The Rock Gardens Inn, built in 1911, is for sale for only the fourth time in the inn’s history. The 4.6-acre property is listed for $4.25 million. Courtesy photo

PHIPPSBURG — The 109-year-old Rock Gardens Inn in Phippsburg, which has served as a safe haven for visitors and an oasis for artists for decades, is for sale.

The inn, built in 1911, consists of a cluster of nine cottages over 4.6 acres that can house up to 55 people. The property is listed for $4.25 million.

Ona Barnet, who bought the property in 1984, said she’s selling the inn to retire and hopes to keep a cottage for herself so she can continue living there, but that request has deterred prospective buyers.

“Most buyers are interested in buying the inn as a whole,” said Barnet. “We had one serious buyer around this time last year but then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and that fell apart.”

Stationed on the western side of the peninsula that makes up Phippsburg, the inn was once part of the abutting Sebasco Estates but the two were separated by Freeman and Jenny Merritt, who built and first owned the inn.

Gloria Gray, 81, has published books about Phippsburg’s history and grew up next to the inn. She said she remembers the inn in its heyday before it catered to artists. She said summer was her favorite time of the year because teachers from across the state came to work as waitresses and stay at the inn.

“My mother and I used to love when the waitresses would come because they had a Victrola and they played music,” Gray said.

Since then, the cottages have remained as unchanged as possible. While Barnet has maintained the cottages, she said she has “worked really hard to keep the integrity of this place.”

“It’s Maine as Maine was known back in the 20th century,” she said. “The basic structure of the cottages are as it was. We’ve tried to keep it special in its uniqueness.”

For over a century the quaint cottages have stood sentinel over Casco Bay. With spotty cell phone service and wireless internet only provided at the main reception house, the inn forces visitors to log off and enjoy the sights around them. These elements led Barnet, whose father was a painter, to begin offering artist workshops and retreats it offers at the beginning and end of each summer season in 1985.

Arists Elizabeth O’Reilly painted “White House, White Boat” during a 2018 artist retreat at the Rock Garden Inn, now for sale in Phippsburg. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth O’Reilly

“Rock Gardens Inn isn’t set up for conventions or business meetings,” said Barnet. “It lends itself so well to artists.”

Elizabeth O’Reilly, a landscape painter from New York, has brought a group of her students from The New School, a liberal arts university in New York City, to the inn each summer for the past six years. She said being at the inn inspired both she and her students.

“It’s a great place to paint, but it’s like another world,” said O’Reilly. “It’s just really sweet because we had our meals there and we’d all eat together. It felt like it was our place. I don’t think you get that kind of experience anywhere else.”

O’Reilly said the inn created a sense of both comfort and freedom for her students. Her “early bird students” were free to rise with the dawn, perch on a rock, and paint as the tide washed in and out over the unforgiving rocky coast.

“Once students came once, that was it, they’d come back every year,” she said. “Ona and her team would take care of all the meals and it was perfect. I think because Ona’s father was a painter, she understands what painters need.”

Will Barnet, Ona Barnet’s father, kept a studio at Rock Gardens Inn where he returned each summer to paint before his death in Nov. 2012. Pieces of his art are in permanent collections of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Both Barnet and O’Reilly said they hope the inn’s next owner will honor the inn’s charm and continue catering to artists, rather than tearing down the cottages and redeveloping the land.

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