Editor’s note: This story originally was published by the Bangor Daily News on Sept. 29, 2001.
by Susan Young
Standing on the porch of the grand house with sweeping views of the ocean, nearby islands and the mountains of Acadia National Park, Dave Barrett shakes his head at the irony of his work. Normally his company is paid to build houses on islands like Jordan‘s Delight, not to tear them down.
But that’s just what his company is doing on this 27-acre island about three miles off the coast from Milbridge. Barrett and his four-man crew began this week to meticulously deconstruct a 3,000-square-foot house so the island can be returned to the thousands of seabirds that summer there. The windswept island was once believed to be home to the largest nesting colony of black guillemots on the entire East Coast. It is also among the state‘s top nesting spots for storm petrels and eiders.
“This is the opposite end of the spectrum of what we normally do,” Barrett said as men removed gray wooden shingles from the home‘s exterior and pulled wires from the wooden walls inside. “We normally do construction, not deconstruction,” he said.
This is the first house his company has torn down. His company, Sea Truk LLC of Islesboro, was chosen, in part, because it owns giant Vietnam War-era amphibious crafts that can transport heavy equipment to the island and haul away house debris with minimal damage to the landscape.
The story of Jordan’s Delight, a rocky outcropping battered by waves in Narraguagus Bay, began nearly a decade ago when the Maine Coast Heritage Trust first tried to buy it. The preservation group couldn’t secure the federal funding to buy the island and it instead was purchased by a New Jersey man, Jonathan Hoffman.
He built a small “boathouse” on the tip of the island, although it was 80 feet down sheer cliffs to the water. Several years later he began work on the big house, a two-story wooden shingled structure with lots of windows to partake of the views. Hoffman also bought granite to begin construction of a pier at the south end of the island but was unable to move the rock from the mainland.
With the house‘s exterior complete, Hoffman simply left. Some say he ran out of money. Others say the cackling of all the birds drove him away. Those who were on the island shortly after Hoffman left talked of half-full coffee cups and toothbrushes left behind.
Whatever the reason, Hoffman put the house and island on the market for $1.6 million last summer.
Again Maine Coast Heritage Trust was interested but didn’t have enough money to buy it. In stepped a man from Massachusetts who has asked to remain anonymous. His family foundation bought the island and gave all of it except the boathouse and three acres of land around it to the conservation group. The man, who owns a summer home on the Maine coast, plans to keep the small building for his own use.
Maine Coast Heritage Trust decided it would remove the big house and give the island back to the birds. After the house is gone, the group plans to sell its portion of the island to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a bird sanctuary akin to the nearby Petit Manan National Wildlife Refuge.
Many local residents support the deconstruction project.
“The rest of this part of the coast was unblemished – that house sticks out like a sore thumb,” said 84-year-old Mary Rea, owner of the adjacent Trafton Island. “When I was young in the 1930s, a favorite activity was to sail out to see the guillemots nesting on the cliffs.
“Removing that house will be the best thing that has ever happened to that island,” Rea added.
According to local lore, a flock of sheep used to reside on the island before it caught fire in 1940. It burned all summer.
Today the island is covered in tall grass and flowers. Clumps of Norway spruce – not a native species – dot the landscape. Lichen-covered cliffs are covered in white bird droppings and many nesting sites are visible high above the choppy water. The only way to get ashore is to row a skiff up on the one rocky beach and to quickly jump out of the craft ahead of the inevitable next wave.
“You could see why someone would want to come out here,” said Milbridge lobsterman Jack Jellison, who ferries people out to the island for Maine Coast Heritage Trust.
“But I’d not want to live here. Spending four hours here is enough,” he said as he admired the view but also noted how the harsh weather had torn screens out of windows and rotted boards on the boathouse.
He said local residents don’t pay too much attention to what is happening on Jordan‘s Delight.
“Some people say it was a waste of money to put the house up and some say it‘s a waste of money to tear it down,” Jellison said.
Chris Hamilton of Maine Coast Heritage Trust estimated his group will spend $70,000 to have the house removed. Whatever it pays, it will charge the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Originally, the group hoped that someone would move the house intact or that it could be dismantled and donated to a nonprofit agency like Habitat for Humanity. The logistics were too difficult, so a private contractor was hired to remove the house.
Barrett hopes to re-use as much building material as possible. Windows, the labels still affixed, are stacked in a pile. Electrical cable is wound into bundles.
However, because the house was built to withstand harsh island winds, there are myriad nails and staples in the wood. So when crews began taking down walls, they broke into little pieces. Still many of the rafters, beams and studs will be used in other houses.
When the job is done in several weeks, whatever is burnable will be tossed into a big bonfire, Barrett said. His crew will then re-seed the area so plants will grow back and soon hide any evidence of the former house.
Presumably, the birds will be happy.