turn-of-the-century Bar Harbor. It was also charmed: the 1947 fire that destroyed more than 200 houses in the area stopped just a few feet from La Rochelle’s front door.
While many of Bar Harbor’s surviving grand homes were eventually demolished, La Rochelle endured, thanks in large part to the Colkets — members of the family that owned Campbell Soup Company, who bought the estate in the 1940s and lived there until 1972. Since then, it has served as the headquarters for Maine Seacoast Mission, which provides food, medical services, youth programming, and other services to the needy. But it’s never been widely accessible to the public — until now.
Last spring, the Bar Harbor Historical Society purchased La Rochelle for its new home and plans to open there next summer. “Visitors to Bar Harbor have always asked if there are houses they can tour, like they can in a place like Newport [Rhode Island], but there have not been any,” says Kim Swan, owner of Swan Hospitality Group and a historical society board member. “Now they’ll be able to see this showpiece house for the first time.”
And they don’t have to wait until next year. Over the summer, Swan invited 16 of Maine’s top designers to transform nine of La Rochelle’s rooms and its sunken garden for her third Bar Harbor Designer Showhouse, which is open through October 13 and raises funds to benefit the historical society. The result is an elaborate remake of a storied estate that imagines what it might look like if the aristocrats of Bar Harbor’s gilded age had decorated it today.
Trenton designer Anne Reiter used La Rochelle’s Ionic-columned foyer to showcase the transition from the grand era of the early 1900s to the modern world. She started with William Morris’s iconic Strawberry Thief pattern, which graces a valence, a pair of Eastlake chairs, and the wall behind a sweeping double-wishbone staircase. Developed more than a century ago, the stylized floral motif nods to the home’s epoch and its deep blues and greens warm up the expansive entry space. In the central seating area, blue velvet lounge chairs topped with ikat-striped pillows, a lemongrass-colored loveseat, and a herringbone-patterned sisal rug introduce contemporary notes and “a small island of rest in a walk-through space,” Reiter says. The modern-historic balance continues on the pale-aqua walls, where Belfast photographer Lynn Karlin’s crisp botanical still lifes mingle with early-20th-century illustrations from the Bar Harbor Historical Society depicting landscape architect Beatrix Farrand’s recommended plantings for beautifying downtown streets.
Castine and Washington, D.C., designer Loi Thai’s palette of more than 20 shades of green — including a high-gloss historic color on the walls — is a tribute to Bar Harbor’s lush setting, which beckons from just beyond the room’s arched windows and French doors. Century-old gilded French sconces in the shape of wisteria, potted palms, floral linen pillows, and antique bird prints and photos of Great Head and Somes Sound bolster the nature theme. Thai designed the room to be a respite from socializing — just as a theater’s green room provides a place for performers to relax before going onstage. “I wanted it to feel serene and summery, fresh, not stuffy,” he says. A rattan coffee table, Lucite side tables, and a seagrass rug and baskets soften the formality of antique French Louis XV–style armchairs and, fronting the carved fireplace, gold-and-green slipper chairs from Chatwold, the Bar Harbor home once owned by the Pulitzers. Beneath a visual bouquet composed of the sconces and an antique botanical print, a custom white sofa with cushions Thai had filled with extra down feathers invites visitors to sit back and take it all in.
Like many grand homes of its era, La Rochelle had a flower room — an elegant utility space off the foyer where gardeners assembled fresh bouquets each day. Leah Lippmann, of Boothbay- and Portland-based Knickerbocker Group, set out to conjure the original style and function of this room, imbuing it with “a feeling of nostalgia and timelessness.” She began with swirling-floral wallpaper that plays off coiled fern-like shapes in a Calacatta- and Thassos-marble medallion in the mosaic-tile floor and leaf-like forms on a painted-steel light fixture. Moody teal wainscoting sets off the dazzling pattern. A soapstone sink, discovered in La Rochelle’s basement, was “wonderfully, exactly what I had in mind when recreating the space,” says Lippmann, who paired it with an iron-and-glass console table and a 1940s Venetian mirror that adds sparkle and amplifies the light from a single window. Stocked with antique gardening books and planters, concrete squirrel and rabbit figurines from the Bar Harbor Historical Society, tools, and abundant cuttings and bouquets, “the space feels like it is once again a flourishing flower room,” Lippmann says.
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Tomato-soup red was the springboard for Portland designer Brett Johnson’s sweeping living room. Rich corals on pillows and a Gustavian-inspired secretary he designed nod to former La Rochelle residents the Colkets, who are descendants of John T. Dorrance, inventor of condensed soup and a former president of the Campbell Soup Company. On the mantel, meantime, a pair of brass candelabras with shades decoupaged with images of the iconic soup can labels is a full-on Warholian embrace. Complementary blues on the walls, carved fireplace surround, wingback and mid-century armchairs, Afghan and abstract rugs, and velvet-tufted ottoman augment the fiery hues and harken to the sea framed in the room’s French doors. Nautical-inspired pieces, including a painting of MV Bluenose, which ferried passengers from Bar Harbor to Nova Scotia in the 1950s, an 1861 map of the Maine coast, a rope sculpture by Southwest Harbor’s Susan Beallor-Snyder that evokes the female form, and a porthole-like mirror that, Johnson says, invites games of I spy, further root the room in its seaside setting.
When Portland designer Annie Kiladjian and tile supplier and installer Larry Stoddard first visited La Rochelle, they went looking for a petite room. “You can get very creative in a small space,” says Kiladjian, who dreamed up a striking yin-yang scheme for the angular powder room comprised of black-vinyl grasscloth wallpaper and elaborate Calacatta-marble tile on the wainscoting and floor. While the materials are traditional, the wall color and juxtaposition of organic and geometric shapes on the tile give the room a contemporary edge that is reinforced by a custom Nero Marquina–marble sink — fairly floating atop Lucite legs — spare brass-and-rope sconces, and abstract landscape paintings by the late Jon Imber (who had a home in Stonington) that reference the vibrant blues and golds in the adjacent library. “I wanted to bring old and new together with a bit of whimsy,” Kiladjian says.
In the library named for Acadia National Park’s founder, Bar Harbor husband-and-wife team Augusto Rosa and Kay Stevens-Rosa endeavored to honor George B. Dorr’s legacy, while giving the space a colorful, whimsical twist. “Dorr was enamored of botanical design and the beauty of nature, so it was important to include some of the outdoors in the room,” Stevens-Rosa says. Potted bougainvilleas and palms mix with a vibrant oil painting of Somes Sound by Stonington’s Jill Hoy, gold tulip-shaped sconces, splashy floral prints on wicker chair cushions, and a mural installed behind wooden shelves displaying antique books, birdcages, and letterpresses from the Bar Harbor Historical Society. “They’re quirky pieces that could have been found in a library, but also look like stylized animals romping in the fantasy landscape of the mural,” Stevens-Rosa says of the metal presses. A chartreuse velvet daybed and matching chenille curtains with a vine-like motif provide arresting counterpoints to the dominant blue-green palette, while a concrete-and-metal desk and beige carpet with a ripple pattern that conjures the contours on an elevation map serve as intermediaries in the lively back and forth.
To soften a regal room with 10-foot-high ceilings and intricate crown molding and entablatures, Bar Harbor and Washington, D.C., designer Betsy Barmat Stires chose a palette as fresh and lovely as a bouquet of peonies. The pairing of subtly striped, blush-pink walls — painted using the decorative strié technique, which imparts texture akin to wallpaper — with a pistachio-colored settee and set of armchairs that are original to La Rochelle (but were provided by the Bar Harbor Historical Society) makes the room feel “as comfortable for a quiet afternoon tea as it does for formal occasions,” she says. Gardeny accents — topiaries, potted ferns, boxwood placements, framed plant specimens — play up the casual vibe, while an early-1900s Victorian dining table and carved, cabriole-legged sideboard from a ship captain’s home (both from the historical society) speak to more buttoned-up affairs. On the walls, an early-19th-century oil painting by Alfred de Dreux depicting horseback riders kissing captures the romance Barmat Stires was after, while contemporary works by Graham Dougherty and North Haven’s Eric Hopkins inject energy. “It feels like sunshine to me,” Barmat Stires says of Graham’s Warming, perched (appropriately) above the fireplace.
“We wanted the room to be a gateway to the view,” Northeast Harbor– and Lancaster, Pennsylvania-based designer Terri Scott says of the glassed-in porch she outfitted with her husband, Gregg Scott. Planted palms and sheer white panels soften the corners of the space and — like props and parted curtains on a stage — lend drama to the scene. A mix of airy and delicately proportioned pieces, including a cast-alloy table with a woven pattern, Palm Beach Chippendale chairs, a circa 1930 demi-lune table, and a Victorian-era pendant light, creates a collected feel without overwhelming the room. A graphic mint-green rug, meantime, appears almost as an extension of the grass and picks up the verdant hues on the tabletop accents and furnishings in the adjacent dining room. “I wanted to pull colors from the beautiful formal room, so as not to compete with it,” Terri says.
George Bowdoin’s daughter, Ethel, was a member of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and responsible for putting water troughs for thirsty horses in New York City and Bar Harbor. So it’s fitting that Portland mother-daughter design team Candace and Tyler Karu — animal lovers themselves with three pups each — would turn a butler’s pantry into a cozy retreat for pets and their people. The only servants’ quarters in the showhouse, the pantry lacked the embellishments seen in other spaces. With their clean slate, the Karus opted for “a playful, pared-down aesthetic that pays homage to mid-century style,” Candace says. Bold black-and-white wallpaper that looks like damask, but actually sports frolicking dogs, sets the tone. “We loved that it was graphic and didn’t scream dogs,” Candace says. Mid-century-style lounge chairs, a retro-inspired wooden dog crate that doubles as a side table, and a shag “rug” — er, orthopedic dog bed — layered over a Persian carpet reinforce the base palette. Color comes by way of vibrant pillows, lamps shaped like Chinese Foo dogs, and works by artists like William Wegman, Wendy Webber, and Candace’s mother, Jean Pilk. On a long wall, a tiered console table turned dog treat/cocktail bar appears to have captured the attention of nearly every canine in the room.
Among the glitterati who gathered on MDI was Beatrix Farrand, whose family had a home, Reef Point, in Bar Harbor. One of the founders of the American Society of Landscape Architects, Farrand designed gardens for the campuses of Princeton and Yale and the Rockefellers’ Eyrie estate in Seal Harbor. In the early 1900s, George Bowdoin commissioned her to create an elaborate 44-by-48-foot sunken garden just outside La Rochelle’s front door.
When Bar Harbor’s LARK Studio and Frost Farms teamed up to reimagine the walled space, they sought to resurrect the formality and sophistication that were Farrand’s hallmarks. “We also wanted to create a space that feels intimate, sensuous, and inviting for small gatherings,” LARK co-founder Rob Krieg says. Drawing from a century-old photo, they installed plantings she might have used, such as daisies, delphiniums, fairy roses, foxgloves, heathers, heaths, and lavender. Hydrangeas help define the garden’s entrance and corners, and a birdbath, placed midway along a wall, injects structure and symmetry the way a sundial Farrand employed once had. A stone-dust walkway reinforces the garden’s geometric shape and facilitates close encounters with the plantings. “It allows people to take a trip around the garden and elongate their experience there,” LARK co-founder Mike Rogers says. And “the soft crunch you hear and feel with each step adds a nice auditory element.”