Written By: Laurie Schreiber
In Bar Harbor, a Gilded Age mansion dating back to 1881, now a bed-and-breakfast, attracted a local hotelier who added the property to his growing portfolio.
Stephen Coston bought the Cleftstone Manor Inn at 92 Eden St. from Anne and Bob Bahr for $3.2 million.
Erica Brooks of the Swan Agency handled the transaction.
“I think it’s an outstanding building in terms of its appearance, its layout, the details and the history that comes along with it,” said Coston.
Cleftstone, within walking distance of Bar Harbor’s downtown, was built as a private mansion in 1881. Features include high ceilings, heavy timbers, deep windows, ornate moldings and period furnishings. There’s a porch, a library with high-speed internet, a computer, books and games and an outdoor pool.
The construction came about when Charles T. How, a Boston attorney and the first real estate developer of Bar Harbor, purchased 100 acres for $1,500 in 1872, according to the inn’s website.
The Cleftstone was built a few years later and the rest of the land was divided into lots, named Woodbury Park. Other mansions, which were called summer "cottages," were built in the neighborhood.
“The streets buzzed with the activity of delivery wagons bringing groceries. Servants, tradesmen and laborers went about their daily business. The carriages of the privileged young men and women who summered here and their notable parents passed by,” the website says. “This was the hey day of Bar Harbor, then named Eden.”
Cleftstone Cottage, as it was called then, was designed by architect Bruce Price. The name comes from a large cleft in the granite about 50 feet from the main entrance.
The original cottage was two structures — a main house with six bedrooms and one bath, and a smaller building for the staff.
“A history of hospitality was established early on,” the website says. “The Hows used Cleftstone as a seasonal rental home. The Mount Desert Herald’s social column is a testament to the popularity of Cleftstone, and the cream of Bar Harbor society attended balls, dinner parties, and afternoon teas at the cottage.”
Prominent renters included Joseph Pulitzer, the New York publisher and originator of the Pulitzer Prize.
“Pulitzer spent several summers at Cleftstone, where he would have a servant read to him every night,” the website says.
The building still contains Pulitzer’s dining room table, 12 feet long and made of tiger oak.
The property passed to subsequent owners.
Clefstone escaped a devastating fire in 1947 that burned down much of Bar Harbor. According to legend, “students from the seminary across the street kept hosing down the grass around the building,” the website says.
After the fire, Cleftstone was converted into a hotel. In the 1980s, it was restored and refurnished with antiques and period pieces.
The Bahrs, who own other inns in Bar Harbor, bought the Cleftstone in 2003.
A year in the making
Brooks said the deal was over a year in the making.
“It was not technically listed for sale, but I have a close relationship with the Bahrs and have represented them in several other sales over the years,” she said.
Brooks also worked with Coston on his purchase of Bar Harbor Manor on Holland Avenue and knew he was in buying mode.
“Stephen asked me to keep him informed if the Bahrs decided to sell,” she said. “I was able to slowly introduce that concept over time and put the deal together fall of 2022.”
The Bahrs also own the Elmhurst Inn, Anne’s White Columns, Thornhedge Inn and the Stratford, all in Bar Harbor.
The condition of the Cleftstone “was really incredible for a Gilded Age 1800s mansion,” Brooks continued. “The Bahrs are very thoughtful and savvy when it comes to historic preservation and period furniture, decor and antiques.”
The Pulitzer table remains in pristine condition despite being the breakfast table for guests.
“The Bahrs’ attention to detail and investment in their guests' experience was evident as they had strong financials,” Brooks said. “Another key feature was the expansive owners quarters onsite that allowed for space, privacy and a respite from the business. Not many historic inns offer such spacious owners quarters.”
Cleftsone has 17 rooms plus a three-room owners quarters.
Brooks said it’s not uncommon for buyers and sellers to reach out directly to the Swan Agency in the commercial and hospitality space with the goal of putting together a deal before a property is listed formally.
“That has to be one of my favorite parts of brokerage, putting people together and matching like-minded needs and wants,” she said.
Brooks added, “The lodging market has seen incredible growth and changeover in the last few years and locally in Bar Harbor many of those sales are local buyers.”
Because of strong growth in the segment over the last five years locally and statewide, the agency is seeing increasing numbers of outside investors looking to get into the market, she said. However, she continued, properties like the Cleftstone are often not as attractive to larger hospitality outfits because they are looking for more rooms or the ability to build out more rooms.
“This gives the local investor a great opportunity to get into the market and be an owner-operator,” she said. “As one of my lodging clients said during the sale of his motel in 2021, ‘Bar Harbor is recession proof and apparently pandemic proof.’”
Coston owns or co-owns a number of other hotels in Bar Harbor. With his parents, he co-owns Inn on Mount Desert. He owns the Primrose Inn, Sand Bar Cottage and Hearthside Inn. Coston and Brian Shaw, a general contractor and owner of Brian D. Shaw Inc. in Bar Harbor, co-own Anchorage Motel, Little Fig Hotel, Bar Harbor Manor and Main Street Motel.
Of the Cleftstone, Coston said, “It’s just a really neat place.”
Coston said that fundamentally the property won’t change much, but there will be extensive updates.
“I’ve already figured out most of what will be done as far as paint, wallpaper, furnishings and the like,” he said.
The work began shortly after the purchase.
And he’s started on his favorite part of these projects – collecting artwork and the like to really put the property “over the top.”
“A few months ago, I purchased two lots, including the most amazing end table I’ve ever seen, from the Ann & Gordon Getty Collection,” he said. “That table, along with whatever else I collect between now and this summer, will find a new home at Cleftstone.
“We’ll also start looking at landscaping and what improvements we might be able to make in that regard, and we’ve got all sorts of other ideas about various things we could potentially do, offer, etc.”
Coston financed the acquisition through the local branch of First National Bank.
The properties tie in with his optimism about Bar Harbor as a desirable destination, he said.
“Last year was a good season, and I expect this year will be a good season as well,” he said. “People really love it here — I’ve never seen people react to a place in such an overwhelmingly positive way as the way they react to Bar Harbor.”
Coston and his business partners are also building a 45-room hotel on Cottage Street in Bar Harbor.
“Right now they’re still doing site work, and concrete will begin soon,” he said. “We had to do a little blasting, so that slowed it down a bit, but we’re looking to open in 2023.”
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