Long before John D. Rockefeller Jr. donated 11,000 acres of Mount Desert Island for preservation and public use (the tract of land accounts for nearly 20 percent of Acadia National Park and helped permanently dub the area “Rockefeller Country”), heavyweights of Gilded Age industry and politics used MDI as a refuge from the churning worlds of Manhattan and Washington, D.C. Any given beach day, one might have spotted the Roosevelts, the Morgans, the Fords, the Du Ponts. Today, interest in the region has spread to new titans of new industries. Television icon Dick Wolf (multi-Emmy-winning creator and producer behind the Law & Order, Chicago, and FBI franchises) fell under the island’s spell as a college student. “I first came to Northeast Harbor the summer after my freshman year at Penn for a fraternity social,” says Dick. “I’ve only missed one summer in 53 years.” In 2003, Dick purchased Southerly, a seven-bedroom, 18,000-square-foot estate in Seal Harbor. The sale was a state record at the time.
Commissioned by Fitzgerald Hudson in 1995 and designed by Seay, Seay & Litchfield (the Montgomery, Alabama-based firm specializes in neotraditional forms), Southerly pays mindful homage to the MDI legacy of architect Fred L. Savage, himself responsible for many of the homes of those Gilded Age elites (including Breakwater for the Astors and Raventhorp for a daughter of Longfellow). “The architectural detailing is superb,” Dick says of Southerly, and indeed, the space draws heavily on Savage’s Shingle-style vocabulary. Rustic gray shingles cover the eastern facade. Native stone accounts for the foundation, the chimneys, and the large living room and dining area fireplaces. The roofline conjoins multiple early American forms, while inside a uniform stain on Southerly’s extensive millwork—beams, paneling, molding, floors, balustrades—establishes a continuity that unites the capacious space. “The amount of wood is one of my favorite physical aspects of the house,” Dick says. Each element of the home’s materials and aesthetic is an attempt to express the natural environment of MDI.
Also in keeping with Shingle-style rudiments, Southerly intentionally blurs demarcations of indoor and outdoor space. Porticos, balconies, and screened-in porches abound, providing a gray zone between the home’s refined luxury and beautiful—but wild—environs. Views off the back bluff are sweeping. Beyond a sheer rocky drop, the Gulf of Maine reaches first for the Cranberry Isles, then out to the open Atlantic. Dick is an avid mariner. “I’m on the water virtually every day,” he says of the two months a year he spends on the island. The gardens, too, he cites as a beloved exterior feature of the property. Originally designed by Karen Kettlety, the landscaping recently underwent significant renovations to the lawn, driveway, and site walls. Emma Kelly Landscape handled the revamp.
With a home so close to the water (and in Maine, no less), it is perhaps obligatory that Southerly’s interior skew somewhat nautical. But it is not the overwhelming impedimenta of a seafaring life that one finds. Aside from a few tasteful touches, you’ll find no oars, no navigational instruments, no buoys, and certainly no lobsters, nor their traps. Rather, the home is subtly imbued with Dick’s robust collection of nautical art. Fantastically intricate models of Napoleonic era prisoner of war ships rest on bookshelves and tables, some beneath glass. The paintings of English artist James Edward Buttersworth hang throughout. Most depict ships of the 19th and 18th centuries, some fighting rough waters, others gliding steadily along on unseen winds, with each piece cast in one of the infinite permutations of light, water, and sky offered along the coast.
It is clear these images affect Dick. “I have one of the most extensive collections of Buttersworth’s paintings,” he says proudly, and in fact, much of Southerly’s interior feels like the quarters of one of Buttersworth’s ships. This is especially true in the grand entrance hall, where skylights drop sunshine into a wood-dominant foyer, catwalks flank the bower, and multiple stairways lead down passageways to other parts of the “vessel.”
Like every summer home, ships embody the desire to get away, to set out, to face nature head-on and alone. Those Gilded Age aristocrats made a ship of MDI, and the tradition carries through today.
In one of Southerly’s more blatant maritime nods, a ship’s wheel is mounted in a window overlooking the water. It’s easy to imagine standing there beset with deadlines, e-mails, professional and personal responsibilities piling up, and feeling the urge to grip the spokes, to shout orders to invisible mates—Up the mainsail!—then to sense Southerly’s immense structure inching slowly over the grounds, dropping off the cliff’s ledge, splashing into the waves. You’d bob a moment, regaining equilibrium, then aim the bowsprit toward the horizon, and after that, hopefully, never be heard from again.