KENNEBUNKPORT — In August 1991, President George H.W. Bush stood outside of his “Summer White House” to talk to reporters about the recession, hostages in Lebanon and the impact his presidency was having on Kennebunkport. He worried he was a “magnet” that drew demonstrations and increased traffic in the tiny seaside village where he would spend all but one of his summers.

“It really troubles me,” Bush said that day from Walker’s Point. “I hope that I’ll never get to be such a burden that people whom I respect here will say, ‘Hey, listen, it’s better you not come here.’ ”

Twenty-seven years later, Bush’s presence in Kennebunkport remains, even after his death on Nov. 30 at age 94. And with the loss of the nation’s 41st president and Kennebunkport’s most prominent resident, some are left wondering about the future of Bush’s summer home and the town where he had become one of the main tourist attractions.

“We’ve lost this resident – this neighbor and friend – we had for all these years,” said Kirsten Camp, executive administrator of the Kennebunkport Historical Society. “Our town is definitely going to change, but people will continue to come.”

And the Bush family – which now includes Bush’s five living children, 14 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren – will continue to visit the home that has been in the family for more than a century.

Jim McGrath, who was a spokesman for Bush, said Bush made arrangements so “his family will continue enjoying Walker’s Point for many years to come – and that is what they will do.”

During his presidency from 1989 to 1993, Bush fixed the eyes of the world on Kennebunkport. At Walker’s Point he hosted foreign leaders, plotted American military strategy in the Persian Gulf and monitored a Soviet coup. He also brought with him occasional controversy, with groups of angry fishermen and AIDS activists lining the road outside of his estate to protest administration policies.

And it was in Kennebunkport where Bush became known for his active recreation, documented in great detail by the 80-person press pool that followed him to town. He enjoyed frequent golf matches at Cape Arundel Golf Club, took power walks on the beach, and crashed through the surf aboard his cigarette boat, Fidelity, in search of Atlantic bluefish and striped bass. He mingled easily with locals and tourists during outings in Kennebunkport’s Dock Square, picked up fresh juice and newspapers at local shops, and dined out frequently at his favorite restaurants. He and his wife, Barbara, were often on the sidelines during parades and other community celebrations.

In his later years, Bush enjoyed nothing more than sitting on the porch of the home he called his “anchor to windward.”

Visitors to Maine routinely detoured to Kennebunkport, or made it their primary destination, hoping to see a president’s hometown, if not catch a glimpse of the president and first lady themselves.

“The Bushes put Kennebunkport on the map,” said Diane Denk, a Democratic state legislator whose district includes Kennebunkport. “They were a good example of the way life should be.”

‘MAINE IS FOR US LIKE A MAGNET’

The Bush compound at Walker’s Point sits 2 miles south of the town center on a rocky slice of land that juts out into the Atlantic. From Ocean Avenue, which curls along the coast, visitors can peek out at the three-story house where Bush spent most of his summers. Locals have no doubt Bush’s stone-and-shingle house is the most photographed spot in Kennebunkport.

The rocky land at Walker’s Point was slated to become a park before Bush’s maternal grandfather, investment banker Herbert Walker, purchased it in 1902. Walker bought it from the Boston & Kennebunkport Sea Shore Co., a developer that once planned to build a large summer colony in the area, featuring a public park on the point of land. While the developer never completed its plan, the small peninsula had become a popular place for picnics before it was purchased and developed by Bush’s ancestors.

George H.W. Bush became the owner in 1981 when he paid a family member $800,000, matching an offer his family received from Arab investors seeking to build condos there.

“Maine is for us like a magnet,” Bush wrote a friend around the time he bought the house. “We are drawn to it, and I want that to be that way for all our kids, forever.”

Bush became engaged to his future wife, Barbara Pierce, during a moonlit walk on the shores of Kennebunkport days before he shipped out to fight in World War II. The summer of 1944 was the only one during which Bush was unable to visit Walker’s Point. During their summers in Maine, the Bushes walked the beaches, went fishing and swimming, and played tennis with family. The driveway was frequently scattered with children’s toys, even during Bush’s presidency. In the mornings, Bush’s young grandchildren would pile into bed with him and Barbara.

The nearly 9-acre Walker’s Point consists of three different properties and is owned by the Walker’s Point Family Limited Partnership. The combined assessed value is nearly $13.5 million and the annual combined tax bill is more than $119,000, according to town records. Walker’s Point includes the three-story main house and eight other buildings, including space for Bush’s five children. Nearby are a swimming pool, tennis courts and Bush’s horseshoe pit.

Though closed to the public and guarded for many years by the Secret Service, people occasionally got a peek inside Bush’s summer home through family photos and footage of visits by foreign leaders, such as King Hussein of Jordan, French President Francois Mitterrand and Polish President Lech Walesa.

After a 1991 storm ravaged the coast and pummeled Walker’s Point with 30-foot waves, George and Barbara Bush rushed home from the White House to check on the house. The front of the first floor had been ripped open to the sea, revealing the remains of several rooms. Bush, wearing a baseball cap and work gloves, led reporters through the home as he assessed the damage. In the yard littered with overturned furniture and broken glass, Bush found a small framed photo of his father lying in the mud. Despite the destruction, Bush told reporters he wouldn’t move to higher ground.

“It means something to us,” he said of his house. “It’s our family strength.”

‘JUST SO DOWN TO EARTH’

News of Bush’s death broke during the first night of Christmas Prelude, the festival that brings thousands of people to Kennebunkport each winter. Mourners quickly turned the “Anchor to Windward” statue near Walker’s Point into a memorial for the president. Two weeks later, wreaths still hung from the anchor and the plaque commemorating Bush’s connection to the town was covered with flowers, baseballs and American flags.

“Dear Mr. President, Thank you for all you did for our country and for being such a wonderful part of (Kennebunkport),” reads a note placed near the anchor. “You will be missed.”

In town, there are signs of Bush’s legacy everywhere. Dozens of photographs of Bush and his family hang on the wall at H.B. Provisions general store and a banner that reads “Forever in our hearts Mr. President” is strung from a Chamber of Commerce information booth. And “41” is all over the Saxony Imports gift shop in Dock Square: on baseballs and postcards and T-shirts and hats. In the week after Bush died, the store sold out of bobbleheads made in his likeness.

Emilee Swain, who works in the shop, said anything related to “41” has been “selling like hotcakes,” especially the reproduction “Reagan-Bush ’84” campaign T-shirts. She likes to think people will continue to come to Kennebunkport to see Walker’s Point because it is one of the town’s main tourist attractions. They’ll also come, she said, to honor the legacy of a president and first lady known for their philanthropy.

“(The Bushes) were just the nicest people,” said Swain, whose father did contracting work at Walker’s Point. “As famous as they were, they were just so down to earth.”

Camp, of the Kennebunkport Historical Society, said she “absolutely” believes Bush’s connection to Kennebunkport will continue to draw visitors to town. After he was elected president, the number of visitors to the historical society’s First Families Museum in a historic home jumped from around 250 annually to more than 6,000. During visits to Kennebunkport, tourists for many years had a “unique” opportunity to see a living president’s house, she said.

“They may come the first time for President Bush, but they come back because of the town and the way that we are,” Camp said. “I cannot walk down the street in the summer without someone asking where President Bush lives. I can’t imagine that will stop, because the children will still be here.”

‘LOVE THIS PLACE, LOVE THESE PEOPLE’

It’s not clear how much time the family members will spend there, or whether it will become a summer home for any of them, but multiple generations appear to have a strong bond to the town and are often spotted in the area. The Bush grandchildren who grew up spending summers at Walker’s Point speak openly about their love of Kennebunkport.

Jenna Bush Hager, Bush’s granddaughter and daughter of former President George W. Bush, has talked about Kennebunkport during her segments on the “Today” show and frequently documents on social media her visits to Maine. Last summer, she shared on Instagram photos of her extended family in Kennebunkport, including one shot of family members wearing matching T-shirts and huddled together on a tennis court.

“Love this place, love these people,” she wrote. “What a magical week with the ones I adore.”

In early October, granddaughter Barbara Bush married Craig Coyne at Walker’s Point in an intimate ceremony attended by 20 family members. Bush sat in the front row, his lap covered in a blue blanket, as his granddaughter walked down an aisle sprinkled with pink flower petals.

And it was also at Walker’s Point last summer where Max, the son of Bush’s granddaughter Lauren Bush Lauren met his “great-Gampy” for the first time.

Other family members also appear to have a special bond with the place. Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, built a house on the property in 2015. And Doro Bush is often spotted walking her dogs on the beach, just as her mother was fond of doing.

Visitors to the lookout near Walker’s Point imagine it is family members like those who will carry on the family tradition of vacationing in Kennebunkport.

“This will stay in the family and it will keep on going,” Ken Dufour of Nashua, New Hampshire, said last week while looking out at Walker’s Point.

Dufour and his wife, Diane, travel the country photographing the burial spots of U.S. presidents and will go to Texas next year. He has no doubt people will continue to drive along Ocean Avenue in Kennebunkport to catch a glimpse of the house where so much history was made.

“When I visit Hyannis, they still talk about President Kennedy,” he said.

 


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