Tag Archives: great houses

The Jeremiah Lee Mansion

There are two structures which made an impression on me early in my childhood and sort of set the standard for historic grandeur in my mind: Dartmouth Hall at Dartmouth College, where my father began his career, and The Lady Pepperrell House in Kittery, Maine, close to my hometown of York where we moved when he moved on to the University of New Hampshire. Of course, Dartmouth Hall is a Colonial Revival reproduction of an earlier building, though apparently a very faithful one. I didn’t know that when I stared up at it when I was five or so, and a decade later when I first became concious of the Lady Pepperrell House it evoked that memory. To me, both were New England Georgian exemplars. And yesterday I visited another Georgian exemplar, the Jeremiah Lee Mansion in nearby Marblehead. It was the opening day of its season, and I knew that the charming Rick, one of the most knowledgeable people around about all aspects of local architectural history (just follow his instagram account and you will learn something every day, sometimes every hour) was on docent duty, so I made my reservation and ran over there. It was a cold and gloomy June 1 (especially after a warm Memorial Day weekend), but the house seemed warm and cheerful to me despite its size: this is a grand mansion in every sense of both words.

The Mansion is made entirely of wood, but designed to give the appearance of an ashlar stone facade.

A bit of history and then I’ll show you some of my interior shots—the gloom outside really highlighted the color inside and I got some great views, if I do say so myself! The mansion was built by 1768 by Colonel Jeremiah Lee (1721-1775), a wealthy “merchant prince” of Marblehead, who was just as engaged in the civic and political life of this bustling maritime community as he was in his brilliant shipping career. Lee was the wealthiest merchant in Massachusetts acccording to tax records from 1771, and he might have been America’s largest pre-revolutionary shipowner with full shares in over twenty vessels. For someone who clearly had so much at stake within the commercial context of the Atlantic world and the British Empire, it’s quite remarkable to see how Lee risked all by becoming a committed Patriot, and even though he did not die in battle, he contracted pneumonia by sleeping in a chilly and wet cornfield on the outskirts of Lexington and Concord on the eve of those battles in April of 1775, certainly a martyr to the cause. So Lee only lived in his trophy house for seven years, and his widow Martha Swett Lee for another decade. We have to dwell in the past a bit longer to understand the sheer scale of this mansion: it seems almost oversized for Old Town Marblehead now, but Marblehead in 1770 was the second largest settlement in Massachusetts, while Salem was the fourth! After the Revolution, Salem commenced its economic and demographic boom, but while the first US census of 1790 reported Salem as the 7th largest city in the new nation (with a population of nearly 8000), Marblehead was still in the pack in 10th place (with a population of 5661). So this mansion represents not only the wealth and cosmopolitan taste of Jeremiah Lee, but also of pre-revolutionary Marblehead. That said, this structure is so very conspicuous and grand, that I understand the words of Miss Hannah Tutt, historian of the Marblead Historical Society, which acquired and restored it after 1909:  Fashioned as it was, after the homes of his ancestors, it needed but the hawthorne and the hedgerows to transport one to old England, and indeed the very timbers, of which it was framed, were grown in the mother country. Built at a cost of over ten thousand pounds, it could hardly be rivaled throughout the whole province of Massachusetts Bay—and overshadowing, with its grandeur, the humble home of the fisher folk, no wonder it became to them the “Mansion,” and the “Lee Mansion” it has always been, the pride of the whole town (The Lee Mansion. What it Was and What it is, 1911). Ok, context completed, let’s go inside: first floor first.

Through the front door, you step into this amazing 16-foot-wide entrance hall which extends to the back of house, and it’s all about the central staircase and the handpainted English wallpaper panels, which extend up to the second floor. The house served as the Marblehead Bank for about a century after it left the possession of the Lee family and before it came under the stewardship of the Marblehead Historical Society, so the back and upper stories were closed off. According to Rick, visitors could strip of pieces of this wallpaper as souvenirs in the front part of the first-floor hall, so reproduction paper replaced those parts, but the most of the wallpaper is original and glorious. There is a grain-painted “banquet hall” to the left, and a parlor/drawing room to the right.

There are actually very few items related to Jeremiah Lee in the house; most of the decorative accessories derive from the period but not the family. One feels the presence of Jeremiah and Martha (especially as you pass the copies of their full-length portraits painted by John Singleton Copley on the way to the second floor; the originals are in the Wadsworth Athenaeum), but you feel like you are visiting an eighteenth-century house rather than their house. A very grand eighteenth-century American house. I really appreciated the curation: the Marblehead Historical Society/Museum has been the recipient of a steady succession of decorative donations over the century since it has acquired the Lee Mansion, but the decorative accessories on display were chosen clearly to highlight and complement rather than overwhelm. Nothing competes with the architecture (well, I don’t think anything really could.) On to the second floor.

Second-floor Chambers: the two front rooms are still of considerable size, but things get a bit cozier in the back. The blue-trimmed chamber is a suite of connected small rooms including one with odd proportions and amazing wallpaper! The room with all the yellow damask—a guest room according to Rick—is simply stunning. And you can see that the furniture is top-notch and very complementary.

Beautiful rooms on the second floor, as you can see, but what I am not really showing you is the view. Remember, Marblehead was a busy seaport when this mansion was built: it was not, and is not, a rural estate. Now its grounds are a bit deceptive: there’s a nice side garden but the original lot was quite shallow and a large parcel of land in the back was a later acquisition by the Museum (there is a very interesting article by Narcissa Chamberlain, the wife of photographer Samuel Chamberlain who lived just one street over, about its original boundaries in the April 1969 issue of the Essex Institute Historical Collections). The large windows of the mansion frame the street views out front and the very green views out back, but all I could see was yellow inside, because there is a lot of yellow, but also because I’m working on my new book, a study of saffron, and so I see it everywhere. On to the third floor.

More saffron and more chambers on the third floor: I need these “bed chairs” or whatever you call them! Writing in bed is one of my favorite activities but it takes a toll on one’s back. These third-floor bedchambers were precious. I love this portrait of Miss Selman, the hatboxes, these curvy fancy chairs and settee. Two other rooms on the third floor were a catch-all room with a random collection of museum items (including sea chests with their charts still inside!) and a parlor/playroom/servant’s room in the rear, also filled with wonderful items. I’m not really focusing on the portraits in this post, but there are many interesting ones to see.

And down another side staircase (I seem to remember that there are four staircases in the house) to the first-floor kitchen and a small dining/breakfast room where one of Colonel Lee’s logbooks rests on a table and his contemporary Elbridge Gerry looks on. I starting writing as soon as I got home so I wouldn’t forget all the detailed information which Rick imparted to me, but of course everything was just too much to take in so I’m going to have to go back again. I can think of so many sub-stories: the people in the portraits, a Dartmoor Massacre drawing, the wallpapers and printed tiles, those bedchairs, the contributions of my favorite preservationist, Louise du Pont Crowninshield, a summer Marblehead resident. The Marblehead Museum purchased the adjacent property, the site of the Mansion’s brick kitchen and slave quarters, just last year and archeological investigations into the histories of slavery and service in this corner of Marblehead are commencing this very summer. So while there is a lot to see in this majestic mansion, it is not a static site but rather a dynamic one, engaged in an evolving process of discovery and reinterpretation.

The Jeremiah Lee Mansion & Garden: more information and reservations here.


Christmas at Home and Away

Our Christmas was Covid-impacted like everyone else’s, but it ended up being just lovely, with most of our time spent with my brother and brother-in-law in Salem eating, drinking, playing bad board games and watching movies. We went up to York Harbor for Boxing Day with my parents, but we’re not going down to New Jersey to see my husband’s family, so this is a rare holiday season without long-distance travel for me (with the exception of last year, of course), and I’m enjoying lounging around. Because we knew we would be primarily stationary on Christmas weekend, we snuck in a quick trip down to Newport to see the decorated mansions (the Elms, Marble House, and the Breakers) as well as the streets and streets of colonial houses of every color. So all in all, a convivial, colorful, and (so-far) Covid-free holiday! I feel very fortunate.

Christmas at Home (with swans this year—and lots of cats, our Trinity & Tuck, and my brother’s Clementine).

Newport! I really prefer the smaller colonial houses, but when you’re in Newport you’ve got to see some mansions, especially at Christmas time. We had a lovely dinner at the White Horse tavern, and just walked by and through so many houses. Perfect little break. I think I have the many, many Christmas trees and mantles in order of their location—-first The Elms, then Marble House, then the Breakers—but there were just so MANY I might have mixed some up.

The Elms, 1901.

Marble House, 1888-1892.

The Breakers, 1895.

As glittering as they are at this time of year in particular, these mansions are a bit over the top, so I’m ending with the simple themed trees in the basement kitchen of the Breakers (hedgehogs & mushrooms! I’ve been wanting to do those Christmas themes myself) above and my very favorite Newport house and the First Parish Church in my hometown of York, below. Happiest of holidays to everyone.


Thanksgiving Tradition and Transition

For many years my family spent the long Thanksgiving weekend at the grand old Equinox Hotel in Manchester Village, Vermont, the generous gift of my grandmother. We established several traditions there that ended with her death five years ago, after which none of us wanted to return, until this past Thanksgiving. So we came from Maine, Massachusetts and New York to Vermont, where the golden November weather shifted to white winter on Thanksgiving night. We woke up, and it was like a switch had been flipped! We’ve never been crazy about the Equinox restaurants, so we went to the Dorset Inn for a Thanksgiving dinner, as we had in the past. The night after Thanksgiving always began with a dram of Scotch at the tavern at the 1811 House across the way (where nothing else was served except popcorn) but that has been absorbed by the Equinox and I’m not entirely sure what they’re doing with it (although I looked in the window and the bar doesn’t seem to have been changed a bit, thank goodness). Manchester’s role as a center of outlet shopping seems a bit diminished by the pandemic, but we weren’t very interested in shopping anyway (except at the Vermont Country Store a half hour away in Weston). I trudged around in the snow quite a bit but certainly didn’t make it up, or even near, Mount Equinox, though others ascended.

Thanksgiving and the day after at the Equinox and vicinity, the Dorset Inn, and the Vermont Country Store.

On Saturday I trudged all the way to Hildene, the summer home of Robert Todd Lincoln and his family for many years. This is just a great site, encompassing a stately Georgian Revival house and several other adjacent structures, well-preserved and interpreted (and a very nice museum shop, which reinvigorated my shopping impulse). The house looks imposing from outside but seems intimate inside, especially as an organ was diffusing early twentieth-century music through pipes which seem to run throughout. After a spectacular sunset and a great schnitzel for Saturday dinner, we drove down south and home, out of the white and back to the brown (and all of our responsibilities!)

Exteriors and Interiors at Hildene.


Cogswell’s Grant

Like several summers in the past, this was supposed to be my “Historic New England Summer” in which I made a determined attempt to visit and write about as many HNE houses as possible. I started out very close to home at the Phillips House, and then was supposed to go on from there, but other plans and places interfered, and so I’m just now getting back to the “plan.” Yesterday I spent a delightful hour or so at Cogswell’s Grant, an expansive eighteenth-century farm which was long the summer house of two prominent collectors of Americana, Bertram and Nina Fletcher Little. The house is in the midst of glorious farmland surrounded by river and bays in Essex: a New England home in the midst of “Constable country” has always been my impression, reinforced by the golden early-September ambiance. I was so fortunate to have been given a tour by the site manager, Kristen Weiss, who knows the collections, and the family, so well. And that’s the key to Cogswell’s Grant: it is full to overflowing with the Littles’ collections, but also the stories of the things they collected as well as their own stories as collectors. The collections and the stories are inseparable and integral to the story of the house, from the 1930s until today.

A front parlor and Mrs. Little’s charming closet office.

My perspective on the Littles was far too Salem-centric, as Bertram Little was the son of Salem Mayor (as well as naval architect, photographer, silversmith, military officer, bank director, and the last collector of the Custom House) David Mason Little and grew up on Chestnut Street in the midst of other Littles. But his purview, along with that of his wife and and collecting partner, Nina Fletcher of Brookline, was regional rather than parochial. They were New Englanders, who lived in Brookline during most of the year and at Cogswell’s Grant during the summers, from the late 1930s. I did not appreciate the professionalism of their collecting activities to the extent that I should have, or their partnership, or her scholarship: I returned home with just a few of her many books. Generally, when I visit a historic house I feel that I can sum it up in a somewhat representative way pretty quickly, but there’s just too many stories at Cogswell’s Grant: I’ve got to go back for more. It’s probably best to approach the vast collection through categories, which Mrs. Little does in her narrative of how their collection grew, Little by Little. Six Decades of Collecting American Decorative Arts (although as Kristen pointed out, this very accessible book employs a chronological framework as well). Again, so many stories: she was collecting stories as well as objects. Beginning with her first piece of blue and white Staffordshire she leads us through fireplace accessories, hooked rugs, clocks, “useful wares,” furniture, maritime art (the collection of which was tied to her husband’s Salem heritage), decoys, textiles, pictorial panels, all manner of portraits and paintings, and interesting miscellaneous items, like the engraved ostrich eggs the Littles purchased at a North Shore auction on the eve of World War II: they had to use a good amount of their precious gas ration to attend, but it was worth it! The portraits stand out in my photographs, just as they do in the house, but they are only part of a much larger story.

The open hearth kitchen/dining room and various halls of objects. An anonymous couple in their finery by Royall Brewster Smith, c. 1830.

With so much visual stimulation, you can either get overwhelmed or adopt a very personal perspective on what you are seeing: I always try to do the latter. Of all the portraits at Cogswell’s Grant, the one that I had the most immediate reaction to was of eighty-four-year-old Jacob Gould [Jacop Goold] by Benjamin Greenleaf, painted in 1803. He has an open book and a conspicuously-pointed finger, but all I could see was his red cap! I had just been proofing the copy edits to my forthcoming book the day before, and one chapter has a section on Renaissance suggestions for better sleep: wear a red cap!

Mr. Gould in his red cap; second-floor parlor and bedrooms; an amazing pictorial collage of the arrival of the first Oddfellows in America (there they are in the bottom left corner!); the BIG barn.


Hudson River Valley Highlights

I’m just back from almost two weeks staying at my brother’s house in Rhinebeck, New York, right in the middle of the Hudson River Valley. I’ve seen a lot, and have many beautiful photographs to upload here, but I’m not quite sure how to curate them: no theme is emerging other than wow, there’s so much here. I’ve been to this region quite a bit over the past few decades, and I thought I knew it, but this longer stay has convinced me that I do not, really. You know I’m not really interested in nature (apart from its harnessing) so it’s not about the River for me, it’s about the houses and the towns, the built environment. Do I organize my hundreds of photos of structures and streetscapes by family (the Livingstons are everywhere), by chronology, by origin (Dutch vs. English), by size (the two cities of Kingston and Hudson on the west and eastern sides, surrounded by smaller towns and “hamlets” and the larger cities of Poughkeepsie and Tarrytown to the south), or by style? Mansions or private residences? Shops, or more particularly, shop windows (which seem to be curated here to a level we haven’t seen in Salem since the 1950s)? One theme which might work is that of stewardship, which I always think about when I’m in the midst of a region as architecturally and institutionally rich as this valley, but that will take some work and as I have officially entered the last week before classes that means I have SYLLABI looming: better stick to highlights!

Mansions and Cottages:

The stunning Lyndhurst Mansion in Tarrytown, designed by Alexander Jackson Davis for the Paulding and Merritt families over several decades beginning in 1838 and later acquired by Jay Gould, whose daughter left it to the National Trust for Historic Preservation; neighboring Sunnyside, the home of Washington Irving; Wilderstein in Rhinebeck and a detail from its stables; Montgomery Place and its stables, now the property of Bard College.

 

A Decayed Mansion with much potential: The Point, or Hoyt House, at the Mills Mansion/Staatsburg State Historic Site, Hyde Park.

There are several impressive structures on the vast riverfront acreage of the Staatsburg State Historic Site, including the Classically columned Mills Mansion, but I only had eyes for the Hoyt House on my hike. Designed by Calvert Vaux before his Central Park partnership with Olmsted, it just looks perfect, despite its decay (or maybe because of it?) The Calvert Vaux Preservation Alliance, of which my brother-in-law Brian is a director, is raising funds for the Hoyt House’s restoration and potential repurposing as a center of traditional craftsmanship training—talk about stewardship! I’m wondering if this cottage on the main road outside of the park is tied to the estate, as well as this adjacent entrance?

 

Alexander Jackson Davis’s furniture: almost everything is arched.

Chairs, beds, mirrors, even tables, so there is no “head” of the table: all at Lyndhurst.

 

Private residences: both vernacular and very high style—-all sorts of styles.

A Foxhollow Farm cottage, more contemporary board and batten, and two houses in Claverack to the north (I spent a lovely hour or so inside the white brick Hillstead, at the gracious invitation of Bruch Shostok and Craig Fitt); all sorts of restorations going on in Hudson; the lighthouse at the entrance to Kingston’s harbor.

 

And shopping! Mostly at Hudson, a bit at Kingston (Grounded) lured in by creative shop windows (which we need more of in Salem). History was in the windows too.


Way Down South

We’re just back from a quick trip to the Florida Keys and Miami, not really my ideal vacation location but my husband craved sun and sand and fishing and I had never been to Key West so it was good compromise destination. There was just enough architecture to keep me occupied and he indulged me with a visit to Vizcaya. I was a bit worried about Florida’s reputation for negligent masking, but everywhere we went people wore their masks inside. The highlights of the trip for me were: Key West cottages, with their myriad shutters, porches, and brightly painted doors, our Key West hotel, which was both very stylish and very comfortable, the shrimp and grits featured at the hotel’s restaurant, with the non-traditional, amazingly delicious additions of manchego cheese and bacon, Ernest Hemingway’s house and its resident cats, many lime-flavored drinks, learning all about the female keepers of Key West’s lighthouse and the construction of Henry Flagler’s Overseas Railroad, and Vizcaya, of course. It was also very interesting to watch the coexistence of so many different vehicles on the streets of Key West, including cars, scooters, bicycles (which really rule the road) and skateboards. And because I cannot go to another tourist city without comparing its “interpretive infrastructure” to that of Salem, I must say that Key West’s signage (both wayfinding and historical) is more uniform, more aesthetic, and simply BETTER than that of Salem, although that’s not saying much as our signage is so bad.

Key West, including the interior and exterior of our hotel, the story of our marriage, and a Marathon sunset.

Lowlights? Only the heat, I would say. It was exhausting to do my characteristically energetic architectural walkabout in Key West, but as I write this bundled up in bed on a cold and wet New England spring morning, that warmth is a fond memory.

Miami & Miami Beach: Vizcaya exterior and interior, and just a few houses from a few decades later—all is turquoise and coral.


Paper Houses

My manuscript is completed and has been dispatched to London, so last night I actually started reading a non-academic book, the first in a year or more. I didn’t last long, between the covers and between the sheets, because I’m tired, but it was novel. The book in question was almost-academic, so it was a good transition: Novel Houses by Christina Hardyment, featuring 20 “famous fictional dwellings,” including everything from Horace Walpole to Hogwarts. This morning I read it right through: a very pleasant read with great illustrations, so I thought I would showcase some of them here. Hardyment chose novels in which the plot is dominated by a structure, so much so that the latter is almost like a character: Walpole’s Castle of Otronto, Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, Sir Walter Scott’s Waverly, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables (of course, but is this a fictional house?), Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Henry James’s The Spoils of Poynton, John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga, E.M. Forster’s Howards End, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando & Vita Sackville West’s The Edwardians, Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. 

In no particular order: Walpole’s Strawberry Hill, Jane Austen’s ancestral home Chawton, inspiration for many of her novels, 1913 edition of The House of the Seven Gables, an advertisement for Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1949 edition of I Capture the Castle, Knole, inspiration for Woolf’s Orlando, Galsworthy’s drawing of the fictional “Robin Hill” in The Forsyte Saga, the first edition of Rebecca, cool cover for Cold Comfort Farm, Hobbit houses, Beacon Towers on Long Island Sound, which might have inspired Gatsby’s mansion in West Egg.

Some chapters worked better than others for me in terms of inspirational houses: I haven’t read Peake or Conan Doyle, or The Spoils of Poynton. I think perhaps Manderley and Brideshead are the strongest house-characters. It’s difficult for me to think of the Gables as simply a fictional house, because it actually exists, but it bears remembering that it did not in Hawthorne’s time.

I would love to get some more suggestions for novels in which houses play a major role in the plot, not just the setting.