By Jules Struck
PEAKS ISLAND, Maine — One abandoned place off the coast of Maine is claimed once a year by the community as a site of celebration and art.
On a regular night, Peaks Island’s abandoned gun battery is quiet. Sometimes teens show up with spray paint cans or beer bottles, but usually the hulking building sits empty on an untamed land preserve by the Maine seashore.
Only one night a year sees a different Battery Steele. It’s the night of the harvest moon, and crowds of people wander around the structure’s cavernous hall and dark side rooms. Tuneless instrumentals reverberate through the concrete rooms, which house eclectic art installations. Sometimes there’s food, sometimes there’s music. There are always more people than the last year.
They come by way of ferry from Portland to the tiny island of Peaks for “Sacred and Profane,” a yearly local arts festival held in the old gun battery. The first Sacred and Profane took place in 1995, and the building itself was significant, said Michael Libby, one of the festival’s founders.
“It was like its own sort of living organism, like the belly of the beast,” said Libby. He described the utter darkness, a musician’s trumpet echoing in concrete chambers, graffiti and dim torch-light.
“I mean, there was no acknowledgement from this space. It was its own,” he said. “That’s what I liked about it.”
The Steele transforms
The stocky building stands much as it always has since it was built during World War II, but it’s the only one of several leftover military installations on the island that hosts an otherworldly party every year. The event belongs to Peaks islanders, because a lot of artists live there today. In some ways the battery has always reflected the island’s character.
Battery Steele was built facing east in 1942 to watch for attack from across the Atlantic. No bombs ever headed toward Maine. “I don’t know why anybody thought they would,” said John Whitman, president of the Peaks Island Land Preserve, which owns the battery today.
“But, you know, stranger things have been built in wartime,” he said.
Today the abandoned building surveys only the passage of leisure boats and the invariable route of the Casco Bay passenger ferries.
After the war, the battery “sort of sat there for a while,” says Whitman. It passed hands from the U.S. military to an independent owner to a couple of local organizations. It was never used for much of anything, and went up for sale for $70,000 in 1995.
The land trust jumped at the opportunity. They phoned just about every person on the island, and made $55,000 in $5 donations. “We literally had a proverbial bake sale,” said Whitman. Government officials in Portland loaned the rest.
It’s not the Sistine Chapel, says Whitman, but the battery remains impressive in its own way.
The structure is massive, even without the two guns, which were too expensive for the land trust to buy. From the east, the gaping mouth of the building is 30 feet high and leads straight through the building to a smaller opening in the back. A heavy, rounded lip hangs over the front, casting the inside into gloomy shadow. The whole structure is dug deep into the ground, heaped high with dirt and settled into the forest around it.
Still, there’s no sense of the building being taken over by the foliage. The battery is huge, and solid. It’s also a perfect setting for teens to escape their parents’ gazes.
Kids have left their mark in layers and layers of graffiti. It’s everywhere, in all colors and levels of artistry. But even to this, the battery has a defense — the walls are always damp, said Whitman, so the graffiti just doesn’t stick for long.
Whitman takes a holistic view of the battery’s role as a hideout for delinquent teens. “Well, that’s a function that it serves.”
It’s more the growing crowds of Sacred and Profane attendees that gives Whitman pause. The battery is not well groomed. Anyone could climb around the top and walk straight off, he said.
That, and the trash left behind after the festival, means that “as far as I’m concerned, if it fades out, that’s fine with me.”
Sacred and Profane evolves
Libby acknowledged that safety is a concern, especially with the explosion of people coming to the event. He helped organize the event for five years and then moved away from the island and stopped attending. When he came back 15 years later, 700 people showed up.
“I mean, I was speechless,” he said.
Libby, an artist, remembers pitching the unmolded idea to his friend and musician Tom Faux while the pair had lunch at his house around the burnt logs of another night’s campfire. Libby was painting houses and looking for a space to exhibit some big art pieces he was working on. Faux had been playing experimental music with a group called “Free Lunch” for a couple of years, but their shows had fallen flat.
Faux’s response: “let’s do it.”
Sacred and Profane has only ever been advertised by word-of-mouth, but the age of connectivity has pulled back somewhat the veil of secrecy, meaning bigger crowds in recent years.
The influx of people might have motivated the organizers to put on the event every year, which in turn meant more visitors, said Libby.
“It’s kind of ironic that the hassle of the extra people of the summer was sort of motivation to push for some kind of ritual, and then the ritual became this sort of hassle for the islanders because there were so many people invading their island,” said Libby.
Some don’t mind so much.
On a bright afternoon, golf carts full of jostling tourists zip by the battery on Seashore Avenue, which runs between the building and the ocean. Peter Seraichick, a Peaks Island resident, walks his dog along a small path past the battery. It’s quiet now.
He walks through the underground passageway and along a back road towards his house, stopping occasionally to let XX sniff at an interesting patch of grass. He knows all the houses along the way that have been renovated from old military installations.
Concrete foundation is exposed along the driveway of one house, another one has a great vantage point of the ocean, since it used to be a watchtower.
Peter has never heard of the Sacred and Profane, though his wife Sue went in 2019 and made a slideshow presentation on the event for an over-50s class she took at the University of Southern Maine last year. She has pictures on her phone.
“Every year they just do random, weird stuff,” she said while scrolling through a video of the event. She freeze-frames on a line of tea lights that cast an orange glow on the battery’s walls.
“There’s not much that goes on on the island, so it’s kind of fun,” said Sue. “It’s a little bit haunted, but kind of G-rated during the day.” That’s when she was there, with the families and little kids milling about.
“The problem is at night,” she said. “A lot of people don’t leave.”
Still, that’s the same at Battery Steele all the time. “There’s always people having fires and having beers. Nothing’s different at Sacred and Profane at night, except there’s more people from not on the island that are there. And they’re probably in costume.”
Sacred and Profane 2021 is a little up in the air, said Libby, but that’s how it usually is. There’s no expectation among the organizers to continue the festival.
“That was part of the tradition,” he said. The organizers meet every year to confer over whether the next year’s show should go on. “It was a real consensus, and there was a willingness to just let it go,” he said.
As for this year, “I’ve been a little ambivalent.”
“It’s as much of a curiosity for me, like, why did it last?” It might have something to do with building community, he said, or just that it’s a neat way to perceive art.
“It’s just an idea that has really become its own.”