Feb 22, 2017 marked the famed Maine poet's 125th birthday with weekend celebrations

A peek inside the Rockland house where Edna St. Vincent Millay was born

Thu, 03/02/2017 - 3:00pm

ROCKLAND—Next time you’re walking by Broadway in Rockland, take a look at the the modest yellow double house at 198-200, particularly at the single pane window on the upper right side. That’s the room in which Edna St. Vincent Millay was born.

February 22, 2017 marked the Pulitzer Prize winning poet’s 125th birthday and Rockland celebrated her life on February 25 with a gala reading of selected poets at the Farnsworth Art Museum, as well as a tour of the house of her birthplace, currently under renovation.

Lisa Westkaemper is the treasurer of Millay House Rockland, a new literary organization that will "preserve the birthplace of Edna St. Vincent Millay and celebrate her legacy through education, the literary arts, and significant collaborations within the Maine community and beyond."

A 2015 story in the Free Press first alerted the public to the plight of the house, which had degenerated to such a point it was slated to be torn down. Prompted by the story, Maine philanthropist Roxanne Quimby came forward with the funds to purchase the property with a challenge to the community to match the funds raised and restore the building.

The Rockland Historical Society bought the property in March, 2016 and formed a committee to oversee the restoration.

To celebrate Millay’s birthplace, Westkaemper gave a tour of the 19th century literary landmark, currently being rehabilitated this winter.

“The house was built in 1891 and research show that the first tenants on the north side were Henry Tolman Millay and his wife, Cora Buzzell Millay, Edna’s parents,” she said. “They didn’t stay here very long. First, the family moved to Union, then to Camden.”

Double houses, which today we would call a duplex, were very common at the turn of the century in Rockland. “There are so many double houses here in Rockland as opposed to many other places in the U.S. because the captains of various industries, such as lime quarries, shipyards and wharves didn’t provide housing for its workers, so builders came in and oftentimes the owner/builder would live on one side and rent the other side out to blue collar workers,” she said.

A tour through the north side [the Millay side] of the double house reveals architectural details common to the 19th century such as narrow steep, staircases, narrow hallways and oddly shaped rooms. “This is one of the few houses in Rockland that hasn’t been redone and still has the original footprint of both sides being mirror images of one another,” said Westkaemper.

The house opens to a parlor where, according to historical records, Cora kept a small piano. The original moulding is still in place as are the original walls broken away in places, revealing the American historic carpentry of lath and plaster—wooden laths nailed horizontally across wall studs and layered with several coats of limerock plaster.

“This house was literally falling down,” said Westkaemper. “If it didn’t have historic value, it wouldn’t have been financially worth it for a builder or developer to save it.”

A hallway leads to the far end of the house to the kitchen. When it was originally built, a wood fired stove would have been its source of heat with candle or kerosene lighting. Exposed areas in ceiling reveal original pipes and electrical wiring. Westkaemper was told this house was right on the cusp of having indoor plumbing when it was built.

The steep stairway leads to three small rooms and a bathroom on the top floor. To the left is a large room facing the street which was probably a sitting room of some sort. A door separates the two sides of the house, along with a floor grate which would have let passive heat rise up and warm the room. This is where Cora gave birth to Edna, but likely the room remained a sitting room afterward. A tiny green room in the back of the house was small enough to be a nursery and though there are no records showing whether this was Edna’s room as an infant, it’s easy to imagine it could have been.

The original pine floors on the second floor and oak floors on the first floor will be completely restored as carpenters tackle multiple projects this spring.  The date of completion is still undetermined, but Westkaemper hopes the house will be  in good shape for the first Millay Arts and Poetry Festival slated for September 7-9, 2017 in downtown Rockland. The city-wide arts and literary festival produced by the Millay House Rockland, in partnership with a host of other organizations, plans to offer poetry, music, art, theatre workshops, open mics symposiums and keynote speakers across the three-day span.

For more information visit: http://millayhouse.com/

Click through our gallery for a virtual tour of the house and additional details. Photos by Kay Stephens

Kay Stephens can be reached at news@penbaypilot.com