In partnership with the Maine Memory Network Maine Memory Network

Mount Desert Island: Shaped by Nature

Building Of The Arts Era

The Building of the Arts was officially dedicated in 1907 and remained the preeminent venue for arts and culture on the island for the next 30 years. Many important artists performed on the stage of the Building of the Arts: for example, opera singer Emma Eames and her husband Emilio de Gogorza; the renowned violinist Fritz Kreisler; pianists Ernest Schelling, Josef Hofman, Carl Friedberg, Ossip Gabrilowitsch, and Leopold Godowski; and the legendary monologist and actress Ruth Draper. In its prime, the building hosted countless international singers, musicians and Broadway stars.

Greek Festival, Bar Harbor, 1920
Greek Festival, Bar Harbor, 1920Item Contributed by
Bar Harbor Historical Society

To match its impressive roster, the Building of the Arts was an impressive structure. Built by Guy Lowell on a budget of $100,000, the design echoed the grace and grandeur of the Parthenon. It quickly became a fixture in the community for the local elite and could be booked for a “reasonable fee” by those who wished to use it. The lavish interior was said to bring the beauty of the outdoors inside but unfortunately, no interior photographs of the building have survived.

During the Great Depression, the Building of the Arts began to lose revenue and slowly fell into disrepair. It was sold to E.D Holt in the early 1940s for $305.24 and then in 1947 it was sold yet again, to Consuello Sides. Sides intended to revive the building as a community theatre, but it wasn’t meant to be. In October of that same year, the entire structure was destroyed by the great fire that swept the island. It was never rebuilt. The Building of the Arts will be remembered as the region’s core cultural and performing arts venue for the better part of the early 20th Century and an essential part of the island's rich artistic history.

Fritz Kreisler

The Kreislers and Schellings outside the Building of The Arts
The Kreislers and Schellings outside the Building of The Arts Item Contributed by
Northeast Harbor Library

The legendary violinist and composer Fritz Kreisler was born on February 2, 1875, in Vienna, Austria. At the age of 13, he made his first U.S. appearance at Steinway Hall in New York City, after having studied at the Vienna Conservatory and in Paris under Leo Delibes, Joseph Massart, and Jules Massenet.

After being turned away from the Vienna Philharmonic for his peculiar style of playing, Kreisler was picked up by the Berlin Philharmonic a few years later, launching him to fame and fortune and making him a household name. His music was characterized by intense emotional phrasing and expression, a highly unique sound for the time period. In 1901, he began a tour in the United States, and in 1915, he made his debut in Bar Harbor at the Building of the Arts.

Kreisler performed in a series of performances in Bar Harbor with the famed pianist Ernest Schelling. Tickets were exclusive ($15 for the series) and the concerts were hugely successful. A year later Schelling composed a violin concerto for Kreisler, which Kreisler played often throughout the rest of his career.

Kreisler moved back to Europe in 1924 where he stayed until World War II. He returned to the U.S. and gave his last public performance in 1947, the same year the fire ravaged the Building of the Arts and Mount Desert Island. He died in 1962 from injuries sustained in an automobile accident in New York City and is interred in a private mausoleum in the Bronx. The innovation he brought to classical performance lives on in the few recordings of his music that survive.

Bar Harbor Casino

A Play at the Bar Harbor Casino
A Play at the Bar Harbor CasinoItem Contributed by
Bar Harbor Historical Society
Lillian Gish at the Bar Harbor Playhouse
Lillian Gish at the Bar Harbor PlayhouseItem Contributed by
Northeast Harbor Library

The Building of the Arts was not the only place on Mount Desert Island to go for leisure, fun, and entertainment during this era. John J. Emery, an aristocrat based in Cincinnati, Ohio, with ties to the Bar Harbor area, agreed to contribute between $30,000 and $40,000 toward the construction of a Casino in 1900. This Casino was not intended for gambling but rather as a venue for theater, sporting events, dances, concerts, town meetings, graduations, and other community functions. In its prime it was the host for an inordinately wide array of spectacles.

In summer, the Casino transformed itself into the Bar Harbor Playhouse which brought in many popular local and touring productions including an appearance by the legendary actress Lillian Gish in The Marquise. The Casino remained active for many decades until it was torn down in 1970. It had a tremendous impact on the local community and also played a significant role in the transformation of Bar Harbor into a major summer resort destination for the middle classes.

Ruth Draper

Ruth Draper
Ruth Draper

One of the most notable performers to come to Mount Desert Island in the early part of the 20th century was Ruth Draper, a distinguished actress and dramatist whose illustrious career spanned from 1916 through the 1950s. She performed on many occasions and in many locations on and around the island, creating quite a stir whenever she was in town.

Born in New York City in 1884, Draper's Broadway debut at the age of 32 put her on the map as a skilled monologist and actress. Her work was lauded by many writers and performing artists in her time, including Thornton Wilder, Katharine Hepburn, Laurence Olivier, and George Bernard Shaw, and her work endures today. She is often referenced as a seminal influence in the work of contemporary performing artists and writers such as Lily Tomlin, Tom Waits, Emma Thompson, and David Mamet.

In 1916, the same year she debuted on Broadway, Draper performed a series of original monologues at the Bar Harbor Playhouse. Her family owned a summer home on Islesboro and she spent a great deal of time in the area throughout her life. Draper said of her work: "I never try to point morals in my monologues; yet I believe the material has got to be something more than a mere characterization; it has got to go deeper into human life and human feeling.”

Audiences loved her. In an editorial written at the time, Draper and her manager Helen Arthur were praised for the balance, diversity, and breadth of the comedy and tragedy pieces, as well as Draper's ability to capture so explicitly, the true "Mainer" in her piece "On a Porch in a Maine Coast Village."

Draper died in 1956 in New York City.

Angiola Sartorio

Photograph of Angiola Sartorio taken by Martha Holmes Waxman
Photograph of Angiola Sartorio taken by Martha Holmes Waxman

The modern dance pioneer Angiola Sartorio played a significant role in shaping the island's performing arts history. Much of her most progressive work took place in Bar Harbor and through the school and performance center she founded here, she helped shape the careers of some of the most influential dancers of our time.

She was the daughter of an Italian painter and German-Jewish mother, and lived in Italy until the end of World War I. She was highly influenced by the work of Rudolf Laban, known as the father of European modern dance and movement analysis. In 1926, she joined a dance company operated by Kurt Jooss, a well-known Laban disciple and later she founded a well-respected company and dance school of her own, focusing in improvisation and composition. She was part of a highly innovative group of cutting edge artists and theorists that changed the scope and nucleus of European modern dance methodologies. Her school and company enjoyed tremendous success until censorship by the fascist regime in Italy made it impossible for her to continue there.

In 1937 her company toured Zurich and Vienna and performed in front of Adolf Hitler. The intense and complicated stresses of this tour made it clear to Sartorio that she and her dancers were no longer safe in Europe. In 1939 she fled to New York where she quickly became a fixture in the burgeoning American modern dance scene. She began teaching and performing regularly and soon, she began spending summers in Bar Harbor.

It was here, in 1952, that she opened the highly innovative Summer Dance Center and Summer Dance School in Hulls Cove. Some of the most influential dancers and choreographers of the century traveled to the island during this time to study with Sartorio including Paul Taylor and Jerome Robbins. Performances were cheap (often free), as Sartorio strongly believed dance should be available to all. She was a great champion for civil rights and freedom of expression, and had a keen interest in Eastern religions. In her later years she entered the United Lodge of Theosophists.

Sartorio died in 1995 in California.