two story outhouse?

Can you imagine?   Whoever first suggested it had to have been laughed at.  But as houses grew and trips to the loo got longer, someone did, and got away with it.  Someone actually constructed it, and attached it to the back of this house.

It certainly surprised me, when I walked across the attic floor to a brightly shining little room on the other side, to find a small bare space with three lids – just like the one I had seen on the floor below.

Another three-holer – and they were sized small, medium and large!  It took a few minutes to realize how they pulled this off.  I was curious enough to actually stick my camera down into the dark hole to find out.  The flash lit up the answer beautifully, (however gritty the deed, the photo of which I’ll spare you), but with that I discovered how they did it.

(note the added “step” for the child’s seat)

Long vertical wooden planks (and painted by the way) created a shaft that ran just behind the “facilities” below.  Certainly not as sanitary as second floor toilets today, but just as convenient and better than heading outdoors at two in the morning.

We’ve come a long way since these, but sometimes I wonder – with all the plumbing and water and septic and pollution problems.   There have been some modern “simple” solutions, like the “Clivus Multrum” (I always wanted one – but family said no!).  They are definitely stuck on modern plumbing and our more civilized porcelain potties.

So the closest I can come to emulate the old is to install a lot of wood in the room and a half moon on the door :)

lost and found

I found an old coin in our meadow the other day, an 1812 large cent.  We regularly walk this hundred acre meadow with an occasional eye out for an old arrowhead, stone tool or other treasure turned up by the farmer’s plow.  While others have amassed the meadow’s ancient gifts over the years, I have never found anything except a few interesting stones smoothed by wear and springtime flooding.  I’d imagine their use by Indians as tools for shaping or grinding,  with imprints where hardy fingers have held them tightly in their palm.  But in truth, they were probably from the river bottom, washed up by floods.

But this day, in the soil at the edge of the path, there was no mistaking something round and ridged and fashioned by modern man.  It was rusty, dirt covered, had some verdigris, and some weight, and decidedly worth taking home.  I rinsed it under the tap to try to reveal its image, read its date.  Still brown and a bit rusty, I tried a toothpaste scrub.  That part is a real no-no as it turns out.  Just so you know – the only thing to do with an old coin is to rinse it with water and rub it lightly between your fingers – just in case it really does have value.   You don’t want to scratch it with cleansers or remove its aged patina.  Luckily I didn’t use much toothpaste, but it wasn’t worth much anyway.  If you do find an old coin – ask a reputable dealer for advice.

Known as the “classic head” large cent these coins dated between 1808 and 1814 were made from English planchets, minted in Philadelphia, and were based on new designs by the engraver, John Reich.  Left facing Lady Liberty has her hair tied with a fillet inscribed “Liberty.”  She is surrounded by thirteen stars, seven on one side, six on the other, and at the bottom is the date, some dates are large and some are small.  On the reverse is the coin’s value.

While it is probably worth a few more cents now, the value of the coin, like an antique, or an old house, is not monetary, it’s history.  It’s the fun of discovering it, imagining the hands it passed through, and wondering how it got here.  On that note, there’s an interesting story.  A neighbor and longtime resident brought up the subject of how the farmers of yesteryear used to collect and use the “nightsoil” from the city to fertilize their fields.  (Now, if you haven’t heard of nightsoil, well here you go – warning – you might want to depress your “stinky” key as you read :)

She told me that long ago the “waste” would be collected from the city’s outhouses, where cans were used instead of a pit, and the farmers would turn this compost into their fields for fertilizer.  And she pointed out that outhouses were a goldmine for coins, where of course, change would slip and fall out of loose trousers.

So, my initial theory of the farm laborer losing a coin, or anything else, in the soil he was tilling, has been transformed to a much less romantic image.   While I’m glad to have this little treasure, lightly cleaned and scrubbed and added to my “old and found” pile, I will definitely think twice before retrieving any further coins from the farmer’s upturned soil.

Whitehall

While it’s the architecture that lures us to these houses in the first place, it’s discovering the unique  stories of the original builders that enliven the experience.  From heiress to sea captain, revolutionary soldier to merchant, post rider to pig farmer, all who had a hand in the birth and direction of this experiment, make every visit an adventure.  While the home of George Berkeley, 18th century theologian and philosopher, was not  open when we were there, it was still a treat to view the unique architecture outside, and impetus to discover the fascinating history of the man responsible for it.  A man after my own heart, in his love for art, philosophy and architecture.   One of the books in his vast library was by a British architect named Inigo Jones, who had studied the architecture of Palladio in Italy, a style that obviously struck a chord with everyone as it began to be reproduced in England and here in America in the 18th century.  George Berkeley thought it the perfect addition to his little cottage as well.   Only thing is, to achieve this double doorway on his center chimney house with tiny front hall, one door would have to be false.

I love knowing that someone of his substance was willing to sacrifice convenience for the sake of good design.  Good design is everything.  And he was willing to live with the minor annoyance that he would never be able to open the door on the left.   But it was worth it.  I imagine that every time he walked up that pathway his new doorway reminded him of his travels through Europe and the magnificent architecture he had witnessed there.  He must have been excited to bring it here to this new land.  Thank goodness he did.

Whitehall,  what once sat on a hundred acres, now sits on one.   That it exists at all is a miracle.  Divine intervention, perhaps, since its owner was a famous clergyman.  Dean George Berkeley was a minister, teacher, philosopher, one of the leading thinkers of his time, who counted among his friends Alexander Pope and  Jonathan Swift.  He was considered one of the big three 18th century philosophers with Locke and Hume.  His philosophical work Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge made him famous at home and abroad, he entered Newport in 1729 a celebrity.   He was attracted to Newport for its forward thinking and religious freedom.  Here he planned to establish a plantation, a home base, from which he could furnish crops and supplies for the college he planned to establish in Bermuda where the sons of the colonists would be trained to become clergymen.   The promised funds never materialized, and he would soon return to London, then to his native Ireland where he was appointed Bishop of Cloyne.

His influence in just three short years here, from 1729 to 1731, was grand.  Before he left he donated most of the thousand books he brought with him to Yale, the rest to Harvard.  The divinity school at Yale was named after him.  University of California Berkeley was also named after him, inspired by a line from one of his writings – “Westward the course of empire takes its way…”  He influenced King’s College (Columbia) and Brown University.  He helped found Newport’s Redwood Library and the Literary and Philosophical Society.  He donated his house and land to Yale, the proceeds were to fund scholarships for students studying Greek and Latin.  Now a scholar in residence spends a few weeks a year in the apartment upstairs – amidst the books and spirit of the great mind that once inhabited it – how glorious!

and good will to men

This is one time of year that we take that old adage to heart – to light a candle rather than curse the darkness.  Homes everywhere this time of year are ablaze with them.  Candlelight shimmers from every window – small paned and large – homes are aglow.  It’s a beautiful sight.  One that not only evokes memories of a special season and holiday, but one that celebrates hope.  Hope, a light that is never quenched. A light that, no matter how weak the embers,  someone will always come along to stoke it back to life.  That is the message of the season, whether you are religious or not.  Christmas was not celebrated in colonial times, but their homes were brightly lit with candles, at all times.  What was once a necessity is now a charm, and a reminder  from the struggles of their past that with  perseverance, kindness and compassion, good will prevail.

During the recession of the 1930’s FDR provided hope for the unemployed with his New Deal.  Through the Works Progress Administration, millions were put to work.  Artists painted murals, engineers built bridges and roadways, architects and draftsmen documented American architecture.

I was looking for a book recently on Georgian architecture and pulled one off my shelf called Great Georgian Houses of America.  Usually I just flip through the pages looking for specific design elements and details, but this day I happened to notice the cover text above the title which read – “Architects’ Emergency Committee.”  What on earth was that?  The Preface explained all, and it was inspiring.  Thank goodness that these men were given this task, to give them a sense of dignity and hope during difficult times, and in return, they rekindled the hope that our most important American architecture would be preserved for the future.

I want to share with you the words that Mr. William Lawrence Bottomley, Editorial Committee Chairman, wrote in his Preface to Volume II of this Dover Publication.

“….The object in publishing these volumes was to give work to draughtsmen thrown out of employment in the recent difficult years and in so doing improving their morale, giving them training in an exact and serious technique and rendering financial aid.  It has been a great pleasure to this committee to see that many of these men joining in this work did so with great enthusiasm and to find that from being in a state of discouragement, with all its attendant ills, new courage, energy and happiness were the result.

This committee has made it a policy to give employment to all men making application irrespective of their experience in this type of drawing.  Many were well qualified and experienced while others needed much coaching.  While this training was valuable to all from the educational and technical points of view it was particularly useful to those whose training had been more on commercial and less on artistic lines.

In brief we wish to report that one hundred and ten different men have been given employment in the period from 1932 to 1937 and that this represents nineteen thousand, two hundred and one work hours during this time.  The first edition of two thousand volumes is almost exhausted and all the funds from these two volumes have been expended on this object without paying any profit or overhead outside of the actual costs of publishing and mailing….”

May we remember these old fashioned values during our own difficult times, and find ways to light candles, instill hope, and help others during this season, and beyond.   May hope, health and good will be with you over the Christmas holiday and throughout the new year.

The Village of Wickford – A Rhode Island Gem

Center of Wickford

Rhode Island may be the tiniest state, but it offers some of the grandest treasures.  Not the least of which are its charming seaside villages.  While Newport gains most of the attention for its yachting history and marble mansions, there are many other towns chock full of history to be discovered as well.  Wickford is one of them.  Architecturally, nothing has changed there for over a hundred years.  There are no too-tall buildings, instead they’re simple, charming and on a human scale.  You can window shop your way down Brown Street, buy hand made jewelry, a t-shirt or antiques, and then take a stroll down residential Main.  Here time will slow to a snail’s pace.  You can feel it as you pass within inches of old doorways that have witnessed centuries of change, but haven’t succumbed to it.  It is so quiet on the residential side that you can’t help but wonder if anyone lives there, or if even the same old names might still reside in their original homes – names like Updike, Williams and Smith.

Roger Williams, founder of this Rhode Island colony, was banished from Plymouth in the 1630’s for clashing with their religious ideas.  So he headed west, befriended the Narragansetts along this bay, and set up a trading post with another settler, Richard Smith, in an area a mile north of Wickford, called Cocumscussoc.  He later sold his trading post to Smith, whose landholdings here would expand to a staggering size – nine miles long by three miles wide.   Now, greatly diminished in size but not in historical importance, you can visit this old trading post.  Well, the “newer” version of it, which was rebuilt in 1678 by Smith’s son, after the old one was burned by Indians.  It is now a larger and more elegant house, known as “Smith’s Castle.”  The museum is run by the Cocumscussoc Association.  There is a particular marked grave on the grounds, noting where soldiers fell during the King Philip’s War.  Forty men are buried in that grave.

"Smith's Castle" at Cocumscussoc

Grave marker at Cocumscussoc

In the center of Wickford, is a “new” church, St. Paul’s, built in the 1800’s.  It is called the “new” church because it replaced the “old” one, just a hidden walkway away.  The Old Narragansett Church was built in 1707.  It was established by the “Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts” in 1706.  The minister told me that it is the oldest continuously operating church this side of the Mississippi.  Worship services are still held in the summer months.  Gilbert Stuart – our most famous colonial portrait painter, noted for portraits of Washington, including the one on our dollar bill – was baptized here.  On the first Sunday in August every year there is a service called Queen Anne Sunday, where a 1710 Communion service gifted by Queen Anne, and a prayer book of the time, is used.  Familiar names adorn the stones around the grounds.  Many Updikes, heirs to Smith’s Castle, are buried here.

Old Narragansett Church, 1707

Pulpit of the Old Narragansett Church, 1707

Here are some scenes to give you a sense of Wickford’s old world ambiance.  The merchants and residents love of their village is obvious in the well kept facades and lovely landscaped grounds.  Sit, relax on a bench with your morning coffee, or afternoon ice cream, enjoy the sea breezes and song of the gulls, and pretend for a day that you are part of an earlier, simpler time.

House on Main

Main St. Residence

Typical Wickford Doorway

Street Scene

Exploring the lanes

Sweet gambrel with one simple dormer

Love the simplicity of this gambrel, and the single dormer

You can feel time's weight on this one, but carrying it well!

End of Main and Harbor

Harbor at end of Main

Heading back up Main from harbor

Spire of the "new" St. Paul's from alley

This building on Brown St. is for lease – just how does one get into that doorway???

There are several restaurants with waterside dining – but when it’s hot outside, this little diner on Brown St. has the best “clambake” chowder and clam cakes!

There’s a big surprise on the ride out of town – if you’re visiting at the end of July/beginning of August.  Everyone stops to photograph these giant lilies – but you really have to be there!  They are breathtaking in size and beauty.

Giant Water Lilies

gone fishin’

Well, gone fishin’ for fun historic adventures.  It’s summer!  Great time to visit all the houses listed in Historic New England’s “passport” – especially the ones in shore towns.  I’m anxious to visit Nina Fletcher Little’s in Essex, MA next.  A quick trip to the Massachusetts shore always brings surprises.  The trick is to go with a general destination in mind, and then let yourself be wowed by the great architecture along the way.  The scenery and the people are pretty good too.

It’s been a hot one so far this year, so the sea is a perfect escape.  On a recent trip to check out a sailboat in Gloucester, MA, we visited one of the most interesting houses, I think, ever created – Beauport.  This house sits on a cliff overlooking Gloucester harbor, with views that rival the Mediterranean.  It’s worth a three hour drive just to sit on the grounds!  Even if you don’t get inside – the outside has a story to tell, if not, there’s enough texture, detail and carvings to make one up.  Go, find out the story of how Henry Sleeper created this masterpiece, from its humble family cottage beginnings and turned it into a fun and eclectic trip through interior design history.  I guarantee an adventure!

Here are some photos to whet your appetite, or to just enjoy if you can’t get there yourself – but I urge you to try!

Portsmouth, NH

If reading about early architecture and history is not enough, if you yearn to literally walk through its pages – then Portsmouth, New Hampshire is the place for you.  It is a feast for the colonial soul.   Surrounded by original homes of wheelwrights and fishermen, governors and sea captains, you feel as though one might come round the corner at any turn.   Walking along the same paths and alleys as they did, you are immersed in its architecture – four square homes with gabled dormers, pediments scrolled and triangular, elaborately carved doorways with fans and flutes, clapboards held together with rosehead nails and chimneys tall and proud at the center, at the ends, at the four corners.  All stand shoulder to shoulder, to present a village proud of its heritage and dedicated to maintaining it for the future.

Moffatt-Ladd House

Jackson House - Historic New England

Jackson House - front

There is a museum village, open to the public – Strawberry Banke – Portsmouth’s original name given by the first settlers for the wild strawberries they found growing along its banks on the Pisquataqua River.  It is a wonderful place to spend a day on a self guided tour, and meander through early houses in various stages of restoration.  But when you step outside the museum, nothing changes.  The only difference is that the streets are paved and the houses are private.  They look the same, and they all overlook the water.  The day we visited, the tall ships were in port, adding to the ambiance.

Strawberry Banke

Downtown Portsmouth is a short walk away and is also studded with colonial homes mixed with 19th century buildings that have maintained their character and purpose.  There is plenty of shopping for tourists, a variety of restaurants, a square for the public to sit and relax with a coffee, or gelato (my favorite), and maybe listen to a street musician, all in an old world ambiance.

downtown landmarkTobias Lear house

It is said that we should live in the “now” – if that’s true, then Portsmouth is one of those places in which I would be forever delighted to do just that.

A short drive over the bridge to Kittery is pleasant.  Lady Pepperell house is there – it is private, but a feast for the eyes.

Further on to South Berwick, is the author Sarah Orne Jewett’s house.  I am a fan of her “Country of the Pointed Firs” – another story I would love to physically walk in to – and since her stories are based on her own experiences in her Berwick area, you can!  Her house is lovely, and the history interesting, but my favorite of all time is the house featured on the cover of Wendell Garrett’s book, “American Colonial” – Hamilton House.  Both of these houses are owned and operated by Historic New England, and the site manager of these homes was so kind to give us a tour of both!  Standing at the front door of Hamilton House, looking out over the water, is unbelievable.  If one could actually sell one’s soul for this paradise, then all I can say is I’m glad Lucifer didn’t show up to offer it to me at that front door!

Hamilton House - Historic New England

For more views, inside and out, of Hamilton house, click here –

http://www.historicnewengland.org/historic-properties/homes/hamilton-house/photographic-tour

Saturday, June 5th, Historic New England (formerly SPNEA) is opening all 36 of their houses for free.  For only $55/yr per household you can become a member, gain access to all of their properties anytime, and help sustain their invaluable work.  Please support them.