The artsy midcoast hub is placid in winter, but as new development comes to its historic seaside downtown, civic engagement is lively as ever.
By Virginia M. Wright | Photographed by Benjamin Williamson
Several times a day, Peter Ralston stands outside the door of his Rockport gallery, his iPhone pressed to his ear. Reception is lousy inside the 185-year-old building, with its thick granite walls. Or anyway, that’s his excuse for stepping out.
“From my door, I can see out to our incredible harbor. I can see to Owls Head,” Ralston says. “I can see downtown, all 100 yards of it. I see everyone who goes by.”
A cofounder of the nonprofit Island Institute, which works to sustain Maine’s island towns, and a photographer whose coastal images suggest human presence even when they’re empty of people, the 70-year-old Ralston is a lifelong student of community. In Rockport Village, the roughly 1½-square-mile neighborhood fanning out from Rockport Harbor, he’s found his. “It’s my old shoe,” he says. “It’s my skin.”
He was a young man living in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, when his neighbors and mentors, Andrew and Betsy Wyeth, introduced him to the midcoast, where they had a home. He settled in Rockport, a town of 3,375 sandwiched between tourist magnets Rockland and Camden, moving into the village from West Rockport 20 years ago.
“Andy never painted more than a couple miles from his studios. His work was about going deep into a place,” Ralston says. “That’s what Rockport is to me. It’s a return to home. It’s a place where you end up knowing pretty much everybody.”
In winter, when more than a third of the neighborhood’s 200 houses are dark, their owners sheltering in warmer climes, the sense of intimacy deepens. “I see a lot of the same small-town ethics that you see on the islands: you get along because you have to,” Ralston says. “People can be ideologically dead set against each other on an issue and yet, for the most part, be respectful and remain friends.”
Lately, residents have been debating how to rekindle a downtown revitalization first ignited a decade ago, when a national investment firm called Leucadia National Corporation restored two prominent 19th-century buildings, filled them with fine-dining restaurants and a music school, and rescued Maine Photographic Workshops from foreclosure. After Leucadia sold its Rockport assets in 2016, momentum stalled a bit. The public library evacuated its deteriorating 67-year-old building for temporary quarters on Route 1. The Center for Maine Contemporary Art, which had called Rockport home for 64 years, moved to a fancy new space in Rockland. Both restaurants closed, replaced with two new ones and a café.
Now, two large-scale projects are promising to make big visual and cultural impacts on what Rockport designates as downtown, which consists of 20 structures (nearly half of them private homes), three vacant lots, and two terraced pocket parks, all squeezed into a curvy, sloping two-tenths of a mile. (Ralston’s “100 yards” is an understatement, but not by much.) One is the new library. Twice the size of the original, with 7,000 square feet of floor space, it’s opening in December after six years of surveys, hearings, referenda, and fundraising. The other is a four-story boutique hotel linking the historic buildings that Leucadia restored. For now, it exists only on paper, stalled as town officials and developers sort out the consequences of two August town meetings that limit the number of guest rooms and mandate a traffic study — even though the planning board had approved the project six months earlier with no such conditions.
Two steps forward, one back. That’s the pace of change in Rockport, where, like most Maine municipalities, voters make laws and approve budgets at annual town meetings, town officers are volunteers, and public opinion is always sought — and usually offered in spades. As one resident put it during the umpteenth meeting about the library last year, “I can’t imagine a process that was more open. . . . It was almost choked by democracy.”
That’s a measure, Ralston suggests, of how people feel about Rockport. “There’s engagement at an extraordinarily deep level,” he says. “People participate. People care.”
Full of lakes, hills, and nature preserves, inland Rockport has pockets just as beautiful as the town’s coastal reaches, and most Rockport residents live outside of Rockport Village in more affordable neighborhoods, like Rockville, on the Rockland line, West Rockport, where two state highways intersect, and Simonton Corner, abutting Camden. Most commercial activity and services are outside the village too, along commuter-heavy Route 90 and the tourist artery of Route 1, as are the regional high school, the MidCoast Recreation Center, and Pen Bay Medical Center.
But the town’s identity is embedded in the village, where the community took root long before Rockport separated from Camden in 1891. In addition to the historic downtown, the town offices are there. So are the long, deep harbor, its glinting waters cradled in high, steep banks, and adjacent Rockport Marine Park, which buzzes spring through fall with picnickers, sunbathers, paddlers, sailors, and anglers.
In a normal year, without a pandemic, people from all over town would congregate there on the second Saturday in December to sip hot toddies around bonfires, welcome Santa when he arrives by lobsterboat, and ooh and aah at fireworks bursting over the water. This year, Holiday on the Harbor organizers are working on a modified celebration, harbormaster Abbie Leonard says, something that will allow spectators to spread out and still enjoy the festivities. After that, the end-of-year routine will proceed as usual, with Leonard and the public works crew pulling out the last of the floats. If it gets cold enough, the harbor will freeze over, and no boats will sail in or out until spring.
Foot traffic takes a hit in the village when the deep winter sets in. “The fluctuation is very dramatic,” says chef Sara Jenkins, who moved from New York in 2016 to open Nina June, her Mediterranean-style restaurant. In pre-pandemic winters, diners filled Nina June and its neighbor, 18 Central Oyster Bar & Grill, on winter weekend nights, but during the day, a driver passing through the tiny downtown might mistake it for deserted. Just ask Leni Gronros, who last year took to posting corny riddles and puns on a sidewalk sign outside Graffam Bros. Seafood Market, which he runs with his wife, Kimberlee Graffam, in an effort to turn some heads. (A sample: “What do you call a deer with no eyes? Noeyedeah.”)
“It’s a white building in a white season,” says Gronros, who changes the sign daily. “I was trying to get some attention.”
Not all is quiet in the village, though. Winter is the busy season at Rockport Marine, a rambling, red-clapboard boat shop at the head of the harbor, where carpenters, electricians, fabricators, machinists, painters, and riggers — about 50 people in all — are building, repairing, painting, and varnishing classic and modern wooden boats for the summer ahead. When Luke Allen founded Rockport Marine as a boat storage and repair facility, in 1962, the mostly commercial harbor wasn’t hosting anywhere near the 300 boats it does today. To make ends meet, he and his wife, Norma, opened a restaurant called the Sail Loft, which became the main attraction. By the early 1980s, when their son, Taylor Allen, took the reins, the scene had changed. Pleasure boats filled in the harbor, and the demand for wooden boats was on the rise. Taylor transitioned the business to custom boat building and restoration of antique vessels, work that has made Rockport Marine world famous. The town of Rockport, which still designates a section of the harbor for commercial fishing, has been supportive of Rockport Marine’s many expansions, Taylor Allen says. Along with the 14 full-time lobstermen who moor in the harbor, the boatyard is keeping the town’s working waterfront alive.
All around the village are 19th-century vestiges of an industrial past. In Marine Park, the town preserves seven fieldstone kilns once used for processing lime, which was then shipped to ports along the East Coast. Pascal Avenue, above the park and harbor, is named for John Pascal, a master shipbuilder at Carleton, Norwood & Co, which launched 62 wooden vessels here between 1844 and 1892. Many of the village’s structures reflect that affluent period too, including the 1891 Romanesque Revival Shepherd Block and the 1856 mansard-roofed Union Hall, both rehabilitated by Leucadia and included in the Rockport Historic District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Rockport’s decline as a commercial port was triggered by early–20th-century advances in lime manufacturing that rendered its kilns obsolete, as well as competition from Rockland’s bigger harbor. Then, in 1948, Route 1 was rerouted away from the village — a boon for commercial development along that corridor but not for downtown.
At the same time, though, rusticators and tourists were discovering Rockport’s beauty. Among them was philanthropist Mary Louise Curtis Bok, the founder of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. In the 1930s, she bought several Rockport houses and invited musicians from all over the world to teach and give concerts, and many kept coming after the summer music colony ceased in 1945. Next came the painters who formed the Maine Coast Artists cooperative, which eventually evolved into the Center for Maine Contemporary Art. After that came Bay Chamber Concerts, a music festival founded by the teenaged grandsons of a Curtis summer colony musician. In 1973, photographer David Lyman founded Maine Photographic Workshops, then operating out of Union Hall. In the summer, Rockport pulsed with the energy of a college town as shutterbugs swarmed the village, training their lenses on cultural peculiarities like the Corner Shop, a breakfast joint where tradespeople rubbed shoulders with business executives, and Andre the Seal, who jumped through a hoop held by his trainer, Harry Goodridge, in a floating performance pen on the harbor.
Just off the beaten path, Rockport Village acquired a mystique as a coastal hamlet largely unaffected by souvenir-shop tourism, at once cultured and down-to-earth.
That character crystalized into a guiding vision for revitalization when Leucadia arrived on the scene in the early 2000s, with plans (ultimately abandoned) to develop residential subdivisions at Rockport’s Brewster Point and on the island of Islesboro. At the time, every storefront on downtown’s Central and Main streets was empty: The Corner Shop had closed after several changes of hands. The Sail Loft was a casualty of Rockport Marine’s expansion. Bay Chamber Concerts, though still using Rockport Opera House as its principal venue, had relocated its offices to Camden. The Shepherd Block had been damaged by a fire. Union Hall’s rear wall was on the verge of collapse. And Camden National Bank had foreclosed on the $3.9 million in loans that was propping up Maine Photographic Workshops, then operating out of a 10-acre campus on a quiet side street.
Seizing on Leucadia’s reputation for unconventional investments, a group of nonprofit and business leaders presented a case for downtown to the company’s CEO, Ian Cumming, at a dinner arranged by Cumming’s Harvard Business School pal, summer resident Matthew Simmons. Simmons died in 2010 and Cumming in 2018, but Peter Ralston, who was at the meeting, recalls Cumming asking, “So what is it you guys really want here?”
“We told him we don’t want to change drastically,” Ralston says. “We don’t want to become Bar Harbor, Boothbay, or Camden. We want to be exactly who we are and be better at it.”
Rick Bates, Rockport’s former town manager, worked with the company as it pursued the concept of an arts-and-culture–oriented downtown, with galleries, performance venues, restaurants, and shops. “The beauty of Rockport is that when you get here, you feel you’ve discovered this place that only you know about,” Bates says. “The challenge is to develop it in a way that everybody who comes here believes it’s their own little secret. Leucadia understood that.”
Taking note of Rockport’s distinction as a destination for experiential learning, the company wooed back Bay Chamber Concerts by fitting up the Shepherd building with soundproof rehearsal spaces for a long-envisioned community music school. It rescued Union Hall, sprucing up its second-floor event space. It recruited two restaurants, one for each building, and took over the financial liabilities of Maine Photographic Workshops, which then relaunched as the nonprofit Maine Media Workshops + College.
Like most of her neighbors at the time, Kimberlee Graffam, who co-owns the seafood market, applauded Leucadia’s efforts. Her Rockport roots stretch back to the 1700s — her grandfather once harvested pond ice for the schooner fleet — and she grew up in a house next to the Shepherd building, which her family owned for decades. Even when Leucadia razed her childhood home, she embraced the change. “I loved what Leucadia did with the Shepherd Block,” she says. “I loved seeing the activity return. We want this community to be viable year-round.”
The investment firm’s impact was profound, although its presence was short lived. Acquired by another company, Leucadia sold all of its Maine holdings in 2016. “They left a great legacy,” Bates says. “They invested a huge amount of money for little return because they loved this place and were committed to it. They stabilized institutions, and the commerce that exists in the village today is in large part thanks to them.”
The original Rockport Public Library was a one-story white-clapboarded building that receded shyly into the trees. The new two-story brick library takes full command of its position at the top of Central Street. With an illuminated clock on its gabled entrance, it broadcasts community pride all the way down to the boats in the harbor.
The building is the result of copious community input, says Joan Welsh, president of the Rockport Library Foundation, which was charged with raising private donations to cover nearly two-thirds of the construction costs. After Rockporters learned in 2014 that their library was running out of space, they spent years debating and voting on where to build it, how big it should be, what it should look like, and how much it should cost. Opinions split over proposals (both narrowly rejected in two separate votes) for a new location and a $4 million contemporary design.
Even now, not everyone is happy with the new building — a more traditional design that cost $3.5 million, built on the site of the original — but Welsh and her team nonetheless collected hundreds of donations, ranging from $10 to several thousand dollars, ensuring the town kept a promise that taxpayers’ contribution to the library wouldn’t exceed $1.5 million.
“Change is the one thing that brings dissonance,” says Welsh, who has lived in the village for 29 years. “The library and the hotel are pretty big changes.” So long as it got built, she never felt strongly about the library’s location. A small hotel, however, she thinks would make a nice addition to downtown — just don’t ask her to weigh in on the details. “I’m not getting involved in what that looks like,” she says.
Others are. Last winter, the Rockport Harbor Hotel seemed on its way to becoming a reality. Its developers, Stuart and Marianne Smith, of Camden, had all but been invited to build it. The owners of three Camden hotels, a Rockport sporting-goods store, and several other commercial properties, they were among a handful of developers who then-town manager Bates alerted when Leucadia’s properties went on the market. After the Smiths bought a string of buildings and vacant lots on the east side of Central Street, voters amended the town’s land-use ordinance to allow up to 40 hotel guest rooms in the downtown zone. Last winter, Stuart and his son, Tyler, presented the planning board with a plan for a hotel containing a ground-floor restaurant and fourth-floor lounge. They addressed concerns about parking by reducing the proposed number of guest rooms from 35 to 26 and devising a plan for valet parking on a Route 1 property three-quarters of a mile away. After hearing arguments for and against, the board gave a thumbs-up.
Then, opponents began collecting signatures to force a town-meeting vote on two ordinance amendments, one limiting hotels to just 20 guest rooms (while maintaining the overall cap of 40 rooms in the village), the other requiring a traffic study. In August, voters at the town meeting approved the amendments.
Clare Tully, the downtown resident who led the petition drive, says she and others have several concerns, but nearly all relate to the proposed building’s size. Stretching across a vacant lot between the Shepherd Block and the adjoined Union Hall and Martin buildings, the hotel would be bigger than any of the three. “It completely overwhelms those historic structures,” Tully says, adding that although there was once a building on the lot, it hadn’t filled the lot completely, blocking out the view of the harbor. Tully, a lawyer, believes the building is at odds with guidance in Rockport’s comprehensive plan on preserving scenic views and building harmoniously in historic settings.
“We’re not opposed to a hotel, by any means,” Tully says. “It will make downtown livelier and add to the tax base, but there’s got to be a practical way to build a hotel that’s profitable and still respects those historic buildings and allows access to the view. We would love to see a compromise.”
Stuart Smith says he purchased the properties after hearing that another developer was eyeing them for condominiums. He believes a hotel, with its steady stream of new visitors, will give Rockport’s restaurants and shops a bigger, longer-lasting boost. He’s sometimes asked why his family’s company needs to own yet another hotel. “The answer is, we don’t,” Smith says. “We want good things to happen in the community. All of our businesses stay open year-round to keep people employed.”
As town officials weigh the legality of the retroactive hotel ordinances, they’re pushing ahead with other matters, such as whether to restrict short-term house rentals, which some people say are sapping Rockport Village of its sense of community, and how to develop a site once eyed for the library, a large vacant lot since the elementary school changed locations a decade ago. The only thing certain about either issue: there will be debate.
Every town should be so lucky, Welsh suggests, to have such vocal stakeholders. “They all want the best,” she says. “People disagree about the way it should be because they love it here.”