The Trouble With Footmen: Servant Problems in Old Bar Harbor

Featured image
The entrance to Baymeath.

In 1941, Chicago heiress and philanthropist Louise de Koven Bowen, the major patron of Jane Addams’s Hull House settlement, made a difficult decision: She must sell her beloved summer home, Baymeath, at Hull’s Cove near Bar Harbor. Mrs. Bowen was in her eighties, America was about to enter World War II, and her grandchildren would soon to be scattered around the world, unlikely to be able to visit for many years. Getting the help needed to run a large place was increasingly difficult, and she reluctantly sold the estate to a family of aristocratic Belgian refugees.

Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Bowen had rented cottages in Bar Harbor for several seasons before deciding to build their own modest summer home there in 1895, on s lovely piece of farmland with meadows sloping to the shore and spectacular views of the Mt. Desert Hills. Architect Herbert Jacques, of the fashionable Boston firm of Andrews, Jacques & Rantoul, summered in Bar Harbor, and was hired to design the house.

Aerial view of Baymeath.
A view of the grounds.

The brief was to build something low and modest to blend with the landscape. However, by the time the program was laid out — rooms for Mr. and Mrs. Bowen, their four children and their nurses and governesses, houseguests, and the requisite maids and cooks it became clear that the house necessarily be a bit larger than first imagined, with 35 rooms for family and staff.

The completed house was described as a fusion of French and Colonial styles, with the steep roofs of a chateau, but detailed in 18th century American style. Soon the estate included extensive gardens, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, a teahouse, greenhouses, gardener’s and butler’s cottages, and a large stable and coach house, known as ‘the Greek temple’ which also contained extensive staff quarters. As for the quiet life Mrs. Bowen envisioned, she entertained simply, rarely giving parties for more than 200.

That the disappearing way of life and happy memories at Baymeath not be forgotten, Mrs. Bowen penned a privately memoir dedicated to her grandson Major William McCormick Blair Jr. “Stationed somewhere in Burma.” The little volume is a charming window into that pre War era, filled with happy reminiscences of tennis and croquet, garden parties, sailing and dancing — and the people behind the scenes who made the summers of leisure possible.

An establishment like Baymeath required servants, and lots of them. In her book, Mrs. Bowen chronicles them all — her first color-blind gardener, (not a good part of a gardener’s job description), who fortuitously ran away with a neighbor’s wife, and was replaced with a Scotsman trained in England. The head gardener lived in a charming cottage at the gate, and there were half dozen gardener’s assistants who kept the formal gardens, the cutting and kitchen gardens, wild garden and greenhouses in show condition.

The stables, later garages, required more staff, who also lived on premises — the stable hands who cared for the horses that were brought each summer by train, the grooms and coachmen who wore elegant liveries that were as expensive as Paris gowns, the head butler who lived in another cottage on the estate, the housekeeper, cook, scullery maids and chambermaids who lived in 10 bedrooms on the second floor in the service wing, and a flotilla of governesses.

View from the porch.
The Edwardian dowdiness of the stair hall at Baymeath was in sharp contrast to the smart interiors of her daughter Joan’s (Mrs. William McCormick Blair) David Adler House at Lake Forest, or the famous interiors Billy Baldwin did for the William McCormick Blair Jr.’s. house in Washington.

In all, some 40 people were required to keep summers running pleasantly for the Bowens at Baymeath. There were occasional troubles, such as the color blind gardener, rivalries amongst the children’s nurses, and above all amongst the the male indoor staff, as Mrs. Bowen recounts here:

“On one occasion, when we were having a smaller entertainment at the house, there was a terrible noise in the pantry, and your grandfather went in at once to see what it was and found to his utter astonishment that the two butlers had been fighting and they stood each with the other’s wigs in his hand. One had a toupee and the other a full wig, and your grandfather was so convulsed by their absolutely bald heads that he just looked at them and said ‘Stop fighting!’ and walked out.”

Gardener’s cottage at Baymeath.

Mrs. Bowen’s servant troubles may have been vexing, but she was not alone. On the other side of Bar Harbor was the estate of the great and eccentric publisher Joseph Pulitzer, and his wife, Kate Davis, cousin of the Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

In 1896, the same year that the Bowens purchased Baymeath, the Pulitzers acquired Chatwold, the cottage of Louise Bowler Livingston.

L. to r.: Joseph Pulitzer by John Singer Sargent, 1909.; Kate Davis.

Grand by most standards, the 27-room house was not large enough for the Pulitzer’s needs, and McKim, Mead and White were brought in to add a five-story stone tower, 40 x 40, including a steam heated, ocean fed indoor pool — one of the first in the country — and locker rooms on the lower level over looking the ocean.

On the main floor was a huge library, and on the middle floors rooms for the secretaries and assistants Pulitzer with whom Pultizer surrounded himself at all times. And at the top, a sound proof bedroom for the blind publisher,whose nervous afflictions required absolute quiet. The family immediately dubbed the new addition ‘the Tower of Silence’.

Chatwold’s entrance front from Sheldon’s Artistic Country Seats.
Chatwold Oceanfront original form from American Architect & Building News, 1882
Entrance front, American Architect & Building News, 1883.
Entrance front after additions of Tower of Silence (left), and new service wings (right).

A few years later, still finding the house too small, the Pulitzers had Andrews, Jacques and Rantoul, the firm that designed Baymeath for the Bowens, enlarge the service wing at the other end of the house, to provide more family bedrooms, and enlarged service quarters.

Chatwold now had over 50 rooms, in addition to a separate building on the grounds for more staff — and, inevitably of course, as at the Bowens’, there were servant problems.

Chatwold Stair Hall.

In his prize winning 1967 biography of Pulitzer, W.A. Swanberg recounts a letter written by Elizabeth Harper, the Pulitzer housekeeper, to Pulitzer’s secretary, Alfred Butes, of her despair at the performance of the male household staff at Chatwold:

“The appearance of the Pink Drawing Room is at this hour a disgrace to a first class housekeeper. So I walked to and through the housekeeper’s forbidden ground, namely the Dining Room and Butler’s Pantry to find the 2nd footman — who it was agreed between the Butler and myself should daily care for the Pink Drawing Room (while the 3rd footman cleans the Yellow Drawing Room and Main Hall and stairs) — I find…the family butler engaged in the Dining Room but, the third footman, who ought to be cleaning or at least tidying the Pink Drawing Room set to sweeping the Dining Room for our lazy family butler. The First footman cleaning silver and the third washing and wiping dishes. This arrangement in order that the five men hurry through the Dining Room work to allow two to do nothing for a couple of hours before luncheon is served — in my censure I do not include Mr. Pulitzer’s Butler who must have free time — but the incapacity of the family butler and the stolid indifference of one of the footmen. It is impossible for me to send either of the chambermaids into the Drawing Room during the forenoon — and I neither can nor will do a parlor maid’s work properly apportioned to a footman that he might lay down in his chambers and smoke cigars in the middle of the day”.

Two views of the ocean front, showing Tower of Silence.

By the early 1920s, Mrs. Pulitzer found Chatwold a burden, and offered it first to her son Herbert, who declined, and then to Joseph Pulitzer Jr., who accepted. Mrs. Pulitzer then retired to her chateau at Deauville, where presumably the burdens were not so great. Pulitzer Jr. continued on much as his parents had, with their Sargent portraits still sent up from New York to hang in the dining room each summer.

By the midst of the Great Depression, Joseph Pulitzer II was feeling the pinch, and realized that economies had to be exercised. Staff and staff salaries were cut, although he felt that he could not live without both Butler and valet, and the chef still had an assistant. One of the estate greenhouses was shut down, and in another drastic measure, it was decided that henceforth only Mr. and Mrs. Pulitzer’s breakfast trays would have fresh gardenias for their buttonholes each morning, a luxury once extended to all family members and guests. Despite these deprivations, Mr. Pulitzer was able to keep his new 70 foot yawl in the water (history does not record how the servants whose salaries had been cut felt about this).

Pulitzer’s yacht, the Liberty.

Finally, in 1938, the Tower of Silence was demolished. In 1942, with servants out of the question due to the war, Pulitzer moved out of Chatwold, to finally demolishing it in 1945. Biographer J. Daniel Pfaff quotes a 1942 letter from Pulitzer to his friend J. Hampden Robb, “The day of the Summer Palace is over.”


Edith Pulitzer Moore at Woodlands.

Joseph Pulitzer I’s daughter, Edith, married William Scoville Moore, the great grandson of Night Before Christmas’ Clement Moore. They summered near Chatwold, at Woodlands, a stone and shingle cottage designed by California architect Irving Gill.

In 1947, a huge forest fire swept Mt. Desert Island, particularly damaging Bar Harbor. The fire destroyed many estates that had not already been demolished or abandoned. Coming as the fire did, on the heels of the Depression and World War II, it was the death knell of fashionable Bar Harbor, now a resort populated mostly by widows and spinsters who survived from its glory days.

A view of Woodlands.
Edith Pulitzer Moore and family in front of Woodlands.
Edith Pulitzer Moore with her son.
A newspaper photo of the ruins of Woodlands after the Bar Harbor fire.

With Woodlands destroyed, Mrs. Moore needed a new summer home, and in 1948 purchased Baymeath, bringing this tale full circle. After her death in 1975, the estate was left to the new College of the Atlantic, which she had hoped would preserve and use it as a satellite of their Bar Harbor campus. The college promptly sold it to a couple who had been the first to win a million dollars in the Massachusetts lottery (remember when a million dollars was a lot of money?), who attempted to live up to the estate, only to default on the mortgage when it proved that a million was not enough to maintain and repair such a place.

Soon after, wrecked and abandoned, Baymeath was demolished. Only its iron gate and gardener’s cottage remain remain as witnesses to the lives once lived there.

Interior views of Baymeath under Edith Pulitzer Moore occupancy. Elizabeth M. Mills photo, courtesy of Sargent S. Collier’.

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