By John E. “Jack” Drake
The works of skilled craftsmen live after them, and we can enjoy the results of their talents for generations. When the craft is redesign and reconstruction, the fact that the work is done seamlessly and with great skill makes it more difficult to see the results.
There is no doubt that the big red brick structure at 127 West Street was Leo’s building. As the caretaker of the Maine Sea Coast Mission, he could be seen there at all times of the year. In the spring, he was high up on a ladder painting the trim. In the summer, Leo was always on board his John Deere, mowing the rolling lawns. Autumn brought huge piles of leaves, and there was Leo again, keeping the place looking nice. Soon after winter arrived, he had the snow blower on the John Deere and was busy digging out the drifts. Although we have all these mental images of Leo outside the building, it was the inside that received his greatest efforts.
Back in the 70s, when the Mission received the building from the Colkets, it was a summer “cottage.” The heating system was designed to drive away the chill of a September morning, but not to deal with a Maine winter. As it was prepared for the Mission’s use, the attic received a “cap” of insulation and baseboard hot water heat was added to the living spaces on the first floor. The second and third floors had only warm air heat, which flowed up through ducts from the cellar. As you might well imagine, the first winter in the building was a disaster. Pipes froze and burst – water was everywhere.
After the cleanup, Leo had a plan. In his travels around the island, he spotted good used cast-iron radiators that had been discarded by former owners. He hauled them back to the Mission, pressure tested them and then installed them in the rooms. They were soon connected to the boiler and the place was warm. They weren’t pretty, but Leo had a plan for that as well. He built beautiful radiator covers for all of them, designed to blend in with the styles of the rooms. They blend in so well that you would assume they had always been there.
That was just the beginning. Next, Leo took on the challenge of the rooms themselves. The plaster walls and ceilings allowed heat to flow out through the brick structure. They were a series of sieves. Once again, Leo had a plan. By placing sheets of foil-faced insulating board over the plaster, and then covering those with sheet rock, he built a “box within a box” in each room, containing the heat and making the rooms energy efficient. Once again, the work was done so well that it looks like it has always been there.
So, is there anything that Leo did that can be noticed? As you walk up to the second floor, your eye is drawn to a large picture window that allows the person in the middle office to see you as you arrive. Leo found that window with a “For Sale” sign on it, leaning against a tree in West Tremont. He cut the hole in the wall and installed and trimmed out the window so well that it seems the original builders had done it, although why they had wanted a window to the hallway in what was then a bedroom might leave you scratching your head!
We think of Leo as the “House Doctor.” In the case of 127 West Street, Leo gave his “patient” a new lease on life, and his legacy is a building that will serve its present owners, the Bar Harbor Historical Society, for many long years to come. Thank you, Leo Higgins, master craftsman, for a job well done.
Jack Drake lives in Bar Harbor and is Superintendent Emeritus of The Maine Sea Coast Mission following a 31-year career at the nonprofit.