The historic Seal Harbor estate Skylands has found the ideal champion in Martha Stewart, who prizes its every last detail and gracious amenity.
By Jeffrey Bilhuber
Photography by Pieter Estersohn
June 30 , 2015
Martha stewart with her chow chow Ghenghis Khan and French bulldogs Sharkey and Francesca alongside a 1958 Edsel roundup at her maine residence, Skylands, a ’20s masterwork designed by architect Duncan Candler for the car’s namesake, Edsel Ford, and his wife, Eleanor. Kevin Sharkey of Martha Stewart living assisted with the decor.
Anticipation is one of the signal pleasures of visiting Maine. It’s a state tucked so deeply into the farthest reaches of the American Northeast that getting there can feel like an old-fashioned journey, even in this age of planes, trains, and automobiles. That feeling is amplified when the final destination is not just Maine but Skylands, Martha Stewart’s summer place on remote Mount Desert Island, where my son, Christoph, and I spent a long weekend last summer.
Completed in 1925 for the visionary automotive executive Edsel Ford by architect Duncan Candler, the broad-shouldered house sits high on a hill that looks over Seal Harbor, so as you motor along the languid road that follows the rugged coastline, you keep glancing up to find it. Eventually the road branches off and ends up at a drive made of pink-granite gravel that winds deep into a forest just outside Acadia National Park. Spruces and other fir trees pass by, until, finally, the three-story residence slowly comes into view.
Constructed of the same local stone as the drive, Skylands seems to emerge from the surrounding granite outcrops and is so engulfed by maples, kiwi vines, and ferns that nature appears to be taking over. Though it is a stolid, imposing structure, it is embraced by ledges and terraces instead of being plunked on a lawn. So it doesn’t loom—it nestles.
Little has changed at Skylands since Candler (“a genius who deserves a book,” Martha notes) and Danish-born landscape designer Jens Jensen created the 63-acre retreat for Ford and his wife, Eleanor. The Detroit-area couple and their four children summered here until another family acquired the estate in 1980, after Eleanor Ford’s death; they, in turn, sold Skylands to Martha in 1997. Sold, mind you, with nearly everything included, right down to cabinets and shelves filled with the Fords’ silver, glassware, china, and linens—which, as an interior designer fascinated by family legacies, I find gives the place an incredible sense of authenticity. “I didn’t have to buy a plate,” Martha told me, “although I’ve certainly added my fair share.”
It’s unusual that a house of this age and scale—with a dozen bedrooms and several outbuildings for living and entertaining—hasn’t had its spirit destroyed by that demon of modernity, the irresistible urge some people have to knock down walls. In fact, Martha has fully embraced the property she calls “my favorite place,” appreciating what Skylands represents. Like so many getaways built by people of means and vision, it is a testament to the Ford family’s achievements, imbued with a love for the arts and a sensitivity to natural beauty.
“I look at myself as the caretaker of an American treasure,” says Martha, who spends part of July and August here as well as long weekends throughout the year. The house is a catalyst for her imagination and a sparker of ideas for her design empire. She revels in the Fords’ cutwork tablecloths, in the baths outfitted with softly colored Pewabic tiles and hefty nickel fittings, and in the kitchen’s vintage Frigidaire refrigerators, perfectly maintained coolers that allow her to host events for a hundred or more people. She also takes pride in Skylands’ burnished atmosphere, the sunlight streaming through leaded-glass windows and glinting off polished copper, cut crystal, and waxed wood.
Though Martha bought Skylands fully furnished, she has stored some of its relics and incorporated her own unmistakable yet sympathetic layers, touches that blend in rather than show off. Assisting her with it all was Kevin Sharkey, executive editorial director in charge of decorating at Martha Stewart Living. Some furniture is plain, such as benches that came from a grange hall in Massachusetts. Some is ornamental and a bit fragile, like the Victorian papier-mâché chairs glistening with mother-of-pearl in the living room. Other pieces are amusing, among them a set of gilded tables in a guest room, their feet shaped like tassels. The art underscores the location: Prewar chromolithographs of regional birds by Carroll S. Tyson Jr., the Audubon of Maine, fill a living room wall, and venerable Mount Desert Island maps line a cypress-wainscoted room where board games are played.
As one would expect from Martha, a woman who has devoted her life to celebrating the traditional domestic arts, the details at Skylands are carefully considered and often ingenious; the white-painted stools around the kitchen’s central worktable, for example, have been cut to various heights in order to accommodate a range of body types. “Now when you take a group picture,” she says with a smile, “everybody’s at the same level, even though they are sitting on different-size stools.”
The 60-foot-long beamed living hall is the heart of the house. Here, Martha has assembled an unlikely but brilliant combination of Georgian stools, 18th-century-style wing chairs, and faux-bois concrete furnishings. There are always a couple of friends seated near the fireplace for a chat. Someone will be curled up on a tufted sofa to read, while Alexis Stewart, Martha’s daughter, works a jigsaw puzzle at a table skirted with tooled leather. Guests wander in and out: venturing off on a hike, gathering to take a ride on Martha’s 36-foot vintage Hinckley picnic boat, or strolling onto the east terrace, whose granite paving resembles cracked ice.
In my opinion and that of many other visitors, Skylands is a model of what a great American country house should be, humming with activity and preserved with pride as well as pleasure. For nearly a century, the estate has been a fully immersive experience, a place where guests know they’re going to be taken care of and well fed—with everyone heading home refreshed, full of memories, and dreaming of the time they will return.