The Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands is planning major renovations to the home of North Pole explorer Robert E. Peary Sr., on Eagle Island in Harpswell. (Photo courtesy Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands)
Renowned Arctic explorer Robert E. Peary Sr.’s home on Eagle Island will remain closed in summer 2023 for a third straight year for major renovations and eradication of mold. The grounds, trails and welcome center will continue to be open to the public and staffed with park employees and volunteers.
The Harpswell cultural treasure is a National Historic Landmark and a State Historic Site. The 17-acre Casco Bay island, south of Harpswell Neck, is accessible only by water, although private companies offer trips.
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the home and its museum of artifacts was closed and off-limits to tourists. Meanwhile, mold, discovered in early 2021, had a field day and now needs to be remediated.
Repairs or replacements are planned for everything from the roof to the foundation, from windows to stone stairs. Also scheduled is work to prevent further damage to historical artifacts caused by pests, and upgrades to the fire suppression system.
Gary Best, regional manager with the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands, said he doesn’t know how much the job will cost. “It’s a big project, it’s a complicated project, it’s an important project,” Best said. Work is expected to continue through June 2025. Whether the home will stay closed in 2024 and beyond is not known.
“We’re taking it one step at a time,” said Best. Money for the initial architectural and engineering plans will be paid from state funds. “As we look at the overall cost for the construction phase, we’ll start evaluating the finances — whether (to use) state, federal, private or grant funds.” No stone will be left unturned, he continued, in looking for “all funding streams.”
“The good news … we’re taking a very important step of getting the engineering/architectural firm in place to help us determine timelines and cost estimates,” said Best. A contract was expected to be signed by December.
Best noted that because the Peary home is on an island, there’s “a whole new level of complexity as far as equipment, material, weather and transportation.” The museum also is “full of collections,” he added. “We’ll certainly be guiding and leading (the project) and have experts both in collections and construction working together.”
An overhead view of Eagle Island and the historic summer home of Arctic explorer Robert E. Peary Sr. (Photo courtesy Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands)
Mold remediation won’t be one of the bigger expenses, said Best, but work will be done to make sure the mold doesn’t come back.
Steve Ingram, president of the nonprofit Friends of Eagle Island, said, “The mistake was leaving (the house) all closed up in a damp environment. Mold is throughout, under windows, on rugs — anywhere moisture collects.”
Some of the museum relics won’t be put back on the island because they’re too delicate, said Ingram, and some artifacts are temporarily removed at the end of every summer. Included is a clock from the steamship Roosevelt that Peary designed to withstand Arctic conditions. A sextant the explorer took to the North Pole and narwhal tusks also are taken offseason to the mainland for safekeeping.
Peary grew up in Portland and graduated from Bowdoin College in 1877 with a degree in civil engineering. He bought Eagle Island for $200 in July 1881 from George W. Curtis, of Harpswell, and the island became his summer and retirement home.
Peary made multiple expeditions to the Arctic, including two with his wife, Josephine. Their daughter, Marie, known as “snow baby,” was born in 1889 in Greenland.
Peary’s claim to have been the first to reach the North Pole his been disputed, but he is considered one of the greatest and most famous Arctic explorers. Between expeditions, he served in the U.S. Navy, ascending to the rank of rear admiral.
Peary died in 1920. His wife and son, Robert Peary Jr., and his son’s family summered on the island after his death. The Peary descendants donated the home to the state in 1967.
“It’s disappointing that people can’t get in to see (the home),” said Ingram. “It will be nice when it’s cleaned up and back in business.”
Best said the state is committed to the project. “We’re excited,” he said. “We’re going to make sure we move as thoughtfully and swiftly as possible.”
Or, as Adm. Peary proclaimed: “Find a way or make one.”
Connie Sage Conner is a retired editor of The Virginian-Pilot. She lives in Harpswell and serves on the Harpswell News Board of Directors.