Tag Archives: Old Houses

Historical Habitation

A couple of months ago, I decided that this would be the Summer of The Secretary: I’ve been wanting to purchase an antique secretary for my front parlor for quite some time, and as “brown furniture” seems positioned for a revival after the mid-century modern mania we’ve been in for a while I think that prices will start to climb back to the level where they were when I first started to furnish my home. I have the perfect, slightly-recessed spot and I think a secretary will really complete that room, which I can never seem to get right. So I’ve been looking at all of the auction listings, and the other day I saw a piece that looked vaguely familiar in a Skinner Country Americana Auction. The description confirmed my suspicion: this secretary, along with several other pieces in the same auction, came from the colonial house in South Berwick, Maine which serves as the subject of Paula Bennett’s book Imagining Ichabod. My Journey into 18th Century America through History, Food, and a Georgian House.

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Imagining Ichabod Secretary

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Bennett and her husband owned the Goodwin house in South Berwick for over a decade, during which time she pursued every possible avenue to create an ambiance as historical as possible in their home: research into the textures, furnishings, food and events of the era in which the two Ichabod Goodwins lived (1740-1829), through primary and secondary sources, archaeology, and what I like to call “shopping research” ( in which I indulge often) via period houses, auctions, and antique shops. Imagining Ichabod details this very personal and material journey in words, pictures, and recipes, as Bennett is an enthusiastic cook—indeed, one gets the impression that she is enthusiastic about everything! After this complete immersion, it was off to a Boston condo for the Bennetts, which is why their Georgian furnishings ended up at Skinner.

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Imagining Ichabod Table Skinner

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Imagining Ichabod Entrance Table

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Imagining Ichabod Marble Table

The cumulative and intensive effort to create a perfect eighteenth-century (-esque) house, only to dismantle and leave it after a relatively short period, is interesting to me, as I wonder about the constraints of “period living”, and by that I mean aesthetic constraints rather than practical ones, as even the most passionate antiquarians have indoor plumbing! Everyone I know in Salem lives in an old house, mostly from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but no one furnishes their homes in an exclusively period style: it’s generally a melange of old and new, with some nods to the era in which the house was built and a lot more comfortable furniture. When I first purchased my current house, which was built in 1827, I went about it much like Paula Bennett: I wanted period furniture, period drapes, period plates, period lighting, period wallpaper, and period hardware; I was particularly obsessed with finding the correct switch plates, but of course no switch plate is “correct” in an 1827 house. After about a decade of that design philosophy, I grew tired of the constraints and loosened up considerably, and now my house is a mix of past and present, as it no doubt appeared in 1927, 1877, and even the year it was built. But I still want a secretary—and the Bennett’s Georgian one is too early.

Sandy Agrafiotis photographs in Paula Bennett’s Imagining Ichabod. My Journey into 18th Century America Through its History, Food, and a Georgian House (Bauer and Dean, 2016). I never attempted period cooking like Paula Bennett, but I’m always on the lookout for a good rum punch, and the idea of roasted oysters intrigues, as both my father and husband are oyster aficionados.


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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Red, White & Blue in the Newburys

I visited a friend up in Groveland yesterday and drove home in a very indirect way, east along Route 113 and south along Route 1A: I could have been home in a half hour or so but instead my return trip took several hours, because I had to stop and look at houses, of course. Much of my drive was through the Newburys: West Newbury, Newburyport, and just Newbury. These are all beautiful towns: Newburyport is the most bustling, and justly celebrated for its colonial and Federal architecture, but I’ve always been equally impressed by West Newbury, which is characterized by a line of beautiful classic colonials–interspersed with the occasional First Period house—all perfectly preserved. They’re all on Route 113, the main route between Newburyport and Haverhill and beyond–once obviously a country road running parallel to the Merrimack River but now pretty busy. There’s no sidewalk, so you have to look for spots to pull over and then walk alongside traffic until you reach the object of your adoration. Normally I don’t have time to do this, but yesterday I took the time.

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Houses on the West Newbury Training Field (+ World War I Memorial): two down, an amazing First Period house (which is actually light green).

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Newburyport, all ready for the Fourth.


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