TEXT BY SARA ANNE DONNELLY
Portland philanthropist and real estate developer Art Girard has bought plenty of crazy properties over the years (see “The Art of the Deal,” at the bottom of this story), but there’s been nothing quite like East of Eden, the 15,000-square-foot, Mediterranean Revival–style villa in Bar Harbor he purchased on a whim at an August auction. Braving Hurricane Dorian’s last gasps, he drove to MDI with his wife, Fran, to see, just see, how low the bids on the 1907 mansion — listed for $12.5 million — might go. When the price dipped to $4.1 million, he raised his hand (Fran, thinking there was no way they’d participate, had tucked the auction paddle under her seat) and ultimately snagged the place for about $4.6 million. Now he plans to resell the property and donate the proceeds to his two favorite nonprofits. We sat down with the Girards to learn more about their unconventional house-flipping strategy.
You plan to sell East of Eden for $400,000 more than you paid for it and require the buyer to split the difference between the University of New England in Biddeford and the Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland in Westbrook. Why not simply make some cash donations?
Art: Well, I do that too. But this is kind of fun. I’ve done it about six times before. For example, with the animal shelter, we had a building in southern Maine where we owned three or four condos and we gave them a condo and they, in turn, sold it and kept the money.
Why the focus on these two nonprofits, including giving Ram Island to UNE for its marine sciences program in 2015 and donating $1 million for the Animal Refuge League’s adoption center in 2014?
Art: We have a summer cottage in Biddeford, and I used to do a lot of diving in the area and I was interested in marine science. UNE is mostly a medical school and we definitely need doctors and nurses, especially in Maine with the aging population, and we need marine science because the ocean’s where a lot of our food comes from. The Animal Refuge League — years ago I had an auto body shop and I used to do the bookkeeping late at night. One of my adopted German shepherds, Thor, would come into the office and he’d watch me. I’d say to myself, ‘I think he’s understanding everything I’m going through here.’ When he died, I said, ‘I’ve got to do something for these animals.’
Why do you think you were able to nab East of Eden for such a relative ‘steal?’
Fran: Art always says, ‘Never buy property on a nice day.’ Is it raining? Is it snowing? Is it sleeting? Good. Half the people won’t come to the auction and the property looks terrible. We drove to Bar Harbor in this driving rain and only nine people showed up.
Art: They say it’s documented that [previous owner William B. Ruger Jr.] put $15 million into the property. This is like the guy who has a boat made and can never get back what he put in it. But the next guy gets a hell of a deal.
When do you think you’ll list the property?
Art: Right now, we’re getting into the off-season, so I’m going to sit on it. We bought a lot of the furniture too, so I’d like to go up there for a couple of weekends and stay, just to say I owned it and slept there. I’ve never slept in a big house like that. In the house we lived in in New York City, when my parents came here from Switzerland, the bathtub was the kitchen sink. To go from there to this, I just want to see what it’s like.
The Art of the Deal
When it comes to purchasing quintessential coastal properties, Art Girard’s covered all the bases.
Boon Island Light, York
Setting: New England’s tallest lighthouse, at 133 feet, erected in 1854 on a three-acre rocky island six miles off the coast of York
Status: Two months after purchasing the light in 2014, Girard sold it to a buyer with more resources to maintain the historic structure.
Bailey Island Wharf, Harpswell
Setting: Quarter-acre property with a 187-foot commercial pier built around 1950, bait shed, and small office adjacent to Cook’s Lobster & Ale House
Status: Girard still owns the working waterfront, purchased in 2017, which he has been modestly renovating and hopes eventually to sell to fishermen or lobstermen. “I like to help people, and I think the fishermen will make more money if they don’t have to pay a middleman,” he says.
Ram Island, Saco
Setting: One-acre island, two miles off the coast of Saco, populated with marine life and a 500-square-foot former summer home
Status: In 2015, Girard donated the property he’d owned since 1999 to the University of New England for its marine sciences program. Upon learning of the program, “Art said, ‘do you think they could use an island?’” recalls his wife, Fran.