On Maine's Mount Desert Island, the Gilded Age Shines On ~

For most of America, the housing market has crashed — building activity is at rock bottom levels, and home valuations have plummeted as fast as they rose during the boom times. But at the very top end, the picture is different — including, of course, for homes in the wealthiest and most desirable coastal communities, where the rich and famous, or even the discreetly not-so-famous, go to spend their idle time. Take, for example, Mount Desert Island on the coast of Maine. Bloomberg News reporter Kathleen M. Howley penned a quick economic and social sketch of that well-heeled community in August, carried here by the Bangor Daily News (“ Maine’s ‘Rockefeller Country’ home values make the rich richer”). Writes Howley, “The Rockefellers, the Morgans and the Astors, the most powerful Gilded Age families, knew how to pick real estate. The worth of the properties they once owned on Mount Desert Island in Maine has soared during the national real estate bust.” While home values across the U.S. fell by 29% on average since 2006, coastal Maine estates owned by the descendants of industrial barons of the 1800s and early 1900s have risen by the same amount, writes Howley. “There are still plenty of Learjets parked at the Bar Harbor airport every weekend,” said Bar Harbor real estate broker Gary Fountain. (Below: Bar Harbor as viewed from Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park.) Near Acadia National Park, a scenic shoreland and mountain preserve that boasts an extensive network of riding and walking trails financed and built by philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr., valuations of privately owned homes have risen as much as, or more than, the prices of luxury homes in the Hamptons at the east end of Long Island, a comparable playground where Manhattan bankers, rock musicians, and movie stars spend their summers. And, points out Howley, there’s a difference in the culture of the two upper-crust getaways as well. The Hamptons holds newly minted multi-millionaires like talk show host Howard Stern and comic and TV actor Jerry Seinfeld. “But in the town of Mount Desert,” writes Howley, “many summer residents earned their money the old-fashioned way — they inherited it.” Descendants of Mr. Rockefeller, and of his peers, have weathered the recent economic crisis in fine style, Howley reports — and the value of their housing shows it. Like high-end luxury goods, ultra-high-end real estate inhabits a market that’s distinct from the market for mainstream property. Here, prices reflect how high-end earners, and owners, have stayed insulated from the worst of the downturn — and have bounced back farther, and faster. Writes Howley: “The assets of Americans who own at least $1 million, in a tally that excludes real estate, grew 8.4 percent in 2010, according to the Merrill Lynch Global Wealth Management and Capgemini World Wealth Report in June. In the same period, U.S. personal per capita income rose just 2.8 percent to $39,901, according to the Census Bureau.” The result: whatever the source of their wealth, the very rich are living in communities that have not gone bust. Said Jonathan Miller, the president of Miller Samuel Inc., a residential appraisal company based in Manhattan: “You couldn’t get more different than the Hamptons and Bar Harbor, but what the two real estate markets have in common is that disconnect with other segments of the housing market.”