Historic Highlight

Remembering Mount Desert Island’s Storied Estates

Sooner or later, even the stateliest mansions must face the wrecking ball.

TEXT BY BRIAN KEVIN

From the September 2022 issue of Down East magazine

When news broke on Mount Desert Island this spring that crews were dismantling the seven-bedroom Seal Harbor mansion known as Ringing Point, it felt a little extra poignant to admirers of the island’s extravagant architectural traditions. For one, it had been the summer home of the late David Rockefeller Sr., whose robber-baron father, John D. Rockefeller Jr., built MDI’s iconic carriage roads in the early 20th century and whose dynastic family helped confer on the island a prestige that’s attracted generations of plutocrats since.

Also, it came a few months on the heels of lifestyle mogul Martha Stewart, a neighbor down the road, obtaining a permit to demolish the 10-bedroom, 6,800-square-foot, Shingle-style mansion known as Ox Ledge, which she purchased in 2015. Ox Ledge was the early-1900s vision of a society architect named Duncan Candler, who also designed Skylands, Stewart’s adjacent summer home, for Eleanor and Edsel Ford, along with a handful of projects for the Rockefellers. Ringing Point, meanwhile, was designed in 1972 by Peggy Rockefeller, David’s wife, together with a Rockefeller cousin. Both homes enjoyed commanding views of the harbor: Ox Ledge from two levels of wide porches and verandas and Ringing Point from floor-to-ceiling windows in the tiered living room.

But like the tides in the harbor, the manors of the gentry come and go, and MDI has lost its share of grande dames over the years — perhaps none more elegant or storied than these three.

The Eyrie, a Tudor-style formerly owned by John D. Rockefeller Jr. and his wife, Abby
Courtesy of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission

The Eyrie

BUILT 1914 DEMOLISHED 1962

When John D. Rockefeller Jr. and his wife, Abby, bought the half-timbered, Tudor-style mansion known as the Eyrie, in 1910, the place had just 65 rooms. Feeling cramped, they employed architect Candler to add on, bringing the count to 100. The Seal Harbor mansion was originally the home of a Williams College naturalist named Samuel Fessenden Clarke, who’d commissioned its construction in 1897 and named it after a raptor’s nest on account of its perch atop a Seal Harbor bluff. The site was so conspicuous that the Eyrie appeared on postcards until the 1960s, when the Rockefeller children had it torn down following the death of their father, in 1960, and mother, in 1948. The property’s magnificent gardens, which Abby created with famed designer Beatrix Farrand, are still maintained for the public by MDI’s Land & Garden Preserve.

Blueberry Ledge, a Shingle-style cottage commissioned by Harvard University president (and early Acadia National Park booster) Charles Eliot
Courtesy of the Northeast Harbor Library

Blueberry Ledge

BUILT 1881 DEMOLISHED 2007

Harvard University president (and early Acadia National Park booster) Charles Eliot commissioned this Shingle-style cottage from the Boston architectural firm Peabody & Stearns in 1880. Compared to more gargantuan Gilded Age MDI cottages, it was none too ostentatious, but its multiple porches made the most of its site on a high bluff in Northeast Harbor, overlooking Bear Island. Washington socialite Susan Mary Alsop later moved in and occasionally hosted Cabinet members and diplomats. In 2007, Maryland billionaire investor Mitchell Rales bought and demolished the home to make way for a $24 million mansion designed by modernist Charles Gwathmey, one-time renovator of New York’s Guggenheim Museum. Rales, as it happens, bought and razed Ringing Point as well. The former Blueberry Ledge guesthouse still stands nearby — the Eliot family called it The Coffeepot, as they financed its construction with the sale of an antique silver one.

Reef Point, a many-terraced cottage was built for Mary Cadwalader Rawle and Frederic Rhinelander Jones
Courtesy of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission

Reef Point

BUILT 1883 DEMOLISHED 1955

Once a landmark along Bar Harbor’s Shore Path, this many-terraced cottage was built for Mary Cadwalader Rawle and Frederic Rhinelander Jones, a pair of blue bloods and the literary agent and brother, respectively, of Pulitzer-winning author Edith Wharton. But the property came to be more closely associated with their daughter, Beatrix Cadwalader Jones, who grew up to marry Yale historian Max Farrand and become one of the country’s most renowned garden designers and landscape architects. In her later years, Beatrix Farrand turned Reef Point into a sprawling public botanical garden and horticultural reference library, but the project faltered after the Great Fire of 1947 left Bar Harbor charred and reeling. In her 80s, Farrand had the house and gardens leveled — only one original brick terrace remains today.