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The Asticou Azalea Garden West Bank: A before and after story

When the Asticou Azalea Garden was created by Charles K. Savage in 1956, the garden areas and pond abutted “Harbor Head,” a privately owned three story white farmhouse with a rolling lawn. The property was used by the Asticou Inn for seasonal accommodations.

Harbor Head and the Azalea Garden pond, view from Route 3, 1958

Raymond and Elise Hawtin purchased Harbor Head in 1976 and retained the property as their home until the death of Elise in 2003. The 1920’s-built farmhouse had several additions over the years, the last a small annex for an exercise swimming pool used by the Hawtins in their later years, and currently serving as the Meeting House, with administrative offices and public restroom.

Ms. Hawtin was a longtime friend of the Savage family and served as an Azalea Garden committee member over the years she lived at Harbor Head. Shortly after her death, her estate listed the property for sale. This prompted a scramble by the Land & Garden Preserve (known at the time as The Island Foundation) to secure funds to buy the property or at the very least, to create development restrictions or other protections on an important piece of the Asticou landscape. Generous donors made the purchase possible and Elise Hawtin’s estate sold the entire property to the Preserve in 2004.

The Preserve Board’s acquisition came without specific restrictions or plans for the property’s use. Many ideas were floated for maintaining the home, among them some type of affordable housing, seasonal staff housing, conference center, garden education center, parking, or administrative offices. After structural assessments of the building, building code and ADA considerations, and investigating the drainage and sewer shortcomings of the waterfront property, any further use of the large Harbor Head home was abandoned.

Plans unfolded for placing development easements on the property, moving or recycling most of the building, and retaining only a small first floor annex for future public restrooms and the Preserve’s current Meeting House. These plans would also complete a project started many years before by Charles K. Savage. As early as 1948, Savage had worked with landowners to ensure that only woods, water, and forest would extend along Route 198 from the Parkman Mountain parking area into Northeast Harbor. Savage’s vision for a natural roadside corridor from Acadia into beautiful Asticou was now on the books with removal of the main residence.

MDI Islander, November 24, 2005

Local organizations and individuals were alerted that the house and its contents were available and the dismantling of Harbor Head took place over the first three months of 2006. There were no takers to move the house to a new location due to its degraded condition and the transport challenges of low power lines and other impediments. First to go out of Harbor Head was the entire kitchen interior and fixtures from two bathrooms. Kitchen appliances, cupboards, built in counters, dining furniture, and plumbing were removed and transported to Cherryfield for installation in the new Downeast program buildings of the Seacoast Mission. Other house parts such as porch decking, interior doors, stair treads, railings and bannisters, exterior doors, wooden flooring, lighting fixtures, claw foot bathtubs, and fireplace mantels were sold to Island contractors. DIY local homeowners provided their labor to remove materials that were then incorporated into homes they were renovating or building. Assorted house parts were taken for Habitat for Humanity’s Hancock County programs.

Mark Nickle and pool parts, loaded on his van and trailer, ready to leave from Harbor Head to drive to Wisconsin, March 2006

The sunken “endless swimming pool” in the house annex was the most unusual house part to be successfully recycled. With no local buyers for it, on a whim the Preserve staff advertised the pool, with its working motors and plumbing for on-line auction on EBay. After several surprising bidding challenges – one coming from a New York City non-profit that wanted the pool for installation in an old lower East Side fire house that was being converted into a youth center – the highest bidder for the pool was an enterprising Wisconsin fellow who was buying the pool as a surprise gift for his wife! The Greenrock Company volunteered their crew to help remove the pool from Harbor Head and load all of the parts and pieces on the auction winner’s mini van and small trailer. Precariously perched, the bulky load left Harbor Head for a cross-country road trip to Wisconsin in March, 2006.

Greenrock Company crew working in Harbor Head annex to remove the endless pool, plumbing, and electric motors

When all was said and done, 14 families purchased parts of the building and three local non-profit organizations received donations of building materials. The Mount Desert Fire Company conducted training exercises at the gutted house in February 2006 and the remaining house frame was taken to the ground shortly thereafter.

Training exercises using Harbor Head building, Mount Desert Fire Company, February, 2006

The Azalea Garden pond, view from Route 3, 2022

Fast forward to 2022. We do not know what Charles Savage had in mind for this side of the Azalea Garden property during his tenure as the garden creator and steward. Over the past 16 years, the Preserve has made a deep dive into thoughtfully retaining Savage’s principles and artist’s eye in creating the westward extension to the original garden property. Expanding the landscape into new territory while embodying the insights and character that make the Azalea Garden such a Japanese-inspired gem has been a joyful challenge.

We know that gardens – historic or not – must change. And there is always a before and an after. Through collaboration, on-going public support and generosity, patience, research, ingenuity, passion, hard labor, and an ounce or two of humor, the Azalea Garden has doubled in size while still drawing us to its peace and beauty. We now can enjoy a Stone Basin with seating area for a view of the water basin. The new Mountain Path Loop offers a short walking path with native pines, azaleas, and stone and incorporates two benches for quiet respite. The Meeting House and composting public restroom facilities are nestled into the plantings and hidden from the road view. We hope that Mr. Savage would be very comfortable and pleased with this extension of his vision for the beautiful village of Asticou.

Betsy Hewlett is a former employee of the Preserve and now helps to curate our archives collection.

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