July 1, 2012

Homer's Aerie

The historic studio where Winslow Homer lived and worked is about to open to the public

  • By: James H. Schwartz

Just south of Portland, Maine, a narrow peninsula juts boldly into the sea—fields and woodland giving way to the Atlantic over a series of cliffs, ledges, and enormous chunks of granite. This is Prouts Neck, the storied summer colony that eschews notoriety but was home to one of America’s greatest artists: Winslow Homer (1836-1910).

He was born in Massachusetts and started his freelance career with Harper’s Weekly as an illustrator sketching Civil War images that reached millions. Later he painted scenes embodying the hope and promise of the late 19th century—canvases filled with children, heroic working men and women, hunters, and sailors. When he moved to Prouts in 1883, the figures gradually disappeared and Homer’s work became more abstract; he focused increasingly on the power of the sea and the drama of the rock-strewn coastline. Maine became his muse, and Prouts his window on the world.

Inside a modest clapboard studio, Homer toiled for more than 25 years, peering out at the waters of Saco Bay and completing iconic canvases that inspired generations of artists, from N.C. Wyeth to his grandson Jamie Wyeth. Homer’s studio served as both atelier and haven, and it is also the place where he died.

Somehow, despite hurricanes and nor’easters, less-than-sympathetic alterations, and the destructive maritime climate, the studio survived. Declared a National Historic Landmark in 1966 and now owned by the Portland Museum of Art, it stands at the edge of a tiny dirt road just inside a gate that keeps the world at bay. This September, after an exhaustive six-year restoration process that involved architects, engineers, archaeologists, and art historians, the studio will open to the public in conjunction with the museum’s exhibition “Weatherbeaten: Winslow Homer and Maine.”

“This restoration was a hard project— a difficult and expensive effort,” says Mark Bessire, who became the museum’s director in 2009, “but we felt we had to do it. Too few historic American studios are open to the public, and as a nation we just haven’t done a great job of preserving important artistic sites. When we realized this studio could be lost or could fall into private hands, we felt we had to save it. It was our responsibility.”

Winslow Homer’s studio started life as a carriage house, located behind the family’s oceanfront retreat overlooking Cannon Rock on the southwest corner of Prouts Neck. Because Winslow craved privacy (he famously said, “work independently, and solve your own problems”), the family hired local architect John Calvin Stevens to expand the rectangular building. Stevens added an enormous projecting porch, grandly called the piazza, to the second floor and supported it with a set of massive wooden braces. With this new aerie overlooking the sea, a rooftop platform for sketching, and an inglenook below, Homer found the peace and inspiration he needed.

After Homer’s death, the building remained part of his family’s property, passing into the hands of a series of relatives. It was variously used as a summer getaway, a rental property, and a gallery often left unlocked for visitors. Then, in 2006, Charles Homer Willauer, the artist’s great-grandnephew, sold the two-story structure to the museum, which launched a $10.5 million campaign to pay for the studio’s purchase, preservation, and endowment.

Despite intricate financial projections, the effort entailed more time and expense than originally anticipated. Bessire points to the granite ledge beneath the studio and describes painstaking foundation work there as “a nightmare.” Besides stabilizing the foundation, workers had to remove additions and alterations that marred the original structure, remedy pervasive water infiltration, and conserve a collapsing chimney. Preservation carpenters also had to rehang the entire piazza so that it balanced on—instead of pulling down— the south wall.

Two years after work began, they’d managed to reinforce the oceanfront façade and return the second-floor porch to its original appearance. Gone were the spindly supports that the Homer family had added to bolster the original brackets Stevens hoped would keep the piazza in place. Appropriately reinforced, these dramatic, angled braces now support the porch as intended in the 1884 design. During the final phase of work, crews removed dormers installed after 1938 and returned the floor plan of the house to the original. Last winter and spring they finished reinforcing the interior walls, tucked in a new bathroom for visitors, and hid state-of-the art monitoring and fire suppression systems throughout the building.

“It’s the most difficult job I’ve ever done,” says Geoffrey Goba of Marc Truant & Associates, which managed the project. “I’ve got four huge cases filled with all the submittals and approvals we needed, and I like to tell visitors that every nail and screw in this studio needed to have an engineer’s approval.”
He points to the wood ceiling above the single large room on the second floor. “When we first started working, there was a rabbit warren of rooms up here and a tiny hallway, none of which were original. We removed them all, took out the metal collar ties someone had installed to hold the building together, and had to figure out a different way to support the roof—one that would look identical to the way it did in the 1800s.”

His crews ended up bolting a steel superstructure to the existing roof to reinforce it, then assembling an entirely new shingled roof just inches above the old one. (In the space between they were also able to install a modern sprinkler system that neatly addressed the museum administrators’ chief edict at the start of the project: “Don’t burn the studio down.”) From the outside, the roofline appears just as it did in historical photographs. “But now, even in a strong wind,” Goba says, “it’s not going anywhere.”

Out on the long piazza, he runs his hand over the mahogany railing and massive white oak carrier beam, then walks to a ladder that provides access to Homer’s sketching platform. “Every one of these pieces, every single thing we repaired or replaced, from the railing to the ladder, is as it should be. I’ll admit it’s going to be a sad day when my key doesn’t work anymore,” Goba says. “This has been an unbelievable experience.”

The space on the first floor, where carriages were once stored, is dominated by a large parlor. (You can still see some of Homer’s writing on the white pine bead-board walls.) Next door is the painting room, built by Homer’s brother to accommodate large canvases.

The first time lead architect Craig Whitaker visited in 2006, he walked through the rooms thinking that they looked sadly abandoned. “The parlor was largely unchanged, but the entrances had been switched around, and the studio looked as if it really needed some care.” He particularly remembers the cow’s-hair plaster above the painting room, which was pulling away from the wood lath, leaving the ceiling in precarious condition. “All you had to do was push on it to tell it was all coming undone,” he says.
Whitaker turned to Andrew Ladygo, a prominent conservator from Massachusetts, to determine the best way to reattach the ceiling. Ladygo studied the problem and recommended injecting epoxy into the plaster from an attic above to make sure it remained in place. “He secured the entire ceiling that way,” Whitaker says. “It was painstaking work.”

Whitaker called on an experienced Maine restoration group, Robert Cariddi Fine Woodworking, to restore historic windows throughout the house. Sebastian Cariddi, who worked on the fragile frames, points to several original panes etched with spidery script: “If you look closely, you can see where Winslow wrote his name into the glass, and in another window you can see that his brother Charles did the same thing,” he says. “We were careful to refill all the restored windows with original glass, except for just a few pieces that were broken.”

Echoing the sentiments of Geoffrey Goba and others who guided the restoration, Craig Whitaker says, “I do feel proud about our work here. I’m tired—this has taken years—but all the work is coming together, and I have to say that it’s the most detailed preservation project we’ve ever done in terms of both planning and oversight.”

With the restoration now complete, museum staffers are filling the modest space with some of Homer’s possessions, including a favorite chair, his pipe, fire bucket, and day bed. Visitors can register in advance for one of two daily tours; the small groups will meet at the Portland Museum of Art and shuttle south to Prouts in a van. Bessire also hopes to schedule a limited number of studio events for donors and Homer scholars.

“Completing this restoration was important for Homer’s legacy and for the museum,” Bessire says. “We were founded in 1882, and Homer moved to Maine a year later. John Calvin Stevens designed our Beaux-Arts building, Homer’s studio, and houses all over Prouts. Stevens and Homer are important to us, and this studio is exceedingly important to us. Now it’s time to share it with the world.”

James H. Schwartz, former editor of Preservation, now works from his home in Cape Elizabeth, Maine.

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