Samovars, Nijinsky, and Russian tea in Otter Creek

Steaming cups of strong black tea, silk-gowned ladies on a wide wrap-around porch, and yeast rolls that never fail–the Russian Tea Rooms were an exotic destination in the rural landscape of Otter Creek. Here secrets were whispered on the piazza, business deals made in front of the fire, and dull to titillating conversations exchanged between royalty and rusticators.

Beautiful stonework remains from the Russian Tea House.

The Tea Rooms, called the Tea House on some maps, or simply Romanoff according to the Bar Harbor Record, opened in 1899 on the Otter Cliff Road, then part of Ocean Drive.

It was a meeting place for the many summer visitors to Mount Desert Island. Carriages would bring the merry groups out, or the more ambitious would follow the old native American trail from Bar Harbor. A writer of the time describes the scene: “Coaching parties (to Otter Creek and Jordon Pond) have been quite in vogue this season, and the crack of the whip, the rumble of wheels, and the clear notes of the bugle are familiar sounds…” (The New York Times, September 13, 1903)

Social columns of local and city newspapers reported the parties given at the Tea House, and listed the names of the illustrious guests. On August 15, 1902 “A dinner was given at the Russian Tea House tonight by Mr. and Mrs. Louis von Gaertner. Among the guests were Mr. and Mrs. W. J. Pendleton, Prince Del Drago, Mrs. Roberts, Miss Godwin, Mr. and Mrs. Wetzeler, and Mr. Bass.” The town must have buzzed when a few years later the prince, 27 years old, married the wealthy widow, Mrs. Schmid, 50.

The Tea House overlooked Otter Cove. Where there is now a forest, lawn would have stretched down to the water. The view from the piazza would have been wide and quite likely offered vistas of the mouth of the cove to the ocean.

The grounds of the Tea House were a gathering place as well as the restaurant itself. The summer residents of Mount Desert Island, called rusticators because they felt life here was simple compared to their worlds in Boston, Philadelphia or New York, would picnic on the grassy field between the Tea House and the water. Henry Van Dyke, in his short story “A Holiday In A Vacation,” says “There were plenty of places considered proper for picnics, like Jordan’s Pond, and Great Cranberry Island, and the Russian Tea-house, and the Log Cabin Tea-house, where you would be sure to meet other people who also were bent on picnicking… There were dinner parties, and tea parties, and garden parties, and sea parties, and luncheon parties, masculine and feminine, and a horse-show at Bar Harbor, and a gymkhana at North East, and dances at all the Harbors.”

Granite that has been through a fire is not stable enough to build a house on.

But it was the Tea House, an imposing grey Victorian with a vine-covered porch and cozy dining rooms that was the real draw–that, and being taken care of. Log fires kept any evening chill away, and small nooks and corners provided comfortable spots for catching up with friends. Private parties were treated like the royalty some of them were, and Mrs. Robertoff, the proprietor, made sure everything went smoothly. She was such a conscientious owner that the Bar Harbor Record described her as ”looking after everyone’s comfort in her own pleasant way.” (1911)

A few short years later Mrs. Robertoff is gone. The local
newspaper ran an ad in 1915:
The Russian Tea House
Ocean Drive
Open to the public June 12, 1915
Under New management
Arrangements made for week-end parties.
Chicken suppers and lobster dinners a specialty.
Telephone 66

Advertisement for the seasonal opening of the Russian Tea House, Otter Creek, Maine.

The following summer Vaslav Nijinsky summered here on Mount Desert Island. His wife says that he spent countless hours practicing at the Building of Arts, just a few miles from the Tea House. Did he and Ramona have tea in Otter Creek? It is here that the record gets dim, and the next mention of the Tea House is when it had new owners, George and Hilda Renwick, and it was their home, not a business.

George was from Scotland, a Latin teacher and a gardener. The Tea House property was over a hundred acres, and he planted over eight varieties of apple trees. George had a large greenhouse across the street from the house. Lilies and other cultivated flowers still bloom in the field where it stood. A Harvard graduate, he was described as crusty by Dennis Smith who worked in the greenhouses as a child. “He drove an old black Ford like a wildman, smoking a pipe, and careening corners.”

George married Hilda Emory, and their niece Charlotte Harlan used to visit them in Otter Creek. She recalls summers on the wide porch, and gatherings inside around a piano, where family and friends spent evenings singing and making music. George had tenor voice, and years later sang at her wedding.

The Tea House was destroyed in the Fire of 1947, which burned much of the island. Charlotte remembers the phone call and hearing about Hilda fleeing in her nightdress. Their house was the last one to burn before the fire was stopped, sparing the rest of Otter Creek. George and Hilda’s moved down the street to house still called the Renwick House but their lives never fully recovered.

The property was sold after their deaths to the current owners, Gail and Henry Grandgent. They planned to build a house on the Tea House’s foundation but were advised that granite that has been under extreme heat was not stable. Instead, they built a charming home just past the ruins, with a view to the cove and old quarry, and plan to create gardens among the old granite walls of the Tea House. Gail, who has boxes of exotic teas lining the shelf of her kitchen, may bring her cup into that garden room and once again tea will be sipped on the site of the Russian Teahouse.

Bricks from the fireplace Prince Del Drago once warmed himself in front of.

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