In Frankfort, This Second Empire Slows Traffic
A writer investigates a deteriorating landmark-turned-yard-sale-spectacle.
ABOVE The faded beauty of the Second Empire Treat/Peirce mansion in Frankfort.
TEXT BY MICHELE CHRISTLE
PHOTOGRAPH BY CORINNE BOTZ
Eight years ago, my partner and I spotted a man sitting on the porch of a once-grand Second Empire in Frankfort. We’d recently purchased a house nearby, and were milling around after watching the Fourth of July parade of firetrucks crawl through downtown (convenience store, library, barbershop, gun shop). He waved us up to the porch, where arched brackets spanning elegantly carved columns framed wicker chairs and a table laden with hors d’oeuvres. On either side of the porch, granite-quoined corners rose to meet a pigeon-covered mansard roof in a state of spectacular disrepair. Striking, with his heterochromatic brown-and-green eyes and longish white hair, the man introduced himself as Dana while ladling fruit punch from a cut-crystal bowl, offered pepperoni to our dog, and invited us inside for a tour.
In the entry, a staircase with a walnut balustrade curved upward past a 12-foot-tall ceiling with large swathes of lathe exposed, paint peeled on elaborate plaster moldings, and broken black-and-white stone tiles crunched under our feet. We shuffled along a dark hallway past a bedroom, adorned with a marble fireplace, where Dana’s mother slept beneath a quilt. In the ell, where servants were once sequestered, cereal and cracker boxes lined the shelves in an unfinished kitchen. Dana told us he had a plan to restore the house and open a bed-and-breakfast/bistro called Poor Boys’ Gourmet. So what happened? I descended the granite porch steps that morning, brimming with a curiosity about Dana and his house that I couldn’t shake.
ABOVE The home as it appeared in the early 20th century. Photograph courtesy of Bonnie Veinote/Frankfort Historical Society.
I’m not alone. When I tell people I live in Frankfort, their first question is often, “What’s up with that house?” Prominently located on the sharp corner of Route 1A and Loggin Road, the mansard commands your attention. You have to slow down when you pass it. You have to take it in. It’s been featured in This Old House and in news articles spanning decades. Realtors who list it get calls from people warning about murders that took place there. When an image pops up on social media, hearts and likes fly.
Designed by famed Boston architect Calvin Ryder and built in 1864 for shipwright and merchant Franklin Treat, the house is the last of its high-style kind in Frankfort. These days, it’s also the site of Dana’s perennial yard sale, which seems to grow bigger and stranger by the day while the house crumbles around it. The sale started as an experiment in 2018 after Dana’s mother passed away. His own health was deteriorating, and hawking used books and housewares seemed easier than turning the place upside down with renovations. Eventually, the outdoor sale did well enough that he converted the first floor into additional display space.
"When I tell people I live in Frankfort, their first question is often, ‘What’s up with that house?’ Prominently located on the sharp corner of Route 1A and Loggin Road, the mansard commands your attention. You have to slow down when you pass it. You have to take it in."
During the pandemic, Dana’s yard sale became one of the few places in town where my partner and I could safely take our young kids. We wandered over nearly every weekend, returning with a sisal rug, costumes for our dog, strands of jumbo pearls, obscure children’s books, Matchbox cars, a roaring T. Rex, a giant plastic bag of Construx. And more questions. But when I tried to ask Dana about them, he put me off.
Then one bitterly cold day last winter, I was out for a walk and saw Dana shuffling around his yard in a sweatshirt, lips blue, face ashen. He’d installed a new woodstove that didn’t draft well, and the ell kept filling with smoke. “I have something for you,” he said, and fetched a manila envelope from inside. It contained deed research by Holly Peirce Azevedo, a descendent of the home’s second owner, Louisa T. Peirce (great-aunt of famed painter Waldo Peirce). The names she unearthed provided the scaffolding for a year-long project, in which I tracked down dozens of folks in her notes, their descendants, and others who spent time in the house.
LEFT AND ABOVE Current owner Dana stashes items he plans to offer at spring and summer yard sales in the ornate stairwell and former music room. Photographs by Derek Yorks.
ABOVE Current owner Dana stashes items he plans to offer at spring and summer yard sales in the ornate stairwell and former music room.
The story I uncovered went like this: The house enjoyed a period of opulence under Treat, whose fortune’s precise origins I am working to pinpoint, and the Peirce family, whose fortune derived from stonecutters working their quarries, many of whom contracted lung disease from dust inhalation. In the post-Depression years, the place was a boarding house for quarry workers. Then big-eyed dreamers kept buying it with hopes of renovating that were quickly dashed. The house was abandoned for more than 20 years and rumored to be haunted. Teenagers broke in and spray-painted penises on the parlor walls. When the county sheriff was called to investigate after a door had been left open, he refused to climb the pigeon-excrement-covered stairs to the third floor in his patent-leather shoes.
Dana purchased the forsaken mansard in 2013, sealing its fate in his once-capable hands. I have now passed countless hours on the porch with him, our conversations often obliterated by Jake Brakes. I learned that he oversaw the renovations of four historic bed-and-breakfasts on Mount Desert Island, where he was an innkeeper for 25 years. The mansard is the sixth house he’s owned. Now 72, he enjoys entertaining, company, and surprises. The yard sales keep him going. Some days, however, his tone shifts. “This house is killing me,” he’ll say. He’s survived two heart attacks; his kidneys aren’t functioning well. Doctors estimate that he has two years left to live. But he’s accomplished almost everything he set out to do in life, he told me. He doesn’t have regrets, except, perhaps, that he hasn’t been able to “do” the house.
One Saturday at the yard sale, a well-coiffed Bostonian cornered me in Dana’s mother’s old room, now packed with items for purchase. He’d seen me sitting on the porch with Dana, and wanted to know if Dana appreciated his home’s fine styling, if he understood what was at stake by putting energy into rummage sales rather than repairs. He remarked on the impassable stairwell, stacked with junk as far as Dana could reach, and a wall niche known as a “coffin corner.” Then he leaned in and asked, “What is this guy doing?”
This was once the question I’d also been circling, but it no longer interests me. The wealth that initially sustained this house came from human exploitation and excavating a mountain’s ancient guts. There’s nothing in Dana’s coffer but Social Security payments, yard-sale earnings, and some modest winnings from the Hollywood Casino in Bangor. So he buys giant crystal chandeliers at Marden’s that he’ll never hang; installs an artificial Christmas tree with a sign that says, “For enjoyment only. Not for sale,” in the living room; considers covering the windows with toy snakes to keep the pigeons away; and tends to his sales, performing a public service by opening the house up to anyone who wants to marvel at its faded glory.
Last summer, that included a millennial yard-saler in cowboy boots and shorts. “This house is amazing,” she gushed. “I’ve driven past it almost every day since I was a kid and always wanted to come inside. I know some people think it’s sad, the condition it’s in. Someone should really fix it up.” She handed Dana cash for a set of vintage green-and-purple stemware. “Yes, somebody should,” he said. “But it won’t be me.”
Dana Geel passed away on May 11, 2022, shortly after this issue went to print. Two weeks before he died, he hung the chandeliers mentioned in this article. Dana leaves behind his two cats, Win Some and Lose Some, as well as many beloved family members and friends.
Michele Christle’s work has been published in Cultural Survival Quarterly, the Kenyon Review, and Northern New England Review. She served in the Peace Corps in Cameroon and received her MFA in creative writing from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She works in nonprofit communications and lives in Frankfort, where she is writing a book on the history of formerly abandoned houses, including the one featured in this essay.