Tag Archives: Historic Houses

An Almost-Golden Hour in Newburyport

Last week was a very busy time of transition. I have completed my six-year chair term and am going back to full-time teaching, which means four classes, four totally-overhauled syllabi and four first classes–for which I am always a tiny bit anxious, even after twenty+ years of teaching. But in the middle of the week I found myself up in Newburyport, an hour early for an appointment. This free hour was late in the afternoon, not quite the golden hour, on a bright and sunny early September day, so I took a short walk on several streets of Newburyport, where the inventory of seemingly perfectly-restored historic houses of every style seems endless, with more in transition. We’re always in transition in September, it seems, so you’ve got to grab a moment, or an hour, whenever it comes along.

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Early September in Newburyport.


On the Tavern Trail

I remain obsessed with colonial taverns, an obsession that stems from 1) the fact that Salem has several establishments called “taverns” which are not really taverns; 2) the loss of one spectacular tavern and “denaturing” of another on one of Salem’s most venerable and now saddest streets, and 3) my desire to learn how to create digital historical maps. I searched through this unwieldy blog of mine (which needs an index) and see that I’ve posted on taverns several times before, but here I go again. This particular post was prompted by a walk down Boston Street, once and still a major entryway into Salem, with many historic structures still standing—though much altered as “spotty” zoning has long been the rule. I don’t think that this street has been paved for decades, so it’s sort of a minefield if you’re in a car, so walking is preferable. Last week’s obsession was cemeteries, and so I wanted to see an old cemetery that is situated on the Salem-Peabody line on Boston Street: the Old South Cemetery, in which many members of the Trask family of Salem are buried as they owned considerable land in this area. As soon as I saw them all lined up in the cemetery, I thought of the “ancient” Trask family homestead which was once nearby, which for many years operated as the Black Horse Tavern, and on my walk back I passed by a much altered building which once served as the tavern of Daniel Frye: its McIntire interior woodwork and Zuber wallpaper was stripped out in the 1920s and sold to the Saint Louis Museum of Art, and now it is tattoo parlor with a fake palm in front, right next to a new housing development distinguished by a mishmash of architectural styles and liberal use of plastic.

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20190819_104539Boston Street in the 1890s from the Frank Cousins Collection of Glass Plate Negatives as the Phillips Library, via Digital Commonwealth; the Trask Homestead/Black Horse Tavern on Boston Street—exterior and interior—in 1901, New England Historical and Genealogical Register Volume 55; the Symonds Chest which was once in the front parlor of the Trask homestead/Black Horse Tavern, Yale Digital Collections; 94-95 Boston Street, once Frye’s Tavern, now partly a tattoo parlor.

I’ve been working intermittently on a series of digital maps which can present Salem’s colonial history in a visual format and contain a lot of information in this blog: the end goal would be one map with many layers like this great prototype here. The work is slow as I’m on a steep learning curve with the software, and there is also a lot of content to uncover: so far I have working maps on Salem churches, houses where enslaved people resided, and taverns. The first topic is easy enough to research, but I need a lot more information to present the extent of slavery and hospitality in a substantive manner. There were a lot of taverns in colonial and early-19th century Salem, both licensed and unlicensed—and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to locate all of the latter! Despite the warning of the pastor of the First Church that “drunkards are excluded from the kingdom of heaven”, the number of taverns in Salem appears to have increased steadily over the century from 1670 to 1775, with many anecdotal complaints against their “excessive number” in the town records. According to Sharon Salinger’s Taverns and Drinking in Early America, “as a whole, Essex County averaged one tavern for every 219 people….[but] Salem town averaged one tavern for every 80 persons, a slightly higher proportion of drinking houses than the larger ports.” I’ve still got quite a bit of work to do to find all those taverns, but this is my working map:

Tavern Map

Tavern Key

It took me quite a while to figure out all the various “Ship” taverns and the myriad tavern names attached to the buildings I have labeled “Essex Place” in my key; I’ve got a lot of tavern-owner names, but not all the locations. Some of the descriptions fuel my obsession: the famous Sun Tavern is described as “rough cast”, or covered in rough plaster in which pebbles and glass shards were embedded in ornamental patterns, and I would love to find an image of the “Great Tavern with many peaks” which was said to resemble the Bradstreet House on Essex Street, itself transformed briefly into the Globe Tavern. Because I can’t find my perfectly-preserved tavern in Salem, I often look for them on road trips. Yesterday I drove west along part of the closest approximation of the old upper “Boston Post Road” between New York and Boston: routes 20, 9, 67, and 20 again from Waltham to Springfield. Along certain stretches of this route–the non-urban and suburban ones—you really feel as if you are on the old Post Road, a feeling that is intensified by the eighteenth-century mile markers along the way. I was looking for taverns but got a bit distracted by the markers: you would expect both to be in clear view but I was looking with 21st century eyes and often they were a bit “hidden” or off the beaten path. But that just makes the journey more alluring.

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Tavern Pease Forbes AAS

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Taverns and markers along the old Boston Post Road in central Massachusetts: the Golden Ball in Weston, Wayside Inn in Sudbury (easy to find!), Pease Tavern in Shrewsbury (and in a c. 1900 photograph by Harriette Merrifield Forbes at the American Antiquarian Society), where the markers were very easy to find, markers in Leicester, East Brookfield and West Brookfield, where “Ye Olde Tavern” is still very much alive and open. There was also a beautiful house for sale right at the head of West Brookfield common, which fulfills all my tavern fantasies–there’s even a ready-made post for the sign.


A Statesman’s Summer House

I was up in New Hampshire this past weekend for a spectacular summer wedding on Dublin Lake, and of course I made time for side trips; the Granite State continues to be a place of perpetual discovery for me after a lifetime of merely driving around or through it, to and from a succession of homes in Vermont, Maine and Massachusetts. On the day before the wedding, some friends and I drove north to see The Fells, the Lake Sunapee home of John Milton Hay (1838-1905), who served in the administrations of Presidents Lincoln, McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt. Hay is the perfect example of a dedicated public servant and statesman, attending to President Lincoln as his private secretary until the very end, at his deathbed, and dying in office (at The Fells) while serving as President Roosevelt’s Secretary of State. He was also a distinguished diplomat, poet, and a key biographer of Lincoln. Fulfilling the conservation mission that was a key part of his purchase and development of the lakeside property, Hay’s descendants donated the extended acreage surrounding the house to the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests and the US Fish and Wildlife Service in the 1960s, and it eventually became the John Hay National Wildlife Refuge. Hay’s daughter-in-law Alice Hay maintained the house as her summer residence until her death in 1987, after which it was established as a non-profit organization, open for visitors from Memorial Day through Columbus Day weekends.

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When it comes to nineteenth- and early twentieth-century country or summer residences in New England which are now open to the public, it seems to me there are three essential types: those of very rich people (think Newport), those of statesmen (The Fells; Hildene in Manchester, Vermont; Naumkeag in Stockbridge), and those of creative people (The Mount in Lenox;  Beauport; Aspet, Augustus Saint-Gauden’s summer home and studio in Cornish, New Hampshire). The last category is my favorite by far, but there’s always lots to learn by visiting the houses of the rich and the connected, and John Milton Hay was as connected as they come. I was a bit underwhelmed by the house, which is a Colonial Revival amalgamation of two earlier structures, until I got to its second floor, which has lovely views of the lake and surrounding acreage plus a distinct family feel created by smaller interconnected bedrooms opening up into a long central hall. The airiness of the first floor felt a bit institutional, but this was an estate built for a very public man, after all. For the Hays, I think it was all about the relation of the house to its setting, rather than the house itself.

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The gardens surrounding the house also seemed a bit sparse although it was a hot day in late July and we might be between blooms; certainly the foundations and structures are there, especially in the rock garden that leads down to the lake. This was the passion of Hay’s youngest son, Clarence, who established the garden in 1920 and worked on it throughout his life. After his death in 1969, the garden was lost to forest, but it was reestablished by the efforts of the Friends of the Hay Wildlife Refuge and the Garden Conservancy. When you’re standing in the rock garden looking up at the house, or in the second floor of the house looking down at the rock garden and the lake beyond, you can understand why the well-connected and well-traveled John Milton Hay proclaimed that “nowhere have I found a more beautiful spot” in 1890.

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Sweeping through Beauport

Historic New England offers comprehensive “nooks and crannies” tours through several of its properties occasionally, and I was fortunate to go on one of these basement-to-attic-and-all-the-closets-in-between tours of Beauport, the rambling Queen Anne “cottage” on Eastern Point in Gloucester, the beneficiary of a generous friend’s conflict! Beauport was built and decorated in great detail by Henry Davis Sleeper, one of America’s first professional decorators, over several decades beginning in 1907: it is an incremental construction driven by Sleeper’s evolving vision and career. The former was preserved by Helena Woolworth McCann, who purchased Beauport after Sleeper’s death in 1934, following the advice of Henry Francis DuPont: “the minute you take things out of this house, or change them about, the value of the collection does not exist, as really the arrangement is 90%. I have no feeling whatsoever about the Chinese room, as I think it is distinctly bad; but the rest of the house really is a succession of fascinating pictures and color schemes.”  Mrs. McCann had Sleeper’s pagoda removed from the China Trade room and made it her own, and likely packed away some of Sleeper’s stuff while she and her family were inhabiting the house over successive summers, but seems to have understood DuPont’s assertion that the house was the sum of its parts–and her family donated the intact property to Historic New England (then the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities) in 1942. So when you go to Beauport today, you are stepping into Henry Davis Sleeper’s house, the way he wanted it, and you know that this is a man who admired arrangement above all, incorporating the contrast of light and dark, all color of glass, green, anything and everything that projected the spirit of idealized and romanticized pre-industrial American and English material culture, depictions of great men (George Washington above all, but also Benjamin Franklin, Lafayette, and Lords Nelson and Byron, among others), and a fair amount of whimsy. Beauport is a lot to take in, even on a standard tour much less this exhaustive one, so I’ve divided my photographs into room views and details—but they represent only a small measure of both! You’ve really got to see Beauport for yourself: several times.

The bigger picture: it’s really difficult to photograph the entirety of this house, except from above or the ocean! I focused on inside, but there’s some lovely photographs of both the interior and exterior taken by T.E. Marr & Son c. 1910-1915 here.  

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20190628_142353The China Trade Room from Sleeper’s “Minstrel’s Gallery” above, within the Book Tower, the Octagon Room, where it’s all about eight, the Golden Step dining room, the South Gallery,  the Master Mariner’s Room, the “Red Indian” Room with its ships-cabin overlook of Gloucester Harbor, the Strawberry Hill room which became Sleeper’s bedroom, the Belfry Chamber—my favorite room in the house—-the Jacobean Room, the Chapel Chamber Room, and the Franklin Game Room.

Every salvaged discovery provoked an aesthetic reaction from Sleeper, and his design sense was so strong that it lives on well after his death in Beauport. Despite its size (it grew to 56 rooms by Sleeper’s “reactions”) the house remains very personal. It certainly reflects Sleeper’s personality, but as his collection of objects was so vast and varied it is possible to have a personal reaction to what you are seeing. That certainly happened for me, so my more detailed focus below reflects my own taste, in reaction to what I was seeing. And you will notice many other things that I missed.

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20190628_135742Details, Details: marble mantle and 18th century hand-painted wallpaper from China in the China Trade room (it was purchased by Philadelphia financier Robert Morris in 1784 and discovered, still rolled up, in the attic of the Eldridge Gerry House in Marblehead in 1923), wooden “drapes” in the book tower room, a portrait by Matthew Prior (c. 1845) in the Blue Willow room, fishermen’s floats ( I think Sleeper was the original high-low decorator!), beehive pull, memorial to the death of a former slave, majolica hedgehog or porcupine (?) Nathaniel Hawthorne in the Belfry Chamber, Green glass urn in the Chapel Chamber, plate commemorating the visit of Hungarian nationalist Louis Kossuth to Boston in 1852 & window shade commemorating the American victory in the Spanish-American War in the Pine Kitchen or Pembroke Room, my favorite of Sleeper’s many hooked rugs, and the portrait of a dapper anonymous man.

♠ A more comprehensive history of both the house and the man can be found here.


Traces of Half-Timbering

I was running along the ocean on Lynn Shore Drive when I became progressively 1) tired; and 2) bored so I stopped running and started walking, into the adjacent “Diamond District” of Lynn. Yes, I’m embarrassed to admit that, after a lifetime of living alongside it, I do take the ocean for granted, but I never, never grow tired of walking up and down streets lined with historic structures. I can never run on those streets, though, because there is too much to see, and the eclectic Victorian architecture of this neighborhood is particularly eye-catching. The Diamond District is large, encompassing nearly 700 buildings, so you need to break it up into sections or styles to be able to take in all in, and on this particular morning all I could see was ornamental half-timbering on the third stories of sprawling houses built in some composite “Victorian” style: are they Queen Anne, Stick, or some form of “English Revival”? I can never get all those late nineteenth-century categorizations straight! In my own mind I classify them as Tudor-Victorians, but that’s just because I like to assign the characteristics of “Tudor” to anything and everything.

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20190614_150050This last house tricked me: I turned the corner and thought I was seeing TWO houses ahead of me, but there was only one!

Well whatever style this is, it definitely dates from the 1880s and 1890s. I looked through some architectural catalogs in the vast Building Technology Heritage Library at the Internet Archive and the earliest example of half-timbered embellishment I could find was from the early 1880s, though I didn’t really conduct an exhaustive search. These homes are described simply as “modern” in contemporary texts, though the addition of the half-timbering detail also seems to have called for the addition of the adjectives “cozy” and “comfortable”. They are all cottages, of course, whether consisting of four rooms—or forty.

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Lynn CollageHalf-timbered cottages from William T. Comstock’s Cottages (1884) and Lambert’s Suburban Architecture (1894).


Brandywine Weekend

I am just back from a long weekend spent in the Brandywine Valley spanning the border of Pennsylvania and Delaware. A few friends and I drove down principally to visit Winterthur, but I think we were blindsided by all the attractions of this beautiful region: the lush landscape was a welcome escape from still-Spartan New England too! As usual, time was limited, so I felt like I was rushing around trying to see and capture as many houses, gardens, and treasures as possible, but there was simply too much. I’m going to have to go back and spend a week or more. So what you will see in these next two posts are rather impressionistic views of the region in general and Winterthur in particular. When I return, the first thing I’m going to do is drive down every single road slowly (or maybe bicycle) so I can see as many old houses as possible: stone, brick, wood, and combinations thereof, small and large.

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Just a sample of the many beautiful houses in the Brandywine Valley: you can see that I was drawn to the stone as it’s more unusual in New England. We were fortunate to be taken to see Primitive Hall, a 1738 manor house in Chester County, Pennsylvania, with its double (“pent”) roof, a common architectural feature of early houses in the region, including the Gideon Gilpin House at the Brandywine Battlefield site. The Battle of Brandywine was the Marquis de Lafayette’s first American battle, and he was quartered at the Gilpin House.

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Primitive Hall exterior and interior and the Gideon Gilpin House at the Brandywine Battlefield site; outbuildings of both houses—I could write an entire post on historic Brandywine sheds!

The region is beautifully preserved, in large part due to the work of the Brandywine Conservancy, as well as the institutional presence of the Brandywine River Museum, Winterthur, and Longwood Gardens, and the efforts of farm (horses! mushrooms!) owners as well, I am sure. What really stood out for me, besides the abundance of open land, were a number of really stately trees—and I am no tree girl. Looming over the public part of the Brandywine Battlefield site is an American sycamore tree dating to 1787–almost a witness to the Revolution. We saw a seventeenth-century “Penn Oak” on the grounds of the London Grove Friends Meeting House in West Marlborough, Pennsylvania, and many old trees in Longwood Gardens.

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Longwood Gardens, the lifetime passion and achievement of industrialist and philanthropist Pierre S. du Pont (1870-1954) was almost overwhelming in its beauty, scale, organization and administration. What a resource for this community! I would live there if I lived nearby. I think we visited at the perfect time with abundant spring blooms everywhere, but I’m sure it’s beautiful in every season and I intend to visit in every season. There was rather dreary day on the Friday we visited, but the sun miraculously appeared for the afternoon, so no filters were needed for these photos!

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20190426_153431Longwood Gardens + Conservatory and “Green Wall” surrounding restroom doors!

I don’t think that we were completely prepared (yet again) for just how charming the Brandywine River Museum of Art is, with its comprehensive yet intimate focus on multiple generations of the multi-talented Wyeth family. I was pretty familiar with patriarch N.C. Wyeth’s illustration work,, somewhat familiar with that of his son Andrew, and a bit familiar with that of his grandson Jamie, but I had no idea that all of his children were so talented, that he was mentored by my favorite illustrator of all time, Howard Pyle, and that he suffered such a tragic death (crushed by a train, along with his little grandson, in 1945). There was also a poignant tribute to Phyllis Mills Wyeth, the wife and muse of Jamie Wyeth, who died just this past January, in the form of an exhibition of Jamie’s works which depict and were inspired by her—including a series of charming Christmas cards which he made for her every year. A visit to the Wyeth family home and N.C.’s studio nearby enhanced the whole experience, and also highlighted how and why the Brandywine Valley was and is so inspirational.

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20190426_115536Treasures of the Brandywine River Museum of Art, including: Howard Pyle’s influential “historic” illustrations and a N.C. Wyeth cover, Andrew Wyeth’s Snow Hill  and Jamie Wyeth’s Lime Bag, N.C.’s studio exterior and interior and in Andrew’s North Light, N.C. Wyeth, framed by his parents and looking down on his talented family, a Jamie Wyeth Christmas card for his beloved wife Phyllis.


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 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).

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Langdon Hallway

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Langdon Mantle

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


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