More homeowners are playing the name game

'House naming as we know it is connected to the emergence of modern sensibilities of property and land'

William F. Whitman's ancestors, two Fifield brothers, staked a claim around Burnt Cove in Stonington, Maine, in 1801, following the end of the Revolutionary and the French and Indian wars when the remote island outpost became safe to settle, according to family lore.

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Mr. Whitman, 80 years old, and an extended family network still own most of the old homesteads and lobster sheds, as well as some newer homes that dot the cove.

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When a dazzling 14.5-acre property on Deer Isle Thorofare in Stonington came on the market in 2004, offering panoramic views of the area's 75-island archipelago and 1,500 feet of shore frontage, Mr. Whitman snapped it up. The retired chairman of Elgin, Ill.-based food-service equipment maker Middleby Corp. tore down the dilapidated Cape Cod-style house and commissioned a new home inspired by the popular Maine Shingle Style architecture of the late 19th century.

To commemorate expanding the family's holdings into new island territory and to celebrate the extraordinary setting, Mr. Whitman felt compelled to name the house. "It is so spectacular," he says. "There are views in every direction."

His wife suggested the name Sitting Pretty, after a friend's Bahamian estate. The friend gave his blessing.

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Motivated to continue the name game, Mr. Whitman then named his Hinckley Talaria 40 motor yacht Pretty Girl to link the two. When he suggests calling the cottage he is building on Scott Island just across the Thorofare Pretty Neat his children roll their eyes, he says.

The practice of naming properties is growing in popularity, as evidenced by online vacation rental and real-estate sites. Once strictly the habit of landed gentry and aristocrats, house names have proliferated to reflect the democratization of estate ownership, says Bernard Herman, the George B. Tindall Distinguished Professor of Southern Studies and Folklore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"House naming as we know it is connected to the emergence of modern sensibilities of property and land," he says.

In the U.K., which practically invented the tradition of naming houses, Samantha Ashdown's Home-Truths blog says names add interest for many would-be buyers and seem to generate more inquiries.

In the U.S., there is no hard data indicating whether a house with a name fetches a higher price or commands more interest than similar properties. Realtor.com, Zillow Group and the National Association of Realtors don't track such data.

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But there is anecdotal evidence to support that houses with names attract broader attention, especially in vacation spots.

"Most of our properties have house names," says Story Litchfield, a broker with LandVest Properties on Mount Desert Island, Maine. "And, if they don't, we try to come up with them."

She cautions against names that are "too pretentious or tongue-in-cheek" and advises homeowners to stay away from nonsense words that no one can pronounce or remember.

Mount Desert, Maine's largest island and a summer destination since the Gilded Age, is known for its grand old estates that are referred to by name, says Ms. Litchfield. "Names here represent more than a house," she says, "they represent an area, a way of life, and are evocative of family and summer and happy times."

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Estate names on Mount Desert, home to Acadia National Park, tend to celebrate the rugged natural environment. Lifestyle maven Martha Stewart lives in Skylands, first built for Edsel Ford in 1925. The property is perched high on a spruce-clad outcropping overlooking Seal Harbor. The late banker and philanthropist David Rockefeller owned Ringing Point, named for the rhythmic clanging of the navigational bell buoy offshore.

A new name often emerges when a property is transformed. Ringing Point, for example, was known originally as Glengariff when George Borwick Cooksey owned it in the late 19th century. It then sold to Boston banker Ernest B. Dane in 1909. He tore it down to build a much larger stone-and-wood house. Despite keeping the Glengariff name, locals forever referred to the new home as the Dane Cottage. Then Rockefeller bought the property and demolished the cottage, making way for Ringing Point.

The fate of Ringing Point remains to be seen after billionaire Danaher Corp. co-founder Mitchell Rales bought the property in 2018 for $19 million. Mr. Rales famously bulldozed Blueberry Ledge in Northeast Harbor after buying it in 2007 to make way for Ruthy's Way, which he still owns.

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That estate, known for decades as The Ancestral, was built by Charles W. Eliot, a founder of Acadia and president of Harvard University from 1869 to 1909. Eliot descendants still own the onetime guesthouse adjacent to the property -- lightheartedly named The Coffeepot because it was built, in part, with proceeds from the 1906 sale of the family's silver coffeepot, crafted by Boston silversmith Benjamin Burt.

Even the most innocent name can become a liability over time. An 1890 cottage in Northeast Harbor known for more than 100 years as Isis, after the Egyptian goddess of magic and motherhood, is now for sale advertised simply by its address, 49 Harborside Drive -- no name attached and price reduced. In 2020, Isis conjures an entirely different image.