September 10, 2012

Chance to take bite of history for hunger relief

By Deborah Sayer
News Assistant

The deeply worn roadside shoulder directly across from the Wedding Cake House on Summer Street is testament to the dozens of people daily who stop to photograph the ornately trimmed dwelling.

click image to enlarge

Visitors prepare to tour the Wedding Cake House in 2005 during a benefit for victims of Hurricane Katrina.

2005 Staff file photo


WHAT: Tours of Wedding Cake House

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily Sept. 15 to Oct. 15. Last tour begins at 3:30 p.m.

WHERE: 104 Summer St., Kennebunk. Parking is in a small lot to the right of the home.

ADMISSION: $10 per person

Doubtless, many of those passers-by have wondered if the fancifully bedecked home's interior is as grand as its outer facade.

Beginning Saturday, the curious are welcome to come and find out -- for a fee.

That's when the oft-photographed Wedding Cake House will be opened for daily tours running through Oct. 15.

The home's owner, James Hunt Barker, has joined with the Focus on Hunger Committee of the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church of Kennebunk to raise funds benefiting hunger relief in York County.

According to tour coordinator Frank DeSarro, Barker, 84, a retired art dealer, offered tours of the house in 2005, raising nearly $80,000 to benefit Hurricane Katrina victims, and in 2010, raising $37,000 for local hunger initiatives.

"Jimmy absolutely loves to show off the house, especially for good causes," said DeSarro. "When he learned that funding for many York County food pantries had been cut from the York County commissioners' budget, he decided to open his home to visitors again."

Barker previously conducted the tours himself, including for former first lady Laura Bush.

This time, a team of four or five tour guides will conduct the bulk of the near 45-minute tours, with Barker providing occasional historic narrative.

Constructed around 1825, the Wedding Cake House originally was known as the George Washington Bourne home and housed three generations of the Bourne family, through 1983.

Bourne was a prominent 19th-century shipbuilder who constructed his vessels on the Kennebunk River directly behind the home.

Shipbuilding was once a booming industry in the area, with shipbuilders often living in opulent homes where they entertained prominent guests and potential clients.

When the area shipbuilding trade declined in the mid-1800s, merchants once again turned to the sea and those grand residences as a means to generate income through tourism.

DeSarro said occasional bits of folklore, dropped in conversation, also serve to fuel the intrigue.

"There are a lot of romantic tales about how the Wedding Cake House came into being," said DeSarro. "The most famous of the stories is that on George and Jane Bourne's wedding day he was suddenly sent to China to save the family fortune and was gone for 25 years. While he was away, George felt guilty for abandoning his new bride. So he spent his free time fashioning these fancy turrets, vowing to decorate the home for her when he returned."

The truth?

"George added the fancy Carpenter Gothic-style trim work after he retired in 1850," said DeSarro. "He focused his woodworking skills on creating spires, turrets, balusters and other molding work to trim his home, using sketches of a cathedral in Milan, Italy, as his inspiration. "

Bourne's filigreed embellishments transformed the former two-story red brick Federal-style home, now yellow with white trim, into a structure more closely resembling a wedding cake.

The several-years-long project was completed before Bourne's death in 1856.

Apparently, not all of Bourne's family members shared his taste for the architecture or the crowds his handiwork attracted.

"It is rumored that one of the later family members to occupy the house deliberately allowed the decorative trim work to fall into disrepair because they were tired of the constant crowds of onlookers," said DeSarro.

Following Jane Bourne's death in 1890, the home was occupied by the couple's daughter Lucy and then grandson George Bourne Lord.

In 1983, the mansion was sold to artist Mary Burnett, who restored it to its former glory, along with daughter Anne.

(Continued on page 2)

Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors

Further Discussion

Here at we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)