Living in a Private House With a Public Meaning

There are many ways to identify the Federalist house we recently bought in Kennebunkport, Maine.

It’s the bright yellow one across from the public library.

It’s the “Simon Nowell” house or the “Captain Simon Nowell-Luques” house.

It’s Luques Tavern.

And finally, it’s the house with the murals.

Let’s start with the plaque near the front door that reads “Simon Nowell,” the house’s first owner, a brigadier general in the War of 1812 and a shipowner who ran the house as a tavern and stagecoach stop.

A two-volume history of Kennebunkport written by Joyce Butler in 2013 labeled the house on a map as the “Captain Simon Nowell-Luques house,” linking the first owner with the family that would own the house the longest.

And it was the last inhabitant from the Luques family, Judge Herbert L. Luques, who had the murals painted on every wall of the dining room in 1925 by the impressionist artist Louis D. Norton.

I was struck by the unique murals when we first saw the house with our real estate agent, but it wasn’t until we had settled in as new owners that I realized how they connected us, and the house, to history.

Norton’s depiction of the Battle of Cape Porpoise. Credit…Greta Rybus for The New York Times

Being from New Jersey, I have seen my share of murals in pizza restaurants, and let me assure you that these are of a different sort. They are painted with a delicate touch, with greens, blues, greys and yellows that softly depict the story of the house and town.

One wall shows the Revolutionary War Battle of Cape Porpoise, a ragtag group of fishermen taking aim at a British brig in the distance. Another depicts a scene at the town’s wharf in the mid-1800s, a tribute to the town’s prosperous shipbuilding and seafaring heyday. An old sailor sits on a crate showing a model boat to young children, their mother with a parasol looking on. A lighthouse, ship at a lock, and the old schoolhouse fill smaller spaces.

The yellow house as it might have looked when the original owner ran it as a stagecoach stop. Credit…Greta Rybus for The New York Times

But the prized location is above the fireplace, where Mr. Norton painted the yellow house itself and the arrival of the Boston-Portland stagecoach. It’s a romantic scene full of the joy of arrival — women with bonnets, men in long coats and top hats, and the sun shining through the gentle shade of elm trees.

Some nights I sit in the dining room alone, the lights dimmed just a bit. I’d like to say I study the details of each mural, but I don’t. It’s the totality of the room and its very existence that give the space a voice, one you feel more than hear. The house is not haunted, as some historic homes are said to be, but the vibration of that voice is alive. I have looked for clues to understand what it is saying.

The clearest meaning is that this house is a private residence with a public significance. The murals are of and for the people of this town. I am reminded of this when I look outside at the crew of workers renovating a house across the street and spy a man with a chinstrap beard, a modern-day doppelgänger for the one Mr. Norton painted in the scene at the wharf.

But there’s also an educational aspect to each of the paintings. What to do with these visual lessons? Some owners have opened the room up for visitors and tours, while one left the lights on at night so people could peer inside. Another, I am told, covered the murals with wallpaper. A subsequent owner meticulously restored the paintings with the advice of a curator at the Maine Historical Society.

Sharon Cummins, who helps homeowners learn the history of their homes in Kennebunkport through her work with the Kennebunkport Historical Society, told me in an email that there is a “Luques Tavern” anecdote to help illustrate virtually any aspect of the village’s history, from the rum trade to its artists. The murals, in my mind, are the bridge that joins each century, painted roughly 100 years after the house was built and 100 years ago from today.

 The artist used every inch of the wall for his work, including this small panel. The coastal scene continues on the other side of the fireplace.Credit…Greta Rybus for The New York Times

Earle G. Shettleworth Jr., the Maine state historian, said murals such as the ones in my house were popular in New England during the colonial revival period, which runs from about 1890 to 1950. There was a nostalgia for a vanished past and a sense of wanting to reclaim and identify with it.

The murals’ theme also speaks to a self-conscious identity of Kennebunkport, or an awareness of how the outside world looks at the town, according to Richard D’Abate, former director of the Maine Historical Society.

Kennebunkport is portrayed in these scenes as having a connection to the Revolutionary War, prosperity, and ultimately a “kind of idyllic, quasi-aristocratic, American-style gentility.” That identity is represented most famously by the town’s association with George H.W. Bush, whose compound on a stretch of land known as Walker’s Point gained the world’s attention during his time as President.

The murals offer a curated version of a history and identity. There is, for example, no representation of the Native Americans who called the land their home for thousands of years and gave the town its name. And the impulse to claim one’s colonial roots in the 1920s may have been a reaction to the rapid changes in immigration, economics and transportation happening at the time.

That said, the oral history behind the murals speaks to vulnerability and friendship. The story goes that Mr. Norton became addicted to absinthe while studying arka in Paris. He settled in Kennebunkport at the behest of his mother, who hoped village life would help him overcome his addiction. Aware of the artist’s talent and his condition, Judge Luques challenged him to stay sober and complete the murals. He did, finishing them in three weeks for a fee of $400.

I think it is this story, more than the ones depicted on the four walls, that resonates in the room the most. The civic-minded judge, the afflicted but talented artist, the house itself, built before Maine was even a state, a witness to its successive owners’ good fortunes and bad.

I have thought about how to share the murals when the pandemic is over. Mr. Shettleworth said that sometimes murals are moved outside of a house, but I think in this case that would be like cutting a flower from its stem. Context is a vital part of the story.

Stand for a moment where Louis D. Norton signed and dated his work. The wide-planked floor is sunken there, like the side gutter of a bowling lane, a reminder of the century of footsteps that preceded that signature. There is a profound atmosphere of continuity in the room, a desire to remember and be remembered.

And now, as owners of this historic house with paintings of history, we have our own context, coming to it during a pandemic.

I am only a caretaker. The house and its murals will outlast us all. Living in a private residence with a public meaning is a daily reminder of how much we are connected to the past and to the future we have yet to see.

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