Sometimes an adventure can take place in your hometown.
I passed the house with the iron fence at least once a day, from early childhood until I left for college. It was on the main drag that led in and out of town. From the backseat of my parents’ car and later driving myself, I’d set my sights on the crumbling Italianate mansion the moment it came into view, craning my neck to take in every detail until it passed. I daydreamed about what was inside, how it would have looked when it was built, and if it could be saved from decay.
Readfield, Maine—population 2,500—is 12 miles northwest of Augusta. It’s hilly and wooded, set on a large lake. It’s also community-focused and eclectic, home to both lifelong Mainers and transplants from away. Residents are hard-working and down-to-earth, and showy displays of wealth generally aren’t well received.
Asa Gile must have missed the memo.
A successful lawyer and businessman, Gile built his mansion on Main Street in 1867 with every intention of being ostentatious. It was a classic case of keeping up with the Joneses. Gile was competitive with another wealthy local who was building a house at the same time, and the two men tried to outdo each other at every turn.
By the late 1800s, Readfield and its Lake Maranacook had become a summer tourism destination via the Maine Central Railroad. Visitors from Boston, New York and Philadelphia pumped money into the local economy. The town rose to meet these new expectations, providing recreational activities and building fancier inns and public spaces, according to Dale Potter-Clark, a Readfield historian and co-author of The Founders and Evolution of Summer Resorts and Kids’ Camps on Four Lakes in Central Maine.
The interior of Union Meeting House, for example, was renovated to meet the era’s “modern” aesthetics. That included paintings by Portland artist Charles J. Schumacher, famous for his trompe l’oeil paintings throughout the state, which mislead the viewer into thinking the walls and ceiling are three-dimensional. The Union Meeting House holds his last known existing work and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. “The architectural and artistic features of this building are largely unrivaled in any rural Maine building,” says Union Meeting House treasurer John Perry.
I never set foot in the meetinghouse when I lived in Readfield, and my parents, who moved there in 1977, knew little about the town’s history as a posh summering destination. Perhaps when the Great Depression ended the tourism boom, the locals simply got back to the business of being hearty Mainers. Most of the large lakefront properties changed hands, burned down or fell into disrepair, slowly removing themselves from the town’s identity in the process.
Yet somehow the Asa Gile Mansion survived and remained a single-family home, always by the skin of its teeth. Gile died in 1888, deeply in debt, bankrupted by the house he was known for. The foreclosed property sold for $1,550 at auction (adjusted for inflation, $41,250 in 2015)—less than 8 percent of the original construction cost, according to Potter-Clark’s research.
In my childhood, the owners were Kenneth and Eva Tibbetts. They bought the house in 1964 and raised five children there. They moved to North Carolina in the late 70s, right around the time I started eyeing it from the backseat of my parents’ car, and left the house unoccupied. The rumor was that Kenneth Tibbetts told the town he’d let the place rot to the ground before selling. Another story had him asking such an outrageous sale price, no one could possibly afford it. Over the years, would-be buyers made offers with the intention of turning the home into a business, specifically a nursing home. When I was in high school, there was talk that the town was going to condemn the building. The thought that the wrecking ball cometh was devastating to me. The house had stood for so long, waited so patiently for salvation. Where was the justice for this monument to our town’s past?
Then, during my junior year in high school, the house changed hands. In the spring of 1996, the new owners, Carol and Doug Doorenbos, held an open house and clean-up day for community members. I was supposed to go to a party on the lake that day, but I skipped it to see the house. I’d waited 17 years to walk through those doors. The only thing that had kept me from sneaking in was my assumption I would fall through the floor.
I was astonished by the condition of the house. Not only was there a floor—in the front part of the house, at least—but so much character had survived. There were 10-foot ceilings, ornate crown moldings and ceiling medallions, five Italian marble fireplaces, a turned mahogany staircase that led all the way up to a cupola, beautiful etched glass and fancy trimwork, huge rooms and, of course, that wrought iron fence. It exceeded my expectations. I didn’t speak to the new owners, except to say, “Thank you for making my dreams come true.”
The house not only stayed with me into adulthood, it continued to grow in my imagination. When I write fiction, the Gile Mansion is a house I often imagine my characters occupying. Maybe I dream of that myself; my criteria when I started looking for a home of my own included the pronouncement that I would look at no house unless it was at least a hundred years old. I no longer have family in Readfield, but over the years if chance took me through town, I’d detour to drive by the Gile House. My curiosity about the property never abated. This spring, I set out on a road trip to meet the Doorenbos and find out more about the house. Sometimes an adventure can take place in your hometown.
The first time Carol and Doug Doorenbos saw the Gile mansion was in the early 1990s, when it had been abandoned for almost 20 years. The couple had moved to Maine from Iowa and were living in Auburn. Doug was working at Otis Specialty Papers in Livermore Falls and Carol had a job as a pharmacist. They had a thing for old houses, having restored a house in Cedar Rapids. Doug casually mentioned their love for old homes to a coworker, who replied, “You’ve gotta see this old place in Readfield.”
The Doorenbos drove out to see the house and despite its decrepit exterior, they were instantly enamored. Doug went to the town hall to inquire about contacting the owner. “The clerk basically said, ‘good luck’,” Carol recalls. “The owner wanted to be left alone.”
They left, disappointed. Then, in 1993, they saw an image of the mansion in all its spooky glory in Down East magazine. The photographer was Brian Vanden Brink, an architectural photographer who moved to Maine from Nebraska in 1978. He and his wife Kathleen settled in Camden and Vanden Brink began driving the Maine countryside. While traveling west on Route 17 he saw the Gile Mansion and immediately pulled over. “It was lit quite nicely when I came upon it, and I loved the patina of neglect that it had at the time,” Vanden Brink says. “It was a fine piece of historic architecture and a good example of Italianate style. I had to shoot it.”
His photo renewed the Doorenbos’ interest. They decided to take their pursuit to the next level. “We got personal,” Carol says. They wrote a long letter detailing their intention to restore the home and raise a family there. Initially Kenneth Tibbetts didn’t respond. When a big storm compromised part of the roof, the Doorenbos reached out again. “The roof was peeled back like a tuna can,” Doug says. “It was a now-or-never situation.” Finally, Tibbetts agreed to show them the interior. “We had no idea what we would see,” Carol says.
The property was in bad shape. In addition to the leaking roof, floor joists were rotten, one of the chimneys had fallen and the foundation had collapsed in the carriage house. Ceiling plaster had come down, light fixtures had been stolen, the wiring was ancient and half the house had never had heat. There was no running water. “A hose came in from a natural spring way at the back of the property,” Carol remembers, “and it no longer worked.” Somehow the Doorenbos saw past all that. “We saw the potential,” Carol says. “We thought, ‘someone has to do something before it’s too late.’”
They asked Tibbetts how much he wanted and if they could do an inspection. “He said, ‘I’m selling it as is’,” Carol says. He was asking just $60,000. The Doorenbos had a lawyer write up a long contract, which Tibbetts rejected. He wanted a bare bones purchase and sale agreement. The final document was a single page. A few months after selling, Tibbetts passed away. “We think he may have been clearing up his affairs,” Carol speculates. “He and his wife were very sad and nostalgic when they showed us the house. They had a lot of special memories here.” Hearing this, I finally understood why Tibbetts wanted to be left alone. He didn’t want to sell the house, not because he wanted it to rot, but because he wasn’t ready to let it go.
When I pulled up the dirt driveway in early spring, it was like passing an invisible boundary that has existed my entire life. I could stare at the house from the street for as long as I liked, but stepping onto the property, stepping through the door, required permission.
The back porch light was on, inviting me in.
The Doorenbos, both 34 when they bought the mansion, threw themselves aggressively into renovations, hiring professionals to tackle the most pressing structural issues that first year. The second summer, Carol and Doug occupied one small room in the back, borrowing a neighbor’s bathroom and cooking in a tiny oven. It was over a year before they had working toilets. “I remember the day Doug called me at work and said, ‘I just flushed a toilet!’” she laughs. When Doug was downsized from his job, he decided to stay home and operate as head contractor. He built a workshop in the basement and took on much of the renovation work himself, meticulously fixing or recreating every detail. “We would truly stink at turning houses for profit,” Carol says. “We tend to over-improve.”
This statement is proven again and again. Everything that could be saved has been saved, regardless of the room’s relative importance to the house. Off the back hall there is a laundry room where Doug salvaged and patchworked the original beadboard walls. He shows me that behind the door, the wall is flat sheetrock. “No one looks back there,” he says sheepishly, as though someone might call the room incomplete.
The Doorenbos had considered turning the house into a bed and breakfast. But in 2004, they adopted two 2-year-old girls from Russia. “Life got busy… and noisy,” Carol says. Since then, Carol has survived cancer twice, and four years ago, an ill parent prompted an extended move back to her hometown in Indiana. During their time away, some of finished work suffered, like the exterior paint job. A tree came down on a section of the ornate fence and another piece of it—each section costs between $5,000 and $10,000 to fix and there are 29 sections—was hit by a car. Their total investment in the Gile Mansion, Carol says, “will never be tallied, because we really don’t want to know.”
Vanden Brink’s photo, the one that motivated the Doorenbos to pursue the house, was included in his 2009 book Ruin: Photographs of a Vanishing America, a collection of the abandoned buildings he found while on assignment. “I see these houses as a metaphor for our own mortality,” he says. “A statement to our inability to stop time. The common denominator is, everything comes to the end.” Does he find that depressing? Not at all. “It seems foolish to live a life that’s not reflective of the end,” he says. “What matters is the effort we make while we’re here.”
The Doorenbos have definitely made an effort. Standing inside the Gile Mansion for the second time in my life, I realize how this project has truly been a labor of love for them. At the kitchen island, Carol and Doug bring out a stuffed file folder, overflowing with photographs, research and articles about the house, even a history paper written by one of their daughters. They’ve gone to trade shows and conventions all over the country to hone their renovation skills, and the craftspeople they’ve sought out to assist them are the very best at what they do, equally committed to accurate restoration. The second floor of the barn is packed with old doors and frames and bits of trim and woodwork, because, Doug says, “I try to reuse everything original before creating something new.”
Asked if they are still as passionate about saving the Gile Mansion as they were 20 years, Carol considers. “He still has the passion,” she says of Doug. “I prefer to enjoy my weekends a bit more or putter on the landscaping. In a couple of years, my girls will be heading off to college, so I want to cherish this time while it lasts.”
I leave the house with the iron fence with every intention of driving straight back to Portland, but instead of turning left on Main Street, I turn right and drive past my childhood home, which looks a little neglected. The perennial beds my mother planted are overgrown. Then I pass an abandoned farmstead I knew well in my youth and turn around to pull into the driveway. The wood on the barn is gray and weathered, and the once-trim fields wave their tall yellow grasses. There’s an old wagon wheel, a worn ladder, a rusted wheelbarrow. Vestiges of passed time. I wonder, as I stare at the house, ‘Will someone save you, too?’
Leaving town, I slow as I pass the mansion. Somehow it is exactly as I remember it from my childhood, the way Vanden Brink captured it in his photograph. In reality, of course, it is closer to how it would have looked in 1867 when Asa Gile built it. I am very glad to see it this way, but I also don’t want to let go of the ruin it was 30 years ago, when everything inside was built by my imagination.
The Doorenbos plan to finish the house, or at least the eight bedrooms and five baths, before their extended family visits for their daughters’ graduation in two years. When Carol tells me this, it strikes me that this goal isn’t about perfect plaster ceiling medallions or historically accurate door knobs. It is about family. The house that has held my imagination for decades is what it was always meant to be—a home. A place to gather, to share, to care for and love.
And for another generation to admire and wonder about from afar.
Sarah Holman is a writer living in Portland. She is enthusiastic about cheese plates, thrift shop treasures and old houses in need of saving. Find her online at storiesandsidebars.com.