A Temple for the Arts: Summer Society in Bar Harbor

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5th green, Kebo Valley Club, Bar Harbor, c. 1915.

Summer Society needs its amusements, and Gilded Age Bar Harbor was no exception. Golf came first, as it often does. With the founding of the Kebo Valley Club in 1888, Bar Harbor was in the vanguard of the newly popular sport in America. The new club, with six holes designed by H.C. Leeds, was stated to be “cultivation of athletic sports and furnishing innocent amusement for the public for reasonable compensation.”

Or at least that segment of the public listed in a new publication called The Social Register, started only two years earlier. With this, the transformation of Bar Harbor from hotel resort to fashionable summer colony had begun in earnest, and Society was off and swinging, literally.

First Kebo Valley Clubhouse, designed by Wilson Eyre.

The new clubhouse was designed by the Philadelphia architect Wilson Eyre in a suitably picturesque style — the marble splendors of Newport were not for Bar Harbor yet. The separation of hotel visitors and the new cottage society, in their large and elaborate villas, was well underway, and by June 1890, The New York Times reported:

Horse show at Kebo Valley.

Kebo Valley aims to lead in things social, and is certainly in a way a sort of focus, though its claim cannot be said to be generally acknowledged yet. The transient people do not take kindly to it, as it tends to take away from the prestige of social affairs in the village. Nor are the cottage people by any means unanimous in its favor. It is for one thing, a bit away from the centre of things …”

Whatever aversion the summer colony had to traveling a mile from town soon abated, and in addition to golf, Kebo offered tennis, hosted Bar Harbor’s early horse shows, and contained a theater suitable for dances and performances, including the amateur theatricals and tableaux so loved by Society of a simpler time.

The club lawns and verandas also served an all important function as a place to be seen in the afternoon, just as the Swimming Club on the West Street shore provided a morning promenade as the members of the colony swam to music from the Boston Symphony Players.

In 1899, the clubhouse at Kebo burned. A new clubhouse was built, but lacked the performance space of the old, and by 1905 a few leaders of the summer community decided that the time had come to build for the Arts the same quality of facility as those already provided for the Amusements Yachting, Golf, Tennis and Alcohol.

Society on afternoon Parade at Second Kebo Valley Clubhouse (Maine Historic Preservation Commission).

No longer considered too far from town, a site for the Arts Building was secured on Eagle Lake Road, at the very edge of one of the Kebo Valley Club’s putting green, which would double as an outdoor amphitheater.

Five prominent members of the summer colony stepped forward with funds Mrs. Henry Dimock, sister of W.C. Whitney, George W. Vanderbilt, George B. Dorr, who would become a founder also of Acadia National Park, Fifth Avenue Hotel heir Henry Lane Eno, and Mrs. Robert Abbe, wife of the pioneer radiologist.

L. to r.: Mrs. Henry Dimock.; George W. Vanderbilt.
In addition to his support of the Building of Arts, George B. Dorr was the founder of Acadia National Park.

Their architect was Guy Lowell, a fashionable country house architect who also designed the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. With the inevitable logic of a volunteer committee, it was decided that a Greek temple under the pine trees would provided the most appropriate setting for the high culture they envisioned.

This temple was built not of stone, but stucco over wood, “finished to represent Parian marble,” and the red Venetian tile roof was supported by “the largest wooden columns ever turned in Maine.” Copies of the Parthenon Friezes, imported from Paris, were mounted on the facade. Inside, the walls and ceiling of the stage adapted the principles of the sounding boards of the great German concert halls, and the natural lighting was provided “from the top after the manner of the ancient Greek shrines.”

Building of Arts, Bar Harbor, ca. 1910 (Jesup Memorial Library).
Building of Arts, Bar Harbor, 1915 (Bar Harbor Historical Society).
Arriving for a performance at the Building of Arts (Maine Historic Preservation Commission).

A golden proscenium curtain of elaborately embroidered English damask, specially woven for the building was donated by Mrs. John Inness Kane and George Vanderbilt. The building immediately attracted national attention, with Owen Wister writing an article for Century, and a large spread in The Architectural Review.

The opening concert on June 13, 1907 featured Emma Eames, then one of the world’s leading lyric sopranos. She was followed over the years by many others of the world’s great the violinists Kreisler, Zimbalist and Kneisel, singers Alma Gluck and Roger de Bruyn, pianists Paderewski, Schelling, and Iturbe, conductors Damrosch and Stowkowski, and monologists Ruth Draper and Cornelia Otis Skinner. Acting troupes such as the Washington Square Players and The Theatre Workshop performed Bar Harbor seasons, as did local stock companies like the Surry Players, sponsored by Mrs. Ethelbert Nevin, whose numbers included a young actor named Henry Fonda.

The Auditorium at the Building of Arts, with the ‘Golden Curtain’ donated by Mrs. John Inness Kane and George Vanderbilt (Maine Historic Preservation Commission).
The Kneisel Quartet.
A New York Times photo of the Washington Square Players at the Building of Arts.

High Culture was not the only venue at the Building of Arts, and flower shows, including the Bar Harbor Sweet Pea competition were held there, as well as well as ‘serious’ lectures and art exhibits.

And of course, Society has always loved dress up, and in the early years many amateur tableaux were featured, including a 1909 Greek pageant arranged by the ever artistic Mrs. Albert Clifford Barney, featuring members of the summer colony, including assorted Endicotts, Schieffelins, Gurnees, de Kovens, Pinchots and Welds, traipsing about the grounds in diaphanous garb, acting the story of the love of Egeria for the mortal Strephon. At another, in 1915, members of society recreated favorite portraits.

Greek Festival held at the Building of Arts in Bar Harbor in 1920 (Bar Harbor Historical Society).

The young widow Mrs. John Jacob Astor was a Reynolds beauty in picture hat, a Miss Maull balanced Mrs. Astor as a Gainsborough, Miss Mary Canfield and John J. Emery, Jr. were a Watteau Shepard and Shepardess, Mrs. Ernest Schelling reenacted a Polish Farm scene with costumes she’d brought from Poland, and the family proud Albert Eugene Gallatin portrayed his own grandfather in a Gilbert Stuart Portrait. It was an innocent era.

In those days before Tanglewood and the Pops, the Boston Symphony lay idle in the summer, and a number of the musicians, as the Boston Symphony Players, would spend the summer in Bar Harbor, playing at the Swimming Club pool during the morning swim, and popular tunes at parties and dances in the evenings (This franchise was to receive serious competition when a young bandleader named Meyer Davis broke onto the Bar Harbor scene and his eventually became the orchestra of choice from Bar Harbor to Palm Beach.)

But in the meantime, golf and art continued to merge at the edge of the Kebo Greens, and the Symphony Players provided background music for a ladies putting tournament.

The Building of Arts and Kebo Golf Course, Frenchman’s Bay and Porcupine Islands in the distance (Maine Historic Preservation Commission).

For all the glamour of its featured performers, perhaps the most extraordinary performance at the Building of Arts there was not seen by the public. In 1916, Meyer Davis was playing of an evening at the fashionable Malvern Hotel. In her memoirs, Mrs. Davis recounts watching the orchestra through a glass door behind the ballroom stage when she suddenly witnessed a most extraordinary little scene. A compact man, dapper in a pearl gray suit, entered the back of the room, and rather than taking a seat, as she expected, he suddenly, unseen by the others focused on the band, broke into a little gavotte. Entranced, she made inquiries, and to her astonishment, the man proved to be the great dancer Vaslav Nijinsky.

The Malvern Hotel, where Nijinsky danced as the Meyer Davis orchestra played.
L. to r.: Nijinsky out of character and in Till Eulenspiegel.

Unable to go to Europe that summer as World War I raged on, Serge Diaghelev sent Nijinsky to spend the summer at the Malvern, where it was hoped the fresh air and relative isolation of Bar Harbor would inspire the dancer to complete his new (and as fate had it, last) ballet, “Till Eulenspiegel.” Rest and isolation were relative concepts with Nijinsky and his wife, after one evening’s round of argument, took a car and drove aimlessly for two hours in the middle of the night, returning at dawn.

There is no record of a public performance by Nijinsky in Bar Harbor that summer, the Building of Arts became his rehearsal space, and there the ballet was choreographed for its opening in New York that winter. He was joined there by set and costume designer Robert Edmond Jones and by Paul Magriel, who wrote that “invitations to the great houses of Bar Harbor showered upon me like gold,” in the hope that the great dancer could be lured along with him, but Nijinsky rarely went out in society, rehearsing by day and working on the designs by evening.

Robert Edmond Jones’s costume design for Till Eulenspeigel.
Robert Edmond Jones’s set for Till Eulenspiegel.
A fashion critic ponders Till Eulenspiegel’s impact on fashion (Reading Eagle).

The Great Depression came, and the Building of Arts soldiered on for awhile. New donors were found, impresario Timothee Adamowski continued to book important performers, but the clock was running out. The Surry Players performed Aristophanes’ ‘The Birds’ in the outdoor amphitheater in July of 1935.

The coverage in the New York Times the next day was far more concerned with the quality of the audience than of the play. Notably absent from the impressive listing of names Mrs. Reginald de Koven, Mrs. John D. Rockefeller Jr., Mrs. J. West Roosevelt, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Mrs. Gerrish Milliken, Mrs. Shepard Fabbri, and others, were husbands, who may have been back at the office in New York, or more likely, on their yachts or the golf course next to the amphitheater, where one assumes that the occasional cry of ‘fore’ punctuated the Greek chorus.

The New York Times gives more coverage to the audience than to the play.

In 1941, as America entered World War II, an exhibit was held at the Building of Arts for benefit of the American British Art Center, featuring Cecil Beaton’s then unpublished series “London’s Honorable Scars,” recent London war posters, and 25 sketches by J.M.W Turner. By the next season, Bar Harbor gas rationing had made remote Bar Harbor difficult of access, and the colony was a virtual ghost town, with many cottages shuttered, as some had been since the Depression.

John D. Rockefeller, Jr. had been among those who had quietly made up the Building of Arts deficit for years, and he had now taken stronger action, as the structure was about to be sold by the town for tax liens. Through his agent, Serenus Rodick, whose ancestors had built the largest of Bar Harbor’s early hotels, Rockefeller quietly purchased the building for $500, hoping to secure its future as a center for culture on the island.

President Taft NOT attending a performance at the Building of Arts.

By 1944, Rockefeller felt that adequate support was not forthcoming, and sold the building. It was acquired by Consuella de Sides, a pupil of Baba Ram Dass, who intended to make it once again a center of performance. In October 1947, the great forest fire that swept Bar Harbor in that driest of seasons swept across the Kebo Greens, destroying both the clubhouse and the Building of Arts. Bar Harbor’s temple for the high arts had lasted but forty years.

Kebo Valley Club survives, its golf course the eighth oldest in the country. The ‘Elbow Hole,” where President Taft carded 27 in the shadow of the Building of Arts, where he was not attending a performance, is now the 17th, and nearby, at the edge of the woods are the broad steps of the Building of Arts, leading nowhere.

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