July 13, 2020

Razing of Rodick House marked big changes in Bar Harbor

A growing number of wealthy summer people was staying on the Maine coast well into the fall a century ago. Not a single cottage had been closed at Bar Harbor by Sept. 1, 1906, said the Bangor Daily Commercial. Such influential individuals as Jacob Schiff, the financier, and Joseph Pulitzer, the publisher, were still there nearly three weeks later. Many planned to stay into October and beyond.

“The growth of a leisure class in this country has been rapid in the last ten years and this in a measure accounts for the steadily growing number of people who do not care when they get back to their city houses. …,” said the Commercial on Sept. 22. These Gilded Agers either did not need to work at all, or else they could delegate their responsibilities to assistants. They could afford to build huge cottages for their families equipped to withstand the vicissitudes of autumn gales.

Bar Harbor’s “cottage culture” was already well-established in 1906. But it hadn’t always been that way. Two or three decades before, more people stayed in drafty resort hotels, where families often lingered for weeks. The cottages that were going up then were fewer and more rustic. Then along came a richer class of businessmen and financiers who preferred their own country mansions to the noisy hotels. Two architectural events were under way in the fall of 1906 that marked the coming of age of this cottage era and the accelerating decline of the big resort hotels.

One event was the tearing down of the Rodick House, once one of the most famous resorts in America. Built in 1866, it was expanded in 1875 and again in 1881 into a six-story ark with 400 rooms. It had a dining room able to serve a thousand and a wide porch running 500 feet around the front and one side. The huge lobby became known as the Fish Pond, a good place for young men and women to meet. Yet despite its role in fashionable society, it had no private bathrooms, a factor that made cottages and newer hotels more appealing as the years went by.

“The high water mark of the hotel era was reached in 1888, when eighteen hotels accommodated upward of 2,500 guests at the peak of the season. The expanded Rodick House, now the largest hotel in Maine, housed 600 guests and rooms had to be reserved two years in advance,” according to G.W. Helfrich and Gladys O’Neil in their book “Lost Bar Harbor,” a wonderful source of photographs of Bar Harbor’s extinct architectural wonders.

It was with an air of disbelief that the Bangor Daily News announced on June 16, 1906, that the crumbling eyesore, which had closed in the 1890s, was scheduled for demolition. “For the past five years as the autumn season approaches one has been able to hear, ‘Well, they are going to tear down the old hotel at last,’ but nothing

has ever come of it,” the paper said. An auction was held Sept. 3 at which much of the hotel’s furniture was sold at bargain prices. In October, as the building was being torn down, it was the lathes and clapboards that attracted buyers.

By Oct. 19, the demolition was well under way. The Bangor Daily News called the hotel “Bar Harbor’s most historic building” on that day. But it was “without any feeling of regret … that the old hotel will pass from the midst of this prosperous town. For year on year the big empty building has stood grim and forbidding in the busiest part of the business section … a menace to the town if fire should ever break out. …Gradually stores have closed up around it, and its stately front entrance is blockaded by a row of cobbler shops, tailors’ rooms and fruit stands.” With its cracked foundation and listing walls, it reminded the writer of a certain tower in Pisa.

Another building event that fall marking the ascension of the cottage colony was the construction of the Building of Arts near the Kebo golf links on the Cromwell’s Harbor road. It was to be a large Greek revival affair that summed up the artistic aspirations of its wealthy creators.

A delegation from the Boston Symphony Orchestra already spent the summer at Bar Harbor giving regular concerts. The new building, which was launched by such influential summer families as Dimmock, Abbe, Dorr and Vanderbilt, would give classical musicians a place to perform. Backers held a benefit concert Aug. 21 at the Casino at which balcony boxes seating six sold for $100, or about $2,000 in today’s money.

The tearing down of the Rodick House was purely a business decision, while the construction of the Building of Arts showed that the wealthy rusticators could create any fantasy world they wanted to replace it. Newsmen seemed to have trouble clearly describing the remarkable new edifice. “It will be a cross between the Prophylae and the Erichthaeum, but to the ordinary observer it will bear a close resemblance to the old Greek temples,” wrote a reporter for the Bangor Daily Commercial on June 9. In a comment that probably meant a lot more to his readers, he added, “There will be 10 columns which will be the largest wooden columns ever turned in Maine.” Provided by Bryant & Co. in Pittsfield, these pillars would be 24 feet high and 3 feet in diameter.

Emma Eames, the famous opera star from Maine, was featured at the dedication the next summer. Fritz Kreisler and Paderewski were among the celebrities to appear over the coming years. The Building of Arts was destroyed in 1947 along with dozens of other buildings – cottages and hotels – in Bar Harbor’s Great Fire. Gone were both the Rodick House and the Building of Arts, along with most of whatever else had constituted Bar Harbor in the Gilded Age.

Wayne E. Reilly can be reached at wreilly@bangordailynews.net.

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