The front driveway is blocked off, but the row of stately pine trees evokes the chauffeured cars of the rich and famous that once passed under those boughs.
In the tack room in the stables, signs are still nailed to the wall bearing the names of the horses whose saddles hung in each spot.
The tarnish on mirrored walls and the peeling edges of Chinoiserie wallpaper inside the main house take only a little shine off the Depression-era elegance and the view of Long Pond that complemented the diet and beauty treatments at Elizabeth Arden’s Maine Chance Spa.
This piece of history, that sprawls across the Rome-Mount Vernon border and was central to both the economy of the Belgrade lakes region and the development of the beauty industry, is for sale.
Stefan Tufano’s parents bought the property 41 years ago, a few years after the spa closed in 1970. They used it as a summer home and then moved in full time in the 1990s. Tufano moved in to care for them near the end of their lives, and now he’s ready to return to New York.
“It’s beautiful here, but as you can see, it’s a lot to maintain,” Tufano said, gesturing to the expansive back lawn. “For me, I’m by myself, and it’s just time to move on.”
Tufano owns 17 acres, on which sit the main house, the stables, the groundskeeper’s quarters and the chauffeur’s quarters, which are all in Rome. Part of the front lawn and a lakefront parcel across Castle Island Road, which is also included in the listing price of $765,000, are in Mount Vernon.
Tufano said it takes him five hours to mow the lawn, just one part of a grounds maintenance process that takes most of a week and then starts over again.
It took at least six gardeners to keep up the grounds of the Maine Chance Spa, including window boxes and large flower beds that covered much of the front lawn. The spa, which operated from 1934 to 1970, once consisted of 1,200 acres. There were several outbuildings, including guest cabins, treatment rooms, exercise rooms, staff quarters and greenhouses.
Arden, the Canadian beauty magnate, built the main house as her own summer home in the 1920s before deciding to establish the spa, where most clients came to lose weight. In addition to exercise and a spare diet, the Maine Chance Spa offered waxing, steam baths, facials and mud packs.
Guests who are said to have stayed there include first lady Mamie Eisenhower, writer Edna Ferber and actresses Judy Garland, Lillian Gish and Ava Gardner.
“It was the first destination beauty spa in the country,” said Lisa Walker, a University of Southern Maine English professor who’s conducting interviews with people who worked at Maine Chance as chauffeurs, maids, laundresses and farming staff.
Arden brought in some employees, such as chefs, from overseas, while hiring others locally. Some worked at the Mount Vernon spa when it was open during the summer and then went to another spa outside Phoenix, also called Maine Chance, in the winters.
Walker came to her interest in the spa in a roundabout way. She was doing research on the writer Fannie Hurst, whose book “Imitation of Life” includes a character who is a cosmetics entrepreneur. Seeking confirmation that the character was based on Arden, Walker began researching her life and came across a section in the biography “War Paint” about the Maine Chance Spa.
The Belgrade lakes region seemed to Walker like a remote unlikely place for Arden to run a spa.
“I decided you know what, I’m only an hour away, I’m just going to drive up there,” she said. “I did, and I was just stunned when I saw the house.”
Walker started looking more into the commercialization of beauty culture in the early 20th century, in which Arden and beauty spas that came after Maine Chance played key roles.
She also wants to document more of what happened at the Mount Vernon spa through oral histories. Since Walker began searching for people who worked there, she has heard from people who still live in the area and also as far away as England or France.
“A lot of people talk about what it was like to have all these rich and famous people coming to this small Maine town,” Walker said. “It’s a place that’s still strong in the memory of a lot of people there.”
Walker is looking for photographs, mementos and documents, and anyone who has something to contribute to the project can call her at 207-780-4311 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
After Arden died in 1966, the Maine Chance Spa and several other properties were sold to pay the estate tax bill. The Tufanos bought their property from a company that divided the land into several smaller parcels. Other buildings are still standing and were converted into private homes or camps.
Stefan Tufano said every once in a while, someone who used to work at the spa stops by to see it. Last summer, for example, a woman brought her mother and her aunt, both of whom worked there and still live in Mount Vernon.
“It’s important to the town, so we’re hoping that somebody buys it and restores it or at least maintains the integrity of the property,” Tufano said.
Tufano thinks the property could be a nice bed and breakfast, a continuation of its history as a picturesque escape and a source of employment.
Susan McMillan — 621-5645