At its core, architecture is a way to take ideas about how we want to live and then use design to apply those ideas to our environment. What makes American architecture unique then, and different from its European forebears, is just that Americans brought a new set of ideas about how to live––things like democracy, equality, and working class accessibility––and applied them to a new and more wild environment. And one of the first places where architects began trying to apply these new ideas to a uniquely American landscape was in 18th century New England, along the rough coast of Maine, particularly in the town of Kennebunkport.

Lobster and Fish House
Langsford Rd. Lobster and Fish House, Kennebunkport, ME.

Kennebunkport today feels like a quaint summer tourist destination on the southern coast of Maine. Its scenic coastline and collection of restaurants, souvenir shops, and bed and breakfasts draws wealthy old-money New Englanders like the Bush family, who have a large summer estate there where George W. hosted guests like Vladimir Putin and Nicholas Sarkozy during his presidency. The historic center of town is filled with beautifully maintained old buildings that give the town its postcard scenery, but also make it an important document of American architecture.

George HW Bush Fishing Kennebunkport
George HW Bush Fishing in Kennebunkport

The town center of Kennebunkport was mainly built in the late 18th century, around the time of American independence and when the town was still an industrious hub of shipping and shipbuilding. At the time, American architects were just beginning to formulate a design identity for the new nation, looking to the designs of ancient Greece and Rome to connect the young American democracy with its spiritual ancestors. The resulting style, in which a classical Roman aesthetic was filtered through New England Protestant simplicity and humility, and produced grand rectangular buildings with plain surfaces yet high attention to detail, became known as Federal-style architecture.

Federal Style
Federal Style Home in Kennebunkport.

Most of Kennebunkport’s historic center is made of Federal-style buildings. But what makes the town’s aesthetic unique from say, the Federal-style townhouses of Boston or Philadelphia, is that the Maine connection to nature meant buildings were made of lumber rather than brick, and made to feel less formal, with bright white accents that conveyed the ocean breeze, not ancient Roman marble.

Binnacle Hill Residence in Kennebunkport, Maine. Whitten Architects
Binnacle Hill Residence in Kennebunkport, Maine by Whitten Architects.

A couple centuries later, Kennebunkport may not seem as architecturally exciting as the work of Frank Lloyd Wright or what people like Richard Neutra and Rudlph Schindler went on to design in California in the mid-20th century. But hidden amongst the postcard scenery are some of the most core tenets of American design: confident simplicity, extreme attention to detail, and a natural connection to the landscape. Besides, why claim a lineage to ancient Athens when you could claim it instead to a small town in Maine?