Restoring Kennebunk’s Wedding Cake House Is No Piece of Cake

Keeping up the landmark that resembles an elaborate confection hasn’t always been sweet.

Wedding Cake House, Kennebunk, Maine
Photo courtesy of the Wedding Cake House
By Sara Anne Donnelly
From our March 2024 issue

The first time Florida contractor Hunt Edwards poked around the landmark Wedding Cake House on Kennebunk’s Summer Street, in 2019, he was horrified. “I can’t repeat what I said because my language was inappropriate,” he says, “but the house was almost unlivable.” Its owner, Hunt’s 90-year-old uncle James Barker, thought the place merely needed some fresh coats of paint. Instead, Hunt found a broken furnace, crumbling chimneys and ceiling plaster, walls that were leaking or on the verge of collapse, and pervasive rot on the lacey wooden trim, spires, and buttresses that comprise the butter-yellow home’s “icing.” When Barker passed away, in 2020, Hunt and his sister inherited the building and he and his wife, Katie, began fixing it up. “It’s not just an old house,” Hunt says. “It’s an old house with extraordinary architecture that requires extraordinary upkeep.”

Originally a brick Federal, the home was constructed by shipbuilder George W. Bourne in 1825. In 1852, the property’s barn caught fire and a shed that connected it to the main home was torn down to prevent the blaze from spreading. Bourne rebuilt the barn and added a carriage house adorned with Gothic-style spires and pointed-arch reliefs inspired by the Milan Cathedral. Eventually, he extended the trimmings to the main home, which features six towering spires, eight ornate buttresses, and an elaborate widow’s walk. “The house has taken on a life of its own because of that trim,” Hunt says. One of the most photographed buildings in Maine, and a stunning example of the Gothic Revival style, it stands out even among the other grand historic residences on Summer Street. In the early 1900s, when a pair of local businessmen created postcards of area attractions, they dubbed Bourne’s home the “Wedding Cake House.”

The home passed down through generations of the Bourne family, at one point serving as an inn. In the 1980s, a mother and daughter extensively restored it and opened an art gallery in the carriage house. In 1998, they sold it to Barker, an eccentric art dealer who moved in with six Cavalier King Charles spaniels. Barker believed he was destined to own the house since he first saw it as a tourist, in 1954, and he occasionally opened it for tours. “But as Jimmy aged, the house aged with him,” Katie Edwards says. Residents and preservationists worried it would crumble to the ground. “Having this house was not on my radar,” Hunt says. “But I guess it was on Uncle Jimmy’s radar for me because he probably felt I was the only one capable of dealing with it.”

The interior of the renovated Wedding Cake House features paintings by former owner Mary Burnett, including a staircase mural of the home in the 19th century. A guest room displays works by famed Ogunquit artist Channing Hare. Photos courtesy of the Wedding Cake House

Working with Biddeford contractor Cyrus Chilton, Hunt replaced the furnace, repaired the chimneys, ceilings, leaking brick walls, and the barn’s stone foundation, rebuilt a rear porch and a bowing carriage-house wall, and repainted the exterior. Inside, Katie, an interior designer, transformed the rooms into an eclectic maximalist feast, with brass accents, embroidered textiles, walls in powder blue, peach, and cream crowded with artwork from Barker’s vast collection, and furnishings left behind by owners stretching all the way back to Bourne. Along the way, Hunt says, “the house has gotten under our skin.” The couple now divides their time between their Florida home and an apartment in the Wedding Cake House.

The Edwardses say the restoration thus far has cost them between $700,000 and $1 million, and another million is needed to replace the rotting exterior ornamentation. They’ve been renting out the house to small groups but say they need to generate more revenue to support the home’s ongoing renovation needs. Last March, they asked the town for a zoning change that would allow them to operate the property as an inn and event space. A coalition of neighbors pushed back, citing concerns about noise, traffic, and decreased property values. In January, the Kennebunk select board denied the Edwardses’ request. The couple plans to rework the proposal and try again. “We really look at it as, how can we make the Wedding Cake House not have these highs and lows of maintenance?” Katie says. “We have goals in mind for this house, and we’d like to be able to follow through on them.”

May 2024, Down East Magazine

Get all of our latest stories delivered straight to your mailbox every month. Subscribe to Down East magazine.