Tag Archives: Historic New England

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.

Georgian Warner Haven

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.


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.


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.

White Court 2017

White Court 2017 2


Coming up Roses

I’m in a bit of a funk about our city right now, but still mid-June is glorious nearly everywhere in New England, and Salem is no exception: it’s time to celebrate the roses, and the lushness all around us. Roses are spilling under and over fences all over town, whether they are wooden picket, wrought iron, or chain-link. We have passed through the period of the peony and the rhododendron (not a fan of either–too lush) into that of roses, lady’s mantle, and mountain laurel. I wish I could keep the roses going in my own garden, but they seldom put on such a flagrant display after June: they just spurt, and it doesn’t matter how much Neem oil I spray on them, their leaves always turn yellow. But they look good now! Here is this year’s crop, followed by some of my favorite roses around town. Rose bushes are difficult to photograph: the one just below my collage, which is on the fence of the Phillips House on Chestnut Street, is actually more lavender than pink.

Roses collage

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Roses Cambridge

Roses Ropes

There are several of the old Rosa Gallica, or “apothecary’s rose” shrubs in the colonial garden behind Salem Maritime’s Derby House, and I also saw some in the garden of the Munroe Tavern in Lexington as I was driving by last week. I would love one, but I’d kill it. I was scouting out the site of the new archival center that the Lexington Historical Society is building adjacent to the Tavern: now I’m jealous of both Lexington’s old roses and the imminent accessibility of its archives!

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Roses Lexington

Roses Monroe

Back in Salem and in my garden, the lady’s mantle is peaking, as is the rue (which lasts for most of the summer–a truly marvelous herb), and I found some beautiful variegated catmint for a new border: the cats walk right by it so I don’t think it’s a particularly potent variety. I also put in some masterwort (astrantia) plants along the border of the shade garden: their flowers look like little jeweled brooches and I hope they keep appearing all summer long.

Roses Ladys Mantle

Roses Rue

Roses Catmint

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RosesSalem and Lexington flowering, June 2018.


Busy Bees

I know that bees are experiencing some serious challenges at the moment, but it seems to me that there are much more of them out there than in previous summers—at least in our region. I’ve encountered mini-swarms on rural walks in both New Hampshire and Massachusetts over the past month, it seems like individual bees have been buzzing around my garden constantly since July, and just the other day I saw hundreds of bees affixed to the sunflowers in the large patch at Colby Farm up in Newbury: neither bees nor people can resist this flagrant perennial display!

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Bee Sunflowers Closeup

I went into my clip file—comprised of very random digital images which I find interesting or attractive and store away for whenever or whatever (other people seem to use Pinterest this way but I just don’t)–and found several bee images there that I had clipped or snipped over the last few months: books, ephemera, creations. So clearly I’ve had bees on the brain: maybe because I decided to forego sugar over the summer and thus became more intensely focused on honey. In any case, this seems like a good time to get these images out there–Thomas Tusser suggests that the ongoing process of “preserving” bees demands a bit more human attention in September in his classic agricultural manual Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry (1573):  Place hive in good air, set southly and warm, and take in due season wax, honey, and swarm. Set hive on a plank (not too low by the ground) where herbs and flowers may compass it round: and boards to defend it from north and northeast, from showers and rubbish, from vermin and beast. Tusser is one of many British and continental authors writing about bees and beekeeping in the sixteenth century, and over the succeeding centuries this sub-genre continued to flourish, right up to the wildly-popular Beekeeper’s Bible. I’ve written about bee books before, but my favorite recent discovery is Samuel Bagster’s Management of Bees, with a description of the Ladies’ Safety Hive (1834). Bagster has a very entrepreneurial attitude towards bees, and is striving to transform their keeping into a feminine avocation with his promotion of the “Ladies Safety Hive”: they can be built at home or delivered by Bagster, fully-equipped.

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Bees Bagster

My apian ephemera is focused less on the bees than their hives: which of course serve as an accessible symbol of industry and by extension, achievement. The most prominent uses of beehive symbolism on Salem ephemera that I have found were issued by the Salem Charitable Mechanic Association (which it clearly borrowed from the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association, or vice-versa) and Frank Cousins’ many trade cards advertising his Bee-Hive store but there is also an early trade card for the Salem goldsmith and jeweler Robert Brookhouse which features the very Salemesque combination of hive and ship. I discovered a completely new type of ephemera this summer–watch papers–of which there is an interesting collection at the American Antiquarian Society, including several embellished with beehives.

Bee Certificate

Bee Hive MA Charitable HNE

Trade Card beehive

Bee Brookhouse

Bee Hive Watch Paper AAS

Ephemeral beehives: Phillips Library (printed in EIHC Volume 113); Historic New England; and courtesy American Antiquarian Society.

Another discovery of this fading summer are the amazing textile creations of Mister Finch, which you must see for yourself. His bee is among the more realistic of his species–check out his website for more surrealistic creatures. And then there is Tamworth Distilling, to which I returned several times, which manufactures several varieties of botanical gins, including the Apiary Gin pictured below. To be honest, this was a bit too honey-based for me: gin is my favorite spirit and I tend to be a London Dry traditionalist. But I love the bottle, of course (and their cordials).

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Bee Gin

Mister Finch Bee and Tamworth Distilling Apiary Gin.


Hamilton House

While I was up in York Harbor for the weekend I took the opportunity to visit Historic New England’s Hamilton House on Saturday afternoon while everyone else was at the beach. I’ve been on a historic-house museum kick this summer, and while I’ve been to Hamilton House (in neighboring South Berwick) before, it merits repeated visits if only for its setting and gardens. It’s the perfect Colonial/Colonial Revival House, built in the earlier period (c. 1785) by new money and “restored” with not-quite-old Boston money at the turn of the last century. In between, it was a working farm, with hay in the attic and tenants on the first floor. After it was acquired by Historic New England in 1946, it was returned to its original appearance on the exterior, but the Colonial Revival summer house interiors were retained.

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Hamilton House

Hamilton House Woodbury

Hamilton House today and in John Mead Howells’ classic Architectural Heritage of the Piscataqua (1937)+ a Charles Woodbury illustration of the house, the setting for Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Tory Lover (1901). South Berwick native Jewett apparently convinced her friends Emily and Elise Tyson (Vaughan) to buy the derelict house for their summer retreat. The Tysons had sold their former summer house in Pride’s Crossing, Massachusetts to Henry Clay Frick, who promptly knocked it down. 

Because it was a summer house, there’s more than a bit of incongruity between the furnishings and the architecture: the former is genteel “shabby chic”, early twentieth-century style, and the latter is quite grand, especially the large central hall. The straw matting running through the house contributes quite a bit to this rambling mix. While obviously I am a Philistine when it comes to the interior of Hamilton House, it is much appreciated by others, and was also quite influential in its own time, as explained in this great post over at the Down East Dilettante. I did appreciate how its interiors related to its setting, poised as it is over the Salmon Falls River with gardens, fields and forest also in view, and the rather charming Zuber-esque murals of Portsmouth artist George Fernald Porter.

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Hamilton Mural

Hamilton Dining

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First floor parlor, murals and dining room, and the requisite open hearth in the kitchen.

The summer furnishings also make the house feel very airy, particularly on the second floor. If the Tyson ladies found anything remotely Victorian in the house when they took possession, I am certain that it was banished immediately! As we ascended upstairs, we could see an exposed beam which was repurposed by the house’s builder, Captain Jonathan Hamilton: when he didn’t need it for one of his ships, it was used for his new house.

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Hamilton Pano

Hamilton House Windows

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Hamilton Dolls

Just three of Elise Tyson Vaughan’s vast collection of dolls: apparently the remainder are in the Peabody Essex Museum. It’s impossible to search its vast collections so who knows?

The Tysons moved an adjacent barn and laid out an enclosed garden of “colonial” flowers surrounding a sundial and fountain and extending to a garden cottage composed of salvaged doors and planks from a first-period house across the river: a shady respite from the summer sun but at the same time open to its environs. As you can see, it’s the season for phlox, which surely must be the perfect Colonial Revival perennial.

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Hamilton Garden Cottage

Hamilton Garden


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