Category Archives: Houses

A Turnkey Homestead

I’m using the expression “turnkey” in typical contrary fashion here: it’s a real estate term which generally means a house that requires no repairs or refurbishment, just turn the key and you are home in your new purchase. The Rundlet-May house in Portsmouth struck me as a turnkey house in another sense: Ralph May, the fourth of his generation to live in the house, donated it to Historic New England (then the Society for the Preservation for New England Antiquities) in 1971 and now when you enter the house (or turn the key, in a sense) it seems as if you are within a space that he just left. This is an imposing Federal, made less so by the lived-in ambiance of a home to four generations of the same family.

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Rundlett May 18The Rundlet-May House (1807) and views out back from its second and third floors.

Even though the house itself is an extravagant construction on large urban acreage, everything about its interior speaks to Yankee thrift: from the original peach damask wallpaper in one of the front parlors to the original Edison light bulb in a fixture on the second-floor landing–which is turned on once a year. It’s the perfect old-money house. John Rundlet, the self-made man who built (and apparently designed?) the house purchased and commissioned the best of everything (including a Rumford Roaster and a Rumford Range) and his descendants seem to have changed very little other than altering the use of its rooms to suit their activities and professions.

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Rundlett May 9First-floor parlors, hall and kitchen (with Rumford Roaster) and fire buckets, of course. I found several early 20th-century postcards of the house which referred to Samuel McIntire as the carver of the right parlor’s mantle (above), but I think this is just an illustration of the Salem architect and woodcarver’s fame in the midst of the Colonial Revival era.

There’s probably too much furniture–beautiful as it all is—in the house: tables and dressers and painted chairs. Should a beautiful card table be situated just inches away facing an even more beautiful Portsmouth bureau in a narrow window nook of an upstairs bedroom? No necessarily, but this placement allows us to see both of these pieces. There’s also a lot of stuff. But it’s their stuff and their home, and we are all privileged to be able to enter within!

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Ralph MaySecond and Third Floors, including Ralph May’s 3rd floor study, with all of his stuff. Below: this “musical” decorative motif ran through the house—it caught my eye because the same motif is on one of my Fancy chairs. (the last photograph).

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Rundlett May 17

Fancy Chair


Georgian Grandeur in Portsmouth

Portsmouth always struck me as a Georgian town, even from a young age, when I first developed an appreciation for historic houses at Strawbery Banke and first spotted what is still one of my very favorite houses nearby. There are Federal houses too, but it doesn’t feel as Federal as its sister seaports to the south, Newburyport and Salem. There is a range of Georgian houses in Portsmouth, from relatively simple to absolutely grand: on this past weekend I revisited three of the latter varieties: the Warner House (1716) the Moffatt-Ladd House (1763),  and the Governor John Langdon House (1784). Each house has a different owner, and a different………style, but all are exquisite representations of their era. The combination of the entirety of their construction with all the crafted details within—including the wonderful Portsmouth furniture in each house—is hard to capture: you’ll just have to visit each one yourself.

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Georgian ML

Georgian Langdon HouseThe Warner House, owned and operated by the Warner House Association from the early 1930s, The MoffattLadd House, owned and operated by the National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in the State of New Hampshire, and the Governor Langdon House, a property of Historic New England.

I loved the colors of the Warner House: rich jewel tones throughout. It’s not too pristine: you do get the feeling that you are imposing on the past (although there is quite a lot of plastic fruit). Those wild murals! The textures are wonderful too—especially of the smalted rooms upstairs. This is the oldest urban brick house in North America and it feels that way: both old and urban. You look out its windows and see a bustling city—this would not have been the case in the 1930s when it was rescued or even later: the Warner guide, like all the Portsmouth guides I encountered last weekend, stressed the fact that the city’s current vibrance contrasts with its more depreciated state in the 1970s—and I remember that to be the case.

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Warner 3collageParlors and bedrooms at the Warner House, a scary squirrel, and always the threat of fire (the tool is to take apart your very valuable bed).

The Moffatt-Ladd House has been very much in the thick of things from its construction; once it faced the wharves of prosperous Portsmouth, but now the horse chestnut tree planted in 1776 by General William Whipple upon his return from signing the Declaration of Independence still stands guard at the entrance to its courtyard. It’s a very airy house inside due to its elevated situation as well as its large entrance parlor—and its beautiful rear parlor, now in the midst of restoration, runs parallel to the wonderful terraced garden outside.

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Moffatt-Ladd Stairs

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Georgian Portsmouth 13Moffatt-Ladd parlors and stairs, front parlor original wallpaper and the parlor-in-process with its amazing mantle and Chinese Chippendale chairs; I always brake for fire buckets! The amazing garden.

I think Georgian houses have to be pre-revolutionary, but I’m the only one who thinks that, so I am including the Governor Langdon House, which was built the year after the American Revolution concluded. The scale is even larger here than Moffatt-Ladd, and the house reflects the passage of time, with Greek and Colonial Revival rooms as well as a dining room designed by Stanford White. It seems both national in inspiration but also very much a crafted Portsmouth house, as illustrated by those distinctive staircase balusters, contrasted below with those of Moffatt-Ladd (on the left).

baluster collage

Langdon Hallway

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Langdon Mantle

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Georgian Portsmouth Details

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Georgian Portsmouth 2Those Rococo mantles! And all that beautiful Portsmouth furniture. As you move back through the house, you move up in time, into Greek and Colonial Revival rooms.

While I was looking around for images of the houses in their earlier situations, I came across the works of two women artists among the digital collections of the Portsmouth Public Library: Sarah Haven Foster (1827-1900) and Helen Pearson (1870-1949). Both Portsmouth women clearly loved the architecture of their native city, and rendered it in series of charming vignettes, which were incorporated in their successive guidebooks. Wonderful discoveries: Foster’s naivete and Pearson’s detail both capture Portsmouth’s charm, past and (fortunately) present.

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Georgian Warner Pearson

Georgian Ladd Pearson

Langdon DoorVignettes by Sarah Haven Foster (the Warner House) and Helen Pearson (Warner, Moffatt-Ladd garden, Langdon doorway), Portsmouth Public Library Digitized Collections.


A Huddle of Houses

Last weekend we were up in New Hampshire again as I continued my search for the perfect white antique 3-bedroom (maybe four, no more!) summer house. I was pretty fixated on Tamworth last summer; this summer I’ve decided to explore other regions of the Granite State. Even though my husband may be accompanying me, he’s not really engaging in the search: as he said to me after we found the perfect cottage in Jaffrey (see below): we have an old house that we have to take care of in Salem, why would we buy an old vacation house that we have to take care of when we are on vacation? Well, he has a point, but still, I press on. This Jaffrey house was on a road of perfect white houses leading to a pond with Mount Monadnock in the distance. I got so excited (by the houses, not the pond or the mountain) that my husband quite literally left me on the side of the road (“you should be alone”) and drove off for a bit, returning to find me in front of the cottage with several other people who had stopped to admire it. And here it is:

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Huddle 3Palpitations.

Yes, I trespassed. But only after a couple in a convertible stopped and did so first! The house is empty, and the next-door neighbor came over and told us all about it, including the “amazing” terraced gardens which once descended down the hill. I saw the remnants—or maybe I should say the outlines— of those gardens, which of course put me in even more of a state of frenzy as there is nothing more engaging than the ghost of a garden. It’s a beautiful property; I’m sure someone has snapped it up already–let me just check. Ummm….not yet (as of 8/2/18). And here are more lovely white houses, in pristine condition, on the same road as what I now know to be the Benjamin Robinson Cottage, and also a few from the neighboring town of Hancock, which is very charming. I had originally titled the post a row of white houses, but then when I decided to include the Hancock houses that did not quite work, so I searched for another collective noun for houses and came up with huddle, which seems perfect.

The road to the cottage (and Thorndike Pond), Jaffrey:

Huddle Thorndike

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In Hancock:

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Huddle 4Can you believe this amazing DOUBLE HOUSE!!!!!!


At the Eustis Estate

Nestled between busy Boston, Quincy, and Route 128, the town of Milton, Massachusetts still wears signs of its pastoral past. It’s an original streetcar suburb, but the Blue Hills drew prosperous Brahmins south to build country estates, and several are still standing, even thriving. Everywhere I go in the vicinity of Boston: north, west, south: I continue to be amazed at the legacy of nineteenth-century fortunes—and taste. Now it seems as if we still live amidst great wealth, but not so much taste. I drove down to Milton last week to see Historic New England’s latest acquisition, the Eustis Estate, where I spent all of my allotted time, but I could have also visited the Forbes House Museum or the Wakefield Estate. I did drive down Adams Street for a fleeting sight of the birthplace of President George H.W. Bush, but I was pretty focused on my singular destination: an amazing 1878 structure designed by the “Father of the Shingle Style”, William Ralph Emerson, set amidst subtly-shaped grounds designed by Ernest W. Bowditch.

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Historic New England has spared no expense or consideration in its restoration and interpretation of the Eustis Estate, which it acquired in 2012, after three generations of the family owned and inhabited the house. You can access their tour here–and you should if you really want a curatorial interpretation of the house because I’m just going to give you an impression: never have I been more conscious of my architectural naiveté as when I stepped foot into this house! My first–and strongest—impression is oddly one of contradiction: of the solidness of the exterior masonry and interior woodwork with the overall airiness of the house, accentuated by the three-story Grand Hall and all those windows framing outside views. You can see the frame of the house, and the house also serves as a frame for the landscape in which it sits. Inside, everything is a juxtaposition of dark and light, the light coming from outside but also from the burnished details within.

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Eustis Hall

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Eustis Window

As an Aesthetic structure, no surface is unembellished, and the architectural detail is almost overwhelming: I’m sure I overlooked many things and will have to return many times! The house’s many mantels are obvious focal points: the grand fireplace in the first-floor “living hall”, terra cotta masquerading as wood, is a symbolic tour-stopper. But everywhere there is detail to be considered: floor to ceiling and everywhere in between. I loved the coffered ceiling, the interior window shutters, the little “telephone cabinet”, the inter-connected pantries, the inter-connected bathroom, and the nursery rhyme tiles surrounding the nursery mantle. Just to mention a few details.

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EUSTIS FIREPLACES collage

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Eustis Last Detail

Wherever and whenever a considerable amount of money is spent in nineteenth-century Massachusetts, there is always a Salem connection, and that is the case with the Eustis Estate, which was built for young marrieds W.E.C. Eustis and Edith Hemenway Eustis on land given to them by Edith’s mother, Mary Tiletson Hemenway. Mrs. Hemenway was an energetic philanthropist whose activities were financed in great part by the wealth of her husband and Edith’s father, Salem-born Edward Augustus Holyoke Hemenway (1805-76). Mary herself had Salem roots, and the Hemenway Family Papers were deposited in the Phillips Library in Salem, which is of course now displaced to Rowley. The Hemenways’ stories are other stories, but also in part Salem stories. The estate’s landscape architect, Ernest Bowditch, represents another Salem connection as he was the grandson of the great Salem navigator Nathaniel Bowditch: and yes, the Bowditch Family Papers are also in the Phillips Library.

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Eustis Garden

Eustis Land

For another Emerson house: see this post. These photographs by Steve Rosenthal are all we have left of the Loring House, which was demolished in 2015.


Trimmed Out

I grew up a few towns over from the famous “Wedding Cake House” in Kennebunk, Maine, more formerly known as the George W. Bourne house, and so it’s always been a part of my life. But it’s been a few years, so I drove by last weekend and was saddened to see some of its famous “icing”, or Gothic trim, in poor condition due to a succession of harsh Maine winters. Really it’s a miracle that all that confection has lasted as long as it has in the New England climate: certainly its survival must be a testament to the fact that it remained in the Bourne family for three generations and only left the family’s ownership in 1983. I can’t imagine a Bourne failing to honor the personal craftsmanship and labor of Mr. Bourne, who utilized his ship-building skills after a trip to Europe brought him to gaze upon Milan Cathedral and inspired his construction of an elaborate Carpenter Gothic frame around his spare Federal house, by not taking very special care of all that trim.

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The Wedding Cake House, Kennebunk, Maine My pedestrian pictures, and a stunning photograph by Carol Highsmith in the 1980s, Library of Congress.

As you can see, everything was “Gothicized” in the 1850s: the main house, built in 1825 as a classic two-story late Federal, new barn with connector, and fence. There’s a few little Gothic outbuildings too. I remember always being absolutely awed by this house, every time I saw it, and after I went to Italy and saw the Milan Cathedral for myself I drove up to see if I could “see” Bourne’s inspiration upon my return. And I could! I still can, but this last time I saw the house I had a heretical thought: I wonder if it would look better without all that trim? 

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Trimmed out 1965 barn

Duomo Milan

The George W. Bourne House and Barn in 1965, HABS, Library of Congress; the Duomo in Milan in 1846 by British photographer Calvert Richard Jones, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m a big fan of the Gothic Revival, but after looking at lots of houses and house plans over the years I think I prefer those structures that were designed in this style from the outset rather than adapted to conform to ideals (and instructions!) offered up by Andrew Jackson Downing and others. Indeed, The Horticulturalist, a periodical edited by Downing from 1846 until his death in 1852, published an illustration of a “common country house” transformed and “improved” by the addition of gable, porch and trim in July of 1846. I have to admit: I prefer the “before”.

Trimmed Out Horticulturalist July 1846

But then again: Americans are (were?) ever in search of “improvement” and I can’t think of anything more American than George W. Bourne rushing home from Europe to transform–by hand–his “common country house” into a mini Milan Cathedral! I don’t think it happened quite like that, but I love that story, and I also love the ultimate Gothic conversion on the next street over: the Pickering House (although I must admit that I would really like to see an image of it in its original seventeenth-century form).

Trimmed Out Pickering


The Last Summer of White Court

The century-old Classical Revival mansion in nearby Swampscott which served as the “Summer White House” for Calvin and Mrs. Coolidge in 1925 is not long for this world, as just last week the Swampscott Historical Commission agreed to reduce the requisite demolition delay ordinance period to just 90 days in return for its purchasers’ agreement to salvage and reproduce significant architectural elements as they transform the estate into 18 condominiums. Looking at all of the old photographs of White Court, which was designed by architect Arthur Little and built near his family’s summer home on Little’s Point, “reproduction” seems unlikely; I can’t speak to salvage. In any case, the mansion will be demolished, and along with it will go a material reminder and symbol of a notable era in Swampscott’s history, a golden era when the residence of the President drew many eyes to this seaside town.

White Court 1900

White Court Arrival

Coolidge firstWhite Court in 1900, Bain News Service, Library of Congress; The arrival of President and Mrs. Coolidge at White Court in Swampscott in June of 1925, and the pair with one of their white collies (either Rob Roy or Prudence Prim ) at the estate during the summer, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries Special Collections and University Archives Alton H. Blackington Photograph Collection, ca. 1920-1963.

The Coolidges were welcomed warmly and seen about Swampscott and surrounding towns occasionally: according to the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation blog, the President worked from an office in Lynn, sailed on the presidential yacht Mayflower docked in Marblehead, and attended services with Mrs. Coolidge every Sunday at the Salem Tabernacle Congregational Church. There was not a lot of entertaining, as the Coolidges had lost their sixteen-year-old younger son, Calvin Jr., just a year previously. There were many strolls around the six-acre seaside property, white collie alongside, apparently: we only get to see one such stroll, right after the Coolidges arrive when the press were clearly on hand to see them settled into their summer home. Their smiles come and go; this is a dutiful walk—I’d like to see them on a more casual stroll but I’m glad the photographers were not enabled to intrude for too long. We have many photographs of their activities off the estate however: this was a well-documented presidential vacation!

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Coolidges White Court Leslie Jones Close Up

White Court SalemLeslie Jones photographs of President and Mrs. Coolidge at White Court, Swampscott, 1925, Boston Public Library; the Coolidges attend the Tabernacle Church in Salem, July 1925, Blackington Collection, University of Massachusetts.

I felt like I was intruding yesterday morning when I drove over to Little’s Point to see the condemned mansion, which was very much in the midst of a construction zone. It didn’t seem possible to walk down its long entry lane (which was also marked private) to snap a photograph, so I have no “now” to contrast with all of my “then”. The last time I was on the premises was a couple of years ago, when the mansion was the main building of Marian Court College, a Catholic commuter college operated by the Sisters of Mercy from 1964 to 2015. There were institutional additions to its exterior, and I did not see the interior, but the core of the building looked pretty much the same as it did in that spotlight summer of 1925. But apparently its foundation has deteriorated beyond repair, and so White Court must cease to exist, come September.

White Court Interior HNE

White Court Leslie Jones BPL The drawing room of White Court in its residential era, Historic New England; an exterior view by Leslie Jones, Boston Public Library.

Appendix: Thanks to Jonathan for informing me that White Court was the site of Northshore Magazine’s “Best of the North Shore” awards just last year: great photographs of the mansion below and more here. Also, in return for their reduced demolition delay period, the developers have agree to document the house thoroughly, so we will (at least) be able to see detailed architectural photographs at some point.

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Green(houses) in Salem

So I can show you the beautiful day after our third big snowstorm of March, and also anticipate St. Patrick’s Day coming up this weekend, I am showcasing a portfolio of some of Salem’s green houses today, many cast in snow. It’s a very popular house color in Salem, so this is just a representative sampling. Green is a color that seems to transcend architectural style: you can easily find colonial, Federal, and all variations of Victorian examples. There are no green houses on Chestnut Street (where yellow is an exotic color) so I trudged over to Essex Street, where I found many—and even more on Federal Street.

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And then I walked towards downtown and the Common past everyone’s favorite Salem green house: a little gambrel-roofed charmer on North Street, which serves as a constant human-scaled welcome structure along this key entrance corridor, in sharp contradistinction to the over-scaled courthouse nearby. If this house was not here, and maintained in such perfect condition, visitors to Salem would have quite a different first impression: the house softens the street and hints at a more historic Salem.

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And then I was off, seeing green everywhere I went, all day yesterday and into this morning: you will note that the snow has melted off the trees in some of the pictures below, a sure sign of a late-season snowstorm. I tried to represent all shades of green: a very deep forest variety, emerald, and apple and minty greens that seem a bit more spring-like. Almost unbelievably, it will be Spring in Salem next week.

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