Where Angels Once Tread

We were so fortunate to be the recipients of an invitation to visit the vacation home of (very) close Salem neighbors and friends this weekend, and now we know why they’re always leaving town. Their house is located in Dublin, New Hampshire, overlooking the lake and at the foot of majestic Mount Monadnock—-which drew genteel and monied urbanites and scenery-seeking artists to its midst like a magnet in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, creating a summer colony which shaped Dublin to a great degree, both in terms of its materiality and its vitality (not to mention the preservation of vast acreage). Our friends’ house was built by one of the founders of this colony: Miss Mary Amory Green, a great-granddaughter of John Singleton Copley, who became so taken with local artist and instructor Abbott Handerson Thayer (1849-1921) that she offered to build him a cottage/studio on her property. He took her up on her offer, and because he was apparently as enticing an instructor as he was an artist, a succession of artistic pilgrimages to Dublin ensued. So here we were staying in the house that began it all, itself a beautiful creation, both enhanced by and reflective of its setting.

Monadnock House Best

Monadnock House Best Entrance Fernlea, early morning: designed by Russell Sturgis for Miss Mary Amory Greene, 1882-1883.

Unfortunately (for posterity but probably not for my friends), Thayer’s cottage was demolished around 1935. I began searching for images of it the moment I returned home, and as you can see below, it was more of a complex than a cottage as Thayer had some rather eccentric and austere ideas about living–and especially sleeping. Living in the age of that great “white plague”, tuberculosis, and losing his first wife to the dreaded disease, he came to believe that heat was a vehicle of its transition, a belief that his physician father apparently encouraged. The house that Miss Greene built for him was a summer house with no “conveniences”, and no alterations were made when he and his family took up year-round residence in 1901. Fires in the central house were allowed, but everyone had to retreat to open-air “sleeping huts” at the end of the day as Thayer believed that sleeping in the open, and in close communion with nature, was a particularly effective preventative against tuberculosis.

Monadnock Thayer

Monadnock Thayer Studio

downloadThe Thayer cottage complex and studio, and Gladys Thayer (Abbott’s daughter) in her sleeping hut, circa 1900. Nancy Douglas Bowditch and Brush Family papers, circa 1860-1985, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution: cited in Susan Hobbs, “Nature into Art: the Landscapes of Abbott Handerson Thayer”, The Journal of American Art 14 (Summer 1982): 4-55.

And in this setting Thayer painted nature, portraits, and angels, who were not historical or theological figures but rather the characteristically-angelic women who crossed his path and touched his heart: all-the-more magnetic because of their humanity, and the wings that he gave them. You’ve got to be impressed by an artist who gave us both angels and camouflage!

Monadnock Dublin Pond Thayer Smithsonian

Monadnock 15

Thayer Angel 1903 MFA Abbott Handerson Thayer, Dublin Pond, New Hampshire, 1894, Smithsonian American Art Museum (painted as a gift for Stanford White); my early-morning view across from Fernlea; An Angel, 1903, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

I’ve got to leave Thayer territory and move on to Dublin at large: there are so many houses, so many stories, and I’m not even going to touch on the natural assets of the area. Probably one of the most famous public intellectuals and authors of the day (on a par with Mark Twain who also spent one summer in Dublin–is there anywhere Twain did not vacation?) was Thomas Wentworth Higginson from Cambridge, the so-called “Dean of Literary Boston” who built his Dublin cottage, the adorably-named “Glimpsewood” just down the Lake road from Fernlea in 1890. It’s now for sale. According to a very detailed 1899 article titled “Old Times and New in Dublin, New Hampshire (The New England Magazine, Volume 20) by George Willis Cooke, the colony was “complete” by about 1900, after several decades of steady cottage-building, although I think we should probably extend that up to World War One.

Monadnock glimpsewood collage

Monadnock cottages

Monadnock1

Monadnock 7

Monadnock 10

Monadnock 9

Monadnock 8

Monadnock 2

Monadnock 14

Monadnock Salem

“New” Shingle-style cottages, including a little gatehouse leading us up to the ruins of Pompelia, with its views of lake and mountain (torched by vandals in 1979), Our Lady of the Snows (1904), and a very charming boathouse; the “old” Eli Morse farmhouse, 1822, and the very new (1916) Colonial Revival “Skyfield” in nearby Harrisville, designed by Lois Lilley Howe, the founder of Boston’s first all-female architectural firm. This house apparently has several Salem mantels in it, and I need to determine from which house they were pulled.

The key to understanding Dublin is that it developed as one of several Gilded-Age alternatives to Newport: almost an anti-Newport. The “Old Times and New” article is very clear about this: the “summer resort” aims and methods have not found manifestation [in Dublin]. Almost exclusively the persons who have purchased and built in the town have sought a summer home for rest and recreation; they have not wished for society or fashion; and the life has been kept natural and simple. While there is a kindly interchange of social courtesies on the part of summer residents, any display of fashion or wealth has been discarded to a large degree and many interests bring persons together in a simple and unconventional manner. To keep to the ways of nature in yards, walks, roads and fields has been accepted as desirable; and an unwritten law has been adopted, that nature is to be interfered with as little as possible. Newport was shiny, marble grandeur for grandeur’s sake; Dublin was soft, shingled elegance for art’s (or nature’s) sake. I can completely relate to this aesthetic, having grown up in another anti-Newport, York Harbor, Maine, in a shingled summer cottage that was not quite winterized: I’m even wondering if my own father might have been exposed to the Thayer regimen!

A Harrisville appendix: driving to the town next door (in my host’s ’56 Morgan) and there we are in another archetypal New England setting: the small mill town, perfectly preserved.

Monadnock 6

Harrisville collage


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