By Emily Cough
Special to the Islander
BAR HARBOR — La Rochelle Mansion and Museum has seen some exciting changes over the past few years that only add to its storied past, from the glitz and glam of the Gilded Age to the lean years of the Great Depression and finally to today as a museum. Holding Bar Harbor’s treasured objects and stories, La Rochelle has been witness to a century’s worth of history.
The estate was built for JP Morgan partner George Sullivan Bowdoin and his wife Julia in 1903. After their passing, and the passing of their daughter, Edith Bowdoin, the property exchanged hands a few times, first to the Cough family, then to the Colket family, who later donated it to the Maine Seacoast Mission in 1972. It was acquired by the Bar Harbor Historical Society (BHHS) in 2019.
La Rochelle is the only Gilded Age era mansion that is open to the public on Mount Desert Island, bringing in guests from all over the country to see its treasured history and beautiful architecture. Immediately upon entry, guests can see the stunning craftsmanship of the “cottage.” A curved mahogany door, a grand wishbone staircase, intricate crown moldings and period-accurate wall coverings are just a few of the many elegant items the mansion has to offer. In addition to its structure, it also holds many themed exhibitions, all detailing and bringing to life Bar Harbor’s colorful history.
Carolyn Rapkievian, who became the organization’s first executive director, opened exhibitions and expanded the museum’s programs. She, along with staff, board members, volunteers, interns and the community, worked to assemble the exhibit rooms throughout the museum.
First-floor themes include The Cottage Era Room, which details the lives of the turn of the century opulent; The Beatrix Farrand Flower Room, which tells the story of Mrs. Farrand, her designs and gardens; The Pastime and Play Room, where guests can see how adults and children used to live, play and entertain themselves; as well as The Working Life in Bar Harbor Room, which details the workers of Bar Harbor’s lives of yesteryear. For those with a keen eye and a knack for baking, you can find Mrs. McIntyre’s original, handwritten popover recipe for Jordan Pond House restaurant.
On the second floor, guests can visit The Map Room, which holds a collection of original maps of Bar Harbor (once known as Eden), Acadia National Park and greater Mount Desert Island, ranging from 1807 onwards, as well as, an informative map depicting the scope of the devastating fire of 1947.
In the other rooms, visitors can get a peek into how each member of the Bowdoin family may have lived, including the bedrooms of George, Julia and Edith. Within Julia’s bedroom, a handwoven shawl, made by eldest daughter Fanny, is on display.
For life-long residents, and those who remember attending the Bar Harbor High School, The School Room, formerly George’s bedroom, holds a Bar Harbor High School letterman’s jacket, a Golden Game ball and yearbooks spanning many years throughout the school’s history.
Many dresses, ranging from the late 1800s to the 1940s, can all be seen throughout most rooms on the second floor, from beautiful Victorian silk to a World War II nurse’s uniform – each one has its own story to tell.
Volunteer Holly Jenkins-Evans remarks on what working in the textile room is like, noting, “The best parts of sorting, hanging, boxing and cataloging all the bits and pieces of the collection are the individuals we discover and their connections and stories. It’s a constant source of wonder. The questions we have! How did this Paris haute couture gown end up here? That’s a Silver Star Medal from WWII? Do you really think those are American Civil War Union kepis? It’s an adventure in discovery every day.”
Other interesting pieces that are imbued with local significance on the second floor include a section of the original wooden pipe that brought fresh water into Bar Harbor and helped curtail the typhoid epidemic of the late 1800s, the original town deed from de Gregoire, as well as The Boston Post cane, which is awarded to the oldest resident in Bar Harbor.
On the third floor, one can understand the stark contrast between the upper-class family members’ bedrooms on the second floor and those of the working-class staff members’ bedrooms, like the maid’s and chauffeur’s bedrooms. It’s easy to note the difference in the size of the hallways and the lack of decorative moldings.
In the chauffeur’s bedroom in particular, guests can see the coat the Bowdoin’s driver would have worn, as well as photographs from the period when cars were banned and related telegrams.
Similar to the chauffeur’s quarters, the maid’s bedroom is outfitted with pieces to showcase what staff’s rooms may have looked like. Visitors can even read a little bit about one maid in particular, Ebba Lindburg, and see her photograph on display.
In just a few short years, BHHS staff and volunteers have revived not only the bones of the historic home to its former glory, but they also breathed new life into each room, to preserve and share stories for generations to come.
Rapkievian explains its mission the best, saying, “The Bar Harbor Historical Society explores the unique history of Bar Harbor as well as Mount Desert Island and its relation to the U.S. and beyond. Collections, exhibitions and programs interpret the social history of the town, island and region in collaboration with local and national historians, with community organizations and institutions such as the Village Improvement Societies, the Abbe Museum and community tradition-bearers. We create dialog to understand the original Wabanaki inhabitants and their continued presence in Bar Harbor, the first Chinese immigrant to Bar Harbor, the relationship between the famous wealthy cottage owners, their servants and the residents of the town.”
The museum, like most businesses and nonprofits, has seen setbacks from the pandemic; however, it has proven itself a resilient organization, eager to serve its community to showcase the town’s lively past.
Open Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., the museum has plenty to offer residents and newcomers alike. Be sure to visit the gift shop, Edith’s Boutique, for puzzles, books, bags, local pottery and more. The gift shop is open during business hours and a ticket is not necessary to enter.