Martha Stewart Opens the Doors to Her Historic Maine Estate
The historic Seal Harbor estate Skylands has found the ideal champion in Martha Stewart, who prizes its every last detail and gracious amenity
Text by Jeffrey Bilhuber | Photography by Pieter Estersohn | Produced by Howard Christian
[mod note: pictures are several posts down. Thank you]
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.
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.
Kiwi vines climb up the rear of the dwelling; the terrace and naturalistic landscaping were designed by Jens Jensen in the 1920s.
Stewart lightened the mood inside by replacing some of the existing formal furnishings with faux-bois pieces; in the entrance hall, a vintage bench and a Martha Stewart–designed console rest on
The sunny living hall is a hub of activity during the summer months; Stewart often leaves out books about Maine on the faux-bois cement table, made by Carlos Cortés, for her guests. The sofas were custom made, and, at right, a vintage tassel-footed metal table by Carole Stupell is paired with a wing chair. The walls are finished with a Fine Paints of Europe taupe.
Diamond-pattern French doors and windows are a highlight of the living room; the antique button-tufted chairs, from Liz O’Brien, are grouped with a sofa clad in a Groves Bros. Fabrics cotton and a blue spruce planted in a vintage faux-bois birdbath. (I HATE leaded lights)
The oak-paneled flower room features a display of mercury-glass vases.
The dining room chairs, which were reproduced from an 18th-century English example owned by Stewart, are covered in silk velvet; the faux-bois table was crafted by Carlos Cortés.
In the living hall, a circa-1880 sofa from Ann-Morris joins antique Georgian stools; the games table in the foreground is skirted with gold-embossed leather, and the torchère and sconce are original to the house.
The butler’s pantry is equipped with its original light fixture, sink, and cypress cabinetry; the tableware belonged to Skylands’ first owners, Eleanor and Edsel Ford.
The wainscot in the kitchen is of vintage Pewabic tiles; the antique fishmonger’s table against the far wall is from Ann-Morris.
Kiwi vines shade a terrace furnished with a Charles Rennie Mackintosh–style teak table and chairs by R. L. White and Son.
In the master bedroom, a Rogers & Goffigon–fabric canopy surmounts the antique bed, and an antique Chinese embroidered screen hangs on the wall.
Vintage Pewabic tiles lend charm to the master bath.
In the living room, an expansive space broken up into several seating areas, a vintage faux-bois table, at left, is encircled by papier-mâché chairs; the telescope belonged to Skylands’ first owner, Edsel Ford.
The library’s armchairs were once owned by the Ford family; the paneling is oak, Stewart’s brother Eric Scott made the Tiffany-style table lamp in the background, and beside the fireplace stands a faux-bois planter.
In the game room, old maps of Mount Desert Island are installed above benches; the wainscot is made of pink cypress.
A four-poster graces a guest room.
The main terrace features its original granite paving.
A vertical sundial surmounts the doors that lead from the house to the main terrace; kiwi vines climb up the stone façade.
Stewart restored an ornamental pool on the property, lining it with granite in a cracked-ice pattern in homage to Jens Jensen’s work.
Trails wind through the 63-acre property.