Tag Archives: 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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Fancy Chair


A Viking Ship, Two Black Hats, and One Special Street

Despite the fact that I am a middle-aged woman rather than an adolescent boy, I was absolutely determined to see the reproduction Viking ship Draken Harald Hårfagre as it sailed into Plymouth Harbor yesterday. Plymouth is just one of the stops on the ship’s east coast tour, and it was the most convenient for me in terms of time and geography, so down to the South Shore I went. It was a humid day and all was gray as we waited for a pending storm and the ship, which slid into Plymouth Harbor very gracefully. I had hoped to see it under sail, but of course that wasn’t going to happen in the wide, calm harbor. You (and I) will have to see it under sail here. I always enjoy seeing the juxtaposition of “old” and new vessels; of course Plymouth has that all the time with the Mayflower II in the harbor—but the Draken is so much more “alien”.

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Well, that’s it for the ship (which will be in port until Friday evening and then it’s going down the coast). Both before and after its arrival I occupied myself in my usual way: looking at old houses and comparing Plymouth to Salem as a tourist destination and purveyor of local history. Even though they are very different places, I can’t help making comparisons between these two New England ports, put on the map by their seventeenth-century origins and happenings as symbolized by two omnipresent black hats: of the Plymouth Pilgrim and the Salem Witch. Indeed, Salem and Plymouth have both been on the heritage map for quite some time, whether it be for educational or tourism purposes.

MA MAP 1966Colonization in America visual wall map, 1966, prepared by the Civic Education Service, Washington, D.C.; David Rumsey Map Collection.

In terms of physical size, Plymouth is one of the largest towns in Massachusetts, whereas Salem is among the smallest cities. Plymouth’s population is actually larger, I was surprised to realize, but Salem’s is much more concentrated. Salem is urban and closer to Boston; Plymouth doesn’t quite feel “suburban” to me but I guess it is. Both places are county seats and have vibrant downtowns and tourist-based economies. Both towns are “historic” but in very different ways: Salem’s history is predominately commodified while Plymouth is more committed to public history. As a heritage destination, Plymouth is what Salem would be if the Peabody Essex Museum had not absorbed and essentially obliterated the Essex Institute: its Pilgrim Hall Museum (founded in the very same decade—the 1820s–as the Essex Historical Society, one of the Essex Institute’s founding organizations) and Plymouth Antiquarian Society serve as public repositories and interpreters of the history of “America’s Hometown”. This makes for a very different projection. I’m not trying to pass judgement here (although regular readers will know how I feel): Plymouth seems to have preserved quite a bit of its “ye olde” parochial identity whereas we all know that the Peabody Essex Museum is a very sophisticated, global institution.

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Plymouth Adventure 13The Jabez Howland House is presented much like Salem’s “Witch House”, as a singular survivor and link to the seventeenth-century past.

Both Plymouth and Salem have impressive inventories of historic structures, although their waterfronts were altered considerably by twentieth-century state and federal initiatives designed to highlight their maritime heritages, ironically: the preparations for Plymouth’s tercentenary in 1919-1920 cleared out its unsightly wharves and created Pilgrim Memorial State Park while the Salem Maritime National Historic Site was created in a similar (but less radical) manner in the next decade. Salem has more concentrated historic districts but Plymouth has several special streets too: on this particular trip I could not get enough of Leyden Street (below) in particular. So many brick- or shingle-ended houses! And so few Federals, both compared to Salem and even the towns just to the north, Kingston and Duxbury. Both Plymouth and Salem had spectacular Tercentenary pageants and parades, and Plymouth is definitely gearing up for its 400th in 2020: Salem, I’m not so sure.

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Plymouth Adventure

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Plymouth adventure 12Leyden Street, with the storm coming in.


Unobstructed Views

My self-education in historical architectural photography is now quite stalled in the realm of the photogravure, and I just can’t see enough tonal prints of old buildings, preferably but not necessarily of the New England variety. There is a slim volume titled Under Colonial Roofs by Alvin Lincoln Jones with forty stunning photogravures from negatives by Charles Webster that I keep by my bedside but I like the Internet Archive copy even better because it is annotated by a snarky little anonymous note facing the title page: the first good photographic study of New England’s historic houses was Alvin Lincoln Jones’ Under Colonial Roofs which appeared in 1894. The pictures, which are of a high quality, show us many buildings that have since disappeared. The picture of the Paul Revere House, when compared to a modern view, gives us some idea of how drastic the 1907 restoration must have been. Jones’ picture leads me to conclude that it is very easy to over-restore a building. I wonder what he/she thought of the coincidental restoration of the House of the Seven Gables! The 1894 version of the Paul Revere house is in fact very revealing, as is that of the Wells-Adams House, also in the North End, which would come down in the very same year that Under Colonial Roofs was published.

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Jones showcases only two Salem houses, a very un-restored Corwin/Witch House, which he calls the Roger William House as it is several years before Sidney Perley disproved that connection, and the Pickering House, which looks then pretty much like it looks now. There are so many more I wish he had included! But images of Salem’s “ancient” houses were being dispersed far and wide by Frank Cousins in the 1890s, so I can understand his sparing coverage. There are lots of Essex County houses in the volume: I was particularly drawn to the Cobbett House on East Street in Ipswich, which appears to be no longer with us, the striking image of the Whipple House (again–in its un-Colonial-revivalized state) and the Peaslee Garrison House up in Haverhill, which looks like it could have been built in East Anglia.

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Jones takes us to all of the usual houses in Lexington, Concord and Duxbury, but does not venture onto the Cape or “out west”. Perhaps the anonymous note-inserter is correct: there is something about the untouched, organic images of two houses that I am familiar with—the Abbot house in Andover and the Peter Tufts House in Medford (which Jones calls the “Cradock House”) that are so very revealing, even more than the photographic technique. These houses would survive the twentieth century: not so the Barker House in Pembroke, then boarded-up, overgrown and abandoned.

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undercolonialroo00jone_0223 Cradock House

undercolonialroo00jone_0343 Barker House Pembroke


Where Angels Once Tread

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

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

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

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Monadnock Thayer Studio

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

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

Monadnock Dublin Pond Thayer Smithsonian

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

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

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Monadnock cottages

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

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

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

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Harrisville collage


White Album NH

While the storm was churning down south, and politicking-before-the-primary was happening in Salem, we escaped north to New Hampshire for the weekend, where I “shopped” for a vacation house and my husband decidedly did not. He humored me, however, and let me stop at every single house that caught my eye to take a photograph, probably because none of these houses was actually for sale. When I scrolled through these photographs last night I realized that each and every one of these houses was white, including the Quaker meetinghouse we found after crossing a covered bridge (about the only image that’s going to break up the non-palette below) and the Shaker meetinghouse we stopped at on our way home. We spent Saturday night at the Highland House in Tamworth, which was built in the 1790s by a Salem mariner, merchant and tanner named George Dodge (1750-1821), who was clearly trying to escape busy Salem too! He was lured back to the city by his father’s will in 1808: the elder Captain George Dodge left his son a considerable fortune of $282,000 plus the responsibility of running his various businesses in Salem. I’m not sure George Jr. made it back to New Hampshire for any extended length of time, and when he died in 1821 he left his “considerable” Tamworth properties to the First Congregational Society.

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Highland House on a misty (frosty?) Sunday morning, and a few interior details…..below: its neighbors, and a bit further afield in the foothills of the White Mountains.

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White NH Hill House

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Charming Wonalancet Union Chapel below…Friends’ Meeting House in Sandwich and Shaker Meeting House at Canterbury Shaker Village, where we stopped on the way home. I do believe that I’ll be dreaming of this last hilltop house, with its eyebrow windows, until my dying day!

White NH Church

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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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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 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


The Great New England Eclipse of 1932

In my ongoing preoccupation with turning the universal into the parochial, it wasn’t difficult to determine which historical eclipse had the biggest impact on Salem, which was just on the southwest border of the total blackout zone of the eclipse of August 31, 1932. This eclipse cut a diagonal swath through New England from Montreal to Provincetown, and people converged in the White Mountains, Cape Ann and Cape Cod for viewing: there were special eclipse “packages” and special eclipse trains, and more than one observer pointed out that the frenzy was serving as a distraction from the Depression. In Salem, the shops closed at 1:00 in the afternoon on the 31st (which was a Wednesday), as everyone departed for Gloucester–apparently not content to be in the 99% zone! The headlines leading up to the 1932 eclipse were not too different than those today: watch out for your eyes, watch out for your chickens (perhaps there was more emphasis on chickens then), the best viewing places, why the scientists are so excited. I do think there was more “eclipse ephemera” produced then, but it was a period of paper.

Eclipse 1932 NE Map

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Eclipse 1932 Williams

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August 1932 headlines from the Boston Daily Globe: eclipse ephemera from the Cole Collection at the Hopkins Observatory at Williams College.

The viewing experience seems to have been uneven across New England on August 31, 1932: clouds and rain prevailed in some places, inspiring my favorite September 1 headlines: Long Awaited Eclipse is Partially Eclipsed (or some variation thereof). I have no doubt that people had fun on the New Haven Railroad’s special Eclipse Train, however, on which they could see night-time when it’s day in New England as you play. Strange things were reported for days afterwards: chickens (very sensitive to eclipses, apparently) laid eggs that bore an imprint of the corona, which appeared on several glass windows around the region as well. In my hometown of York Harbor, Maine, the artist Henry Russell Butler, who had traveled across the country in order to capture the previous three eclipses on canvas, was thrilled to see one appear in his backyard. Photography had long been able to capture eclipses, but paint still worked too.

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Eclipse 1932 Henry Russell Butler

North Adams Transcript and New York Times headlines, September 1, 1932; New Haven Railroad Eclipse Train poster by John Held Jr., Swann’s Auctions; Henry Russell Butler, Solar Eclipse, 1932Princeton University Art Museum, gift of David H. McAlpin, Class of 1920.


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