Fred Burns' House(1891 - 1977)


Non Extant


34 Commercial St., Belfast, Maine, 04915, United States


1940s to 1970s

About the Artist/Site

Fred Burns was born on January 7, 1891 in Castle Hill, Maine, twenty-five miles from the Canadian border. After losing both of his parents as a young man, Burns was drafted into World War I in his mid-twenties. Upon his return to Maine, he made a living through hunting, trapping, and serving as a guide in the Greenville area. Through his travels, Burns discovered that he liked the coastal town of Belfast, and decided to buy a small plot of oceanfront land near Commercial Street in the early 1940s. Burns built a modest structure on the property only a few dozen feet from the ocean. The floorplan included a living space attached to his bedroom, a storage room and bathroom accessible through a separate exterior entrance, and a shed. Of the cost Burns said: “I never kept no run of it, but I don’t think the whole thing cost me more than $25.” 

Early photographs of the site serve as evidence of the home’s original plain white exterior, which was gradually covered over with planks of salvaged wood painted in a variety of vibrant colors. According to Burns, the home was built entirely of flotsam and jetsam that washed up near his property––primarily driftwood and rusty nails. Upon the facade and in the yard, found objects such as horseshoes, anchors, artificial flowers, toys, and bricks were incorporated into the improvisational wooden construction. By the time of the 1970s, all sides of the house––including window frames, internal doors, and the property’s fence––had been adorned with a complex sequence of colorful striping. 

When he first moved to Belfast, Burns largely lived off of fish caught in his own harbor. When a poultry plant was eventually built on the hill directly above his property, he worked there for a time, taking an occasional chicken from the plant and otherwise preferring to “get by on bread and doughnuts.” The housebuilder had three sons and three daughters who, by the time of Burns’ death, had collectively brought the artist fifteen grandchildren. Burns was an enthusiastic pet owner, and a great number of animals occupied the site. In the late 1970s, he asserted: “I’m not lonely. I’ve got eight cats and the dog.” Jan Wampler, who photographed Burns’ environment in the mid-1970s, had documented the housebuilder as owning ten dogs at the time, and Gregg Blasdel’s photographs indicate the artist kept caged birds outside of the house as well. 

Active in maintaining his property until his final years, Burns passed away in his home on September 27, 1977 at the age of 86. The structure was eventually demolished, although documentation as to when is not publicly available. Shortly before his death, the environment builder was recorded by Wampler as saying: “I live alone and I love everybody, that's the only way to be." 

Narrative by Gabrielle Christiansen, 2023



  • Burns, Fred. “Flotsam Provides a Home.” Interviewed by Emma Meara. Bangor Daily News, September 23, 1977. 
  • Wampler, Jane. All Their Own: People and the Places They Build. Cambridge: Schenkman Publishing Company, 1977.


found objects and building materials, paint

Map & Site Information

34 Commercial St.
Belfast, Maine, 04915 us
Latitude/Longitude: 44.4258306 / -69.0003381

Nearby Environments

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