It is with a heavy heart that I write to inform you, who care about Birdsacre, that on a bitterly cold Sunday night, March 2, 2014 around 6 pm the inconceivable occurred the fire alarm was raised at Birdsacre. The Stanwood Homestead Museum was on fire. The scene was surreal. Fire engines lined the hill flashing a hypnotic red, as an army of heavily clad fire fighters dashed through the bellowing smoke that consumed our familiar Sanctuary like a thick pea soup fog. Windows broke as blasts of water fought the flames. Chainsaws tore into the roof to vent the smoke and heat. We gathered across the street standing in a snow bank, helpless, recalling the many vulnerable treasures soon to be lost inside; all the labor and love of generations of dedicated volunteers; and how Cordie Stanwoods story suddenly seemed frail and ephemeral. The odd, self-defensive laughter that accompanies tragedy maintained our composure as the heart of Birdsacre seemed destined to become cinders before our eyes.
Naturally, our initial concern beyond the Homestead was for the birds in nearby enclosures. The responding fire fighters prevented the unthinkable, stifling the flames before they could leap and incinerate our enclosures. The injured hawks and owls must have passed a long and frightening night, but none suffered more than nerves thanks to the protective, winterizing panels preventing any smoke inhalation, or other calamities.
Two days passed before the Fire Marshals office permitted our entrance into the Homestead. What a shock to learn this senseless accident was an intentionally perpetrated act of arson committed by a disturbed vandal who discovered Birdsacre randomly. He did not know or have any relation with Birdsacre. We were just in his path that night. The Fire Marshals Investigators collected evidence, uncovered an alleged suspect, and now are awaiting due process in the court system. Until the case is tried, the Fire Marshal has requested that we not release any interior images of the crime scene, in order to stream line the conviction. Innocently, a video tour was released to inform the community, but has been retracted. Foremost we want this dangerous individual stopped from committing further destruction. However, in cooperating, our hands are tied in our informing and funding raising efforts, because the Homestead looks almost unfazed from the outside. A few windows are broken. There are two holes burnt through different walls, but otherwise, todays Homestead appears safe and sound. Not so.
No words can describe the horror and utter devastation upon first entering the building. You cross the back threshold and spy on the floor, like a moment caught in time, the clear imprints of the broken glass etched into the smoke smudged, sooty black floor, and want to reach out and ring his neck. In March, the very air surrounding the building was toxic and unbreathable inside; but today has greatly subsided. Memory guides one forward through a charred nightmare of gothic chaos, which only days before was bright, clean, colorful, and in order. All is black. Walls are gone. You can look from the first floor, up the back stairs, through the second floor, out the attic, and roof. Wall paper peeled back from the walls, mounds of ash and broken glass conceal the carpet, adding to the unnatural atmosphere. Ice clings like stalagmites from the seat of caned chairs. Little is recognizable.
The heart of the house, Cordies room, built in 1850 by her sea-faring father Captain Stanwood, was hardest hit. Almost everything seems charcoal and dust. Her glass-plate box camera melted. The early Underwood typewriter blackened metal, and note revealing Cordelias first humorous and practical attempts at typing dust. The drawing by grandmother Leonard of the family Castle in England, the personal and bird photographs on the wall, the rare gold leaf bird books, and the most personal items of her life gone! just gone, as if they had never been. In a corner, a Canada goose mount more closely resembles a ghastly burnt marsh mellow, baring fiery witness to the rooms demise.
Downstairs, the Dining Room and Living Room, confess walls lost; and the steep back stairs that bore Cordelias near century long worn footsteps no longer exist. The Ell above, Chandler, my grandfather, the first curators office, is but a ghost of the years and birds he cared for there. Yet, miraculously, the majority of the house survives escaping with extensive smoke damage, candles drooping downwards, but the structure itself is strong!
Our firefighters are our heroes. They accomplished the impossible. They prevented the fire from spreading, quenched the flames, saved the structure, and in facing hades inferno had the fortitude and presence of mind to gather and protect Stanwood artifacts under fire proof tarps in the center of the room. Paintings and portraits were ripped from the walls. Furniture, even the heavy, Parlor piano were lifted to safety, while one fireman bear hugged the trolley, chandelier, lamp as other fire hats lay siege to the engulfing flames. Through these herculean efforts there is so much saved and can be restored; and, that is where the true work begins.
Every day through March, most days in April, and May have been dedicated to sifting through the rubble for every remaining artifact. Those familiar with fire will attest to the random, illogical path of destruction that allows unpredictable items to escape. We were fortunate. Cordelias field-notes recently digitalized survived under her desk! Boxes of her photographs stored in archival containers frozen to the floor survived! Cordies hand woven rugs and baskets, some of the rare, gold leafed bird books bearing her signature, marble-topped furniture, paintings and portraits escaped! We packed and moved so many boxes out for later restoration, that we needed not one, but two tractor trailers. Merrills Blueberry Freezers kindly offered crucial freezer space for the most vulnerable items.
They say tragedy brings out the best in people. Our little, intimate, crew has covered great ground since the early days of destruction. Blindly, emotionally, we have stumbled forward trying to focus on the immediately accomplishable, and not get lost in the daunting, overwhelming magnitude of what lies ahead. Julia Clark, collections curator at Bar Harbors Abbe Museum, and Josh Torrance, executive director of Woodlawn Museum in Ellsworth, immediately appeared offering crucial advice and archival resources. Josh even delivered emergency response disaster supplies to the Homestead back door, helping motivate our spirits and actions. Molly OGuinness Carlson, an archival conservation preservation expert, became an invaluable source of archival emergency disaster recovery, guiding us from the outset in our on-going historic restorations recovery process. Jackson Lab graciously offered a great quantity of desperately needed cardboard boxes critical for moving and storing a houseful of precious artifacts. Through the days and weeks we have been able to organize the chaos, clear the rubble, prepare and store the physical collections for restoration, preserve the fragile paper and textile items in freezers for later conservation, and air dry volumes of photographs and research.
The Nature Center became our spring laboratory. The many glass, gift shop, counters were covered in ballooning research folder sandwiches with every important document drying between paper towels. Saturated paper towels were exchanged for dry ones in an endless process of stacking and sorting to the final destination of new archival folders. Cordelias original photographs, modern prints, and negative copies, stretched, air drying, from one corner of the Nature Center to the other on clothes lines. The process was time consuming, but offered glimpses into a past not often seen. In one letter from the 1950s, Cordies younger sister, Della, worried that teenagers parking in Cordies barnyard might catch the lawn, grown field, afire with their cigarette butts, while Cordie laid asleep upstairs! Strolling down the photographic clothesline one scanned the beautiful negative images of wonderful old homes, antiques, and countless studies of bird life. University of Maine Art History Professor, Michael Grillo, offering advice in the restoration process, was most impressed with Cordelias collection.
In the midst of this preservation race against the onslaught of mold, which could threaten the entire collection, Cindy Merrill painstakingly placed every article of research, every published story, every correspondence, every image, every negative in her light booth, creating a digital record for the future. To date, she has amassed an amazing 13,900 images containing 2,003 photographs; 10,761 manuscripts; 50 items related to modern Birdsacre; 900 supportive family folders! Incredible! Commitment like this will insure the Stanwood Homestead Museums restoration in a few short years.
Only last week did I open a rubber tote to discover the E.B. White letters and stories written to my grandfather, Chandler, amidst photographs of Birdsacre in the early days of its public function. Mold had finally hit! I sorted and ran the tote to the freezer and pressed the pause button. While we mitigate the preservation process to the collection, focus on restoration of the house, simultaneously we must continue with normal operations, as if nothing happened. Which must be why, I have 3 abandoned Tufted Titmouse and 3 baby House Finches chirping under a heat lamp in my bathroom, as I type this.
The work ahead looms large, but accomplishable. Our Goals are simple projected over the next few years. Lacking fire insurance on the Homestead, after our policy was canceled for two unused, non-conforming, museum piece wood stoves, we accept that our efforts will be a true barn raising.
Goal one: Secure the Homestead roof before winter. The rafters of the main house, and to a greater extent, the ell have been damaged, but can be repaired and reinforced. Patch the two exterior 4x4 holes in the walls, and the 1 in the roof.
Goal two: Simultaneously, initiate restoration of the artifacts in the Stanwood Collection. Victorian Frames, Paintings, etc. will be directed to professionals, while many items, like the silverware, glassware, air-drying books will need a few hours from volunteers.
Goal three: Launch the BIRDSACRE PHEONIX FUND drive. We are beginning the process of organizing many fundraising projects, applying to grants, and seeking the most cost effective use of funds in restoring the house. Bangor Savings, Bar Harbor Banking and Trust, the Grand Theatre, and other groups and organizations have already donated generously. A few small projects have already met with success.
This year Cordelia Day, Saturday, August 2nd, will be a more pronounced, meaningful, and necessary event. Over 30 local businesses donated large items for a PHEONIX FUND RAFFLE to be held that day. This is an Emergency raffle for immediate need, with wonderful high-end items. Correspondingly we are offering $10 tickets this summer at the Nature Center, Merrills Furniture, and Albertas Hair Designs, to aid with the critical, initial, repair costs. Or, one may simply make a contribution to the Phoenix fund, including your name, address, and telephone number, and you will automatically be entered. Over 30 wonderful prizes mean over 30 wonderful winners, helping secure the Homestead before winter. A list of prizes will be listed on our website: www.birdsacre.com.
Goal four: Begin room restoration.
Gut Cordies room to the wall frames. There is no ceiling,
so hang dry wall. Strip wall paper in other rooms. Paint and
seal every surface in the house to eliminate the fading smoke
odor. With over 9,770 square feet to seal and paint, 2,346 square
feet of wall paper, 50 sheets of sheetrock, plus replacing a
few walls, and the back stairs, the work seems daunting, but
I picture many small home improvements being tackled simultaneously,
over time. In many ways, after strengthening both roofs, and
repairing Cordies room, the task of restoring the Homestead
is identical to the requirements initially faced after Cordelias
death in 1958, when Chandler and countless other skilled and
serious volunteers restored the Homesteads grandeur.
To this end, artist and Trustee, Rebekah Raye has beautifully divined an inspirational emblem for our Birdsacre Phoenix Fund, artistically expressing how the restoration efforts are rising full of hope over the calamity that befell the Homestead.
Persons wishing to volunteer inside or out, may contact Janet Higgins at 667-7851. Those desiring to make a donation may send it to the:
Birdsacre Phoenix Fund