Bangor In Focus


Elmbank: The House on Weeks Hill. The one-time stately mansion once was the site of elaborate parties to Bangor's socialites before becoming a private mental hospital.
Surrounded by trees and a large lawn atop Weeks Hill in Bangor, the 13-unit white brick apartment building at the corner of Kenduskeag Avenue and Division Street is an unassuming Greek Revival mansard. Its facade bears the stains of rust from the black iron fire escape, the high and narrow front doors are faded and worn from years of hot sunshine and cold winters, and some windows are missing one or both of their green shutters. The 47-foot porch that once overlooked the plush green lawn and downtown Bangor has been replaced with only a partially-built deck of pressurized wood.

Like most apartment buildings in its condition, the building used to be a mansion in its heyday. And, like most mansions that have decayed and been converted to apartment buildings, the house at 31 Kenduskeag Ave. has a colorful past as both a monument to Bangor's one-time affluent society built around the timber industry and as a monument to the small private mental hospitals that used to complement the large state hospitals.

The Thornton McGaw House

JGQ Property Management bought Elmbank in August 2002. The company has since made some cosmetic improvements to the former mansion's appearance, including refinishing the high front doors recently.

In 1829, Thornton McGaw, a prosperous lawyer, began buying land at the corner of Kenduskeag Avenue and Division Street to build a home for his wife and himself. A sawmill at the foot of the hill on the east bank of the Kenduskeag Stream created a pungent odor of pulp, but McGaw's wife wanted to live near her father, who lived on nearby Harlow Street. In the next few years, McGaw bought 7 acres that overlooked the burgeoning city for an impressive plot of land.

However, in 1834 he sold the lot behind what would be the site of his new house, but with conditions on how a house on the sold lot could look. The house on the sold lot, at 17 Division St., would become the Weed House.

Construction of McGaw's house ended in 1835. At the time, the house was only a two-story Greek Revival, 42 feet wide and 47 feet long with an ell at the rear 37 feet long and 23 feet wide. The house and land were valued at $14,000 -- a substantial amount of money back then.

A depression in 1837 dropped the value of the house and land to $9,000. McGaw then sold more of his land, causing his estate's value to drop to $5,500 in 1845.


In 1868, Henry E. Prentiss, also a lawyer and a lumber baron, bought the McGaw estate and proceeded to renovate the attic into a third floor by replacing the pitched roof with a mansard. Prentiss also built a brick carriage house behind the main house and built a Moorish Revival gazebo in front of the main house, at what is now 15 Kenduskeag Ave. The gazebo, which had a high-domed roof and four lobed arches, was the only Moorish Revival building in the city.

Along with the extensive renovations to the estate, Prentiss and his wife called their new home Elmbank.

The Weed House.

Prentiss was born Feb. 12, 1809, in Paris, Maine, to Henry and Mary (Hart) Prentiss. His father was a journalist and served in the Maine Legislature in 1822 and 1823, to which he would follow in his father's footsteps. He was one of nine children. He graduated from West Point in 1831, where his classmates included Henry Clay Jr., son of the famous statesman, and Elwell, who would later become a general in the Confederate army in the Civil War.

Upon graduating, Prentiss became an assistant professor of mathematics before joining the Army in Mobile, Ala. According to the Bangor Daily Whig & Courier, Prentiss was extremely physically fit to the point he walked from Mobile to his parents' home in Paris after obtaining leave. He reportedly covered as much as 80 miles in one 24-hour stretch. On another occasion, Prentiss is said to have walked from Bangor to his parents' home in a day and a half.

Prentiss left the Army in 1835 and moved to Bangor, where he lived at 18 Jefferson St. while studying and then practicing law in Orono. "As a lawyer he was noted for his untiring industry and faithful devotion to the interests of his clients," the Daily Whig & Courier reported.

During this time, Sarah Jane Prentiss, Henry's youngest sister and the ninth child in their family, stayed with Henry and his wife, Abigail. Like her brother, Sarah was interested in a wide variety of subjects. She studied composition, singing, guitar lessons, and French while living with her brother. She then learned physiology. In her letters to family and friends, she wrote that she felt "sick" and "faint" when she saw her first mannequin of the human body, which included removable muscles

Henry E. Prentiss.
In 1861, Sarah, then 39, decided to help the Union's cause in the Civil War by becoming a nurse to injured Maine soldiers. She had no formal training, so she went to a hospital in Boston to learn before going to hospitals in Frederick, Md., Fairfax, Va., and Washington, D.C.

In one of her letters written in 1865, Sarah described her surprise at the initial conditions and attitudes of the Maine soldiers she cared for.

"Yesterday I went and stood a long time, combed their hair and talked with them, and was somewhat shocked by the dirt and rough language," she wrote. The next day, though, she said she arrived to find the men's hair combed and heard no rough language. "... Such changes usually occur in a short time in these rough places after ladies go in," she wrote.

Sarah would later see President Abraham Lincoln's body lying in wake in the East Room of the White House after Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth.

"In the midst of grief I have hope for the Nation," she wrote in one of her letters.

During her service as a nurse, Sarah contracted malaria, leaving her ill. She went to Europe, where she stayed for three years to recuperate, according to Maine Civil War historians. She then returned to Bangor and resumed living with Henry and his family, who had since moved into the McGaw House at the corner of Kenduskeag Avenue and Division Street.

Henry Prentiss stopped practicing law to focus on his lumber business not long after settling in at Elmbank. He served as mayor of Bangor in 1870.

The Prentisses represented the elite society of Bangor and made Elmbank an attractive site for the area's socialites to gather. On Feb. 21, 1871, they held what the Bangor Daily Whig & Courier called one of the "finest" parties ever given in the Queen City. The paper estimated that about 600 people gathered long into the night at the house.

"The array of rich and tasteful toilettes presented was bewildering, even to the eye of our reporter, who professes himself utterly unable to attempt a detailed description of the assembled loveliness," the Whig & Courier reported. "Excellent music was furnished for dancing, the supper was all that one could desire, and it was a long way into the morning before the last carriage left the hospitable doors."

Henry Prentiss died of a heart attack two years later, on July 1, 1873, leaving the estate to his wife and children Henry Mellen, Samuel, Mary, and another child whose name was listed in his obituary as "Mrs. G.F. Godfrey."

At the time of his death, Prentiss had amassed substantial holdings in his land management business. He died on the eve of an important trip he had planned to take to the West to close a large deal. After buying his train tickets to the West for departure the next morning, Henry attended a party held by Emma Gould, according to the Daily Whig & Courier. On his way home at about 10:30 p.m., he complained of feeling ill but declined to see a doctor. He told his wife he would bathe his feet upon arriving at Elmbank.

"Shortly after, Mrs. Prentiss, who was in an adjoining room, heard a groan and gasping," the Daily Whig & Courier reported. "She went quickly to the bathing room, and found that her husband had fallen dead upon the floor. It appeared that he had just seated himself at his chair and placed his feet in the foot bath."

Prentiss's funeral was held at Elmbank on July 3 and he was buried atop Cemetery Hill at Mount Hope Cemetery, with an elm tree planted behind the family monument.

Abigail Prentiss.
"Mr. Prentiss possessed business capacity of high order and he was remarkably successful in his undertakings," the Daily Whig & Courier reported. "The suddenness of his death throws a pall over the community, and carries the keenest grief into his family to whose welfare and happiness he had devoted to his life."

On Jan. 19, 1875, Mrs. and Miss Prentiss held another extravagant party at the house -- this one drawing only 400 guests who were treated to music and dancing in the ballroom courtesy of the Andrews Orchestra.

"Notwithstanding the crowd of guests, the arrangements for their entertainment were made upon so generous a scale that the pleasure of all was fully anticipated, the entire house being thrown to the throng," the Whig and Courier reported. "It would hardly be sufficient to say that Bangor society was present en masse, and from 7 to 8 o'clock the parlors presented a most brilliant appearance, the contrast and variety of elegant toilettes rendering it quite impossible to popularize."

Two years later -- Oct. 22, 1877 -- Sarah Prentiss, still living at Elmbank with her sister-in-law, succumbed to the malaria she had contracted while a nurse. She was 54.

Upon Abigail Prentiss's death on Dec. 30, 1898, Henry Prentiss, the late Henry E. Prentiss's grandson, became the sole occupant of the mansion. Prentiss teamed with George J. Carlisle Jr. in 1924 to incorporate Prentiss & Carlisle, a land management company that continues its business today with responsibility for more than 1.3 million acres of timberland in Maine.

Most of the immediate Prentiss family is buried in this plot atop Cemetery Hill at Mount Hope Cemetery in Bangor. The plot overlooks the State Street side of the cemetery and the Penobscot River.

Born Aug. 18, 1872, he was the son of Henry Mellen Prentiss -- Henry E.'s son. In 1895, he graduated from Harvard, Henry Mellen's alma mater. His father had graduated from Harvard in 1864. Henry Mellen wrote extensively on science, with an interest in Arctic exploration. His stories appeared in the Westminster Review, Nineteenth Century magazine, and the New York Herald. His book "The Great Polar Current" won critical acclaim.

On the morning of Nov. 7, 1933, Prentiss -- the grandson -- died fighting a fire in a shed at the rear of the house. The fire had broken out in a portable oil stove Prentiss had taken to the shed for heat. The official cause of death was "over-exertion" because he had a weak heart and fumes from the fire extinguisher he had used. A fire crew called to the scene by Prentiss's servant tried for an hour to revive Prentiss before he was declared dead.

Prentiss left behind his wife, Leslie; his daughter, Mrs. Frank Morrison; and his sister, Mrs. Nathaniel Lord. The funeral service was held at Elmbank two days later.

Utterback Private Hospital

A year later, Maurice Gay, a career hospital administrator, bought Elmbank and turned it into Gay's Nervous Hospital and later Gay Private Hospital. The hospital specialized in treating mental disorders, including substance abuse disorders. It had 17 rooms and a capacity of 24-26 patients. The primary treatment was electroconvulsive therapy -- or shock treatment.

Samuel R. Prentiss, son of Henry E. and Abigail.

Abbie Prentiss, daughter of Henry E. and Abigail.
In 1952, James G. Utterback, a Brewer car dealer, bought the hospital for about $50,000 and renamed it Utterback's Private Hospital.

Utterback had attended public schools in Bangor, Manitus Military Academy in New York, and Huntington School in Boston. In 1956, he made an unsuccessful bid for the Bangor City Council, on which his late father, John G. Utterback, had served. His father had also served in the 73rd U.S. Congress as Maine's 3rd District representative, from 1932-34.

Utterback had two sons, James G. Jr. and Don Robinson. James Jr. would become embroiled in the mysterious death of his wife several years later.

The hospital's Yellow Pages entry under Utterback's ownership described the hospital as providing care for "nervous cases, electric shock therapy, and rest."

The hospital's entrance opened to a stairway in the middle of the first-floor hallway, with a sitting room to the left, with -- a former patient described it -- "nice chairs and furniture and red carpet." This may have been the former ballroom from the Prentisses' days. Another sitting room was to the right.

The carriage house.
Most of the hospital's operations were on the second floor. A metal gate was at the top of the staircase; the pulley system and slot for the gate are still there. The staircases were enclosed from being open previously; at one time it was possible to peer from the third floor all the way to the first floor. Also, linoleum and tiles covered the hardwood floors; paneling painted beige covered the no-doubt once grand walls of the halls.

At the top of the stairs on the second floor the patients' rooms were to the right. A room for patients awaiting ECT treatment was to the left. Down the corridor to the treatment room was the nurses kitchen on the right, a small elevator, an isolation room with bars over the windows, the doctors office, and then a small bathroom. The treatment room itself was at the end of the hall. According to a former patient, the room was large and had between 10 and 15 stretchers separated by curtains.

Some of the hospital's stretchers and beds are in the building's basement today.

Elmbank today

Winter 1994-95.
In 1973, James Utterback agreed to sell the hospital to Dr. Epiphanes K. Balian, a psychiatrist who had moved to Maine from Massachusetts about a year earlier. Balian wanted to use Utterback on an interim basis while a $1 million hospital he hoped to build on Hogan Road in Bangor was under construction. Balian sought approval from the Bangor Zoning Board of Appeals to perform about $100,000 in renovations to Utterback. In addition to renovating Utterback for another four to five years of use, Balian planned to change the hospital's name to North East Psychiatric Institute of Bangor.

But Balian's Hogan Road hospital never came to fruition and the sale of Utterback apparently fell through, as records show the hospital remained Utterback even after Utterback died on April 23, 1974, of heart failure at the age of 67 at his modest ranch-style home adjacent to the hospital.

Son Don Robinson took control of the property after his father's death and converted the buildings into apartments. The main building is home to 13 apartments, although there is no Apartment 13 but an Apartment 14; the brick carriage house is home to four apartments; and the Weed House, which provided offices for Utterback's doctors, is also an apartment building.

In August 2002, Robinson sold the buildings to JGQ Property Management of Bangor, citing many years of family health problems. The asking price for the buildings was between $500,000 and $600,000.

The remaining testaments to the hospital include the linoleum and tiled floors in the halls and apartments, the wooden file cabinet in the second-floor hallway, the outdated fire alarm box attached to the main building near the back door, and the sprinkler system. Remnants of the building's days as a mansion include large antique mirrors on the first and second floors, high ceilings, and the staircases leading to the second and third floors, and attic. In the summer, the estate is basked in trees around its perimeter. In the winter downtown Bangor can be seen behind the naked trees.

It doesn't take much while walking through Elmbank's halls to imagine what it must have been like in the late-1800s, with a bathing room, ballroom, and enough space to house hundreds of people for a party in the middle of winter while an orchestra played in the background as couples danced gayly into the long night.

1995-2012, Ryan R. Robbins. All rights reserved.

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