New England Doorways

Doorways of Old Main Street

Who doesn’t love a beautiful doorway?  Here are twenty five historic doorways from lovely old Main Street, but they could be from almost any neighborhood in New England.  These entrances are on Connecticut River Valley homes spanning two centuries – 1698 to 1898 – and are available as 12 x 18 posters at only $20 a piece.  I put this together myself – from snapping the photos to learning some 21st century technology in the process – all for the benefit of the South Windsor Historical Society.  It was fun to do, and the end result is a wonderful piece to hang anywhere in your home.  It looks especially charming in a barn wood frame, and makes a great gift for the holidays.  To order a poster, send your check, made out to the South Windsor Historical Society, for $20 plus $5 for shipping, and mail to:

Restoring Home, PO Box 362, East Windsor Hill, CT 06028.

You can also email me at restoringhome [at] gmail [dot] com if you have any questions.

Have a wonderful holiday!

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.

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.

colonial homes

Obviously, a lot has changed in two hundred years, but American’s love for their colonial history and architecture has remained steadfast. As evidenced by preserved villages such as Sturbridge, Deerfield, Greenfield, Strawberry Banke and Williamsburg, and the hundreds of homes maintained by local historical and landmarks societies, colonial New England architecture is alive and well in the hearts and minds of Americans.

At first glance one notices the well designed façades, hefty proportions, the graceful balance and detail of the New England home.  The carved doorway, small paned windows, and smoke rising from the chimney beckon us to come inside and stay a while.  Henry James in 1904 while traveling through our fair New England, noted in the American Scene, “Look at them…at the fine old liberal scale, and felt symmetry, simple dignity, and solid sincerity of them…”

So why, you wonder, have we strayed?  Why has the countryside been littered with other than perfectly proportioned New England colonials? Where corn and tobacco used to grow, houses have been planted from a seed-book of generic plans that offer up what the builder believes will sell – space, convenience, economy.  Without a care for aesthetic, or for what history has taught us to please the eye and comfort the soul, proportion and balance is thrown out of the too tall pseudo Palladian window with the snap in grills in favor of ease and carefree living.

To say that a lot has changed in the last hundred years, architecturally, is an understatement.  Through the colonial revival period of the 20th century, designing homes was still an art, and adherence to aesthetic principles was still the rule.  The late 20th into the early 21st century has produced an abundance of ruthless architecture, the type that serves up to its buyers everything they could possibly want.   Space, lots of it, high ceilings, large bathrooms with whirlpool tubs, perhaps a slate foyer, and an indoor pool.  The rule became – give them what they want on the inside, and adjust the outside accordingly.  The designer may have done his/her best, given their training, to produce an aesthetically pleasing home, but once left to the interpretation of the builder and homeowner, who are left to select for themselves all of the details they ever dreamed of incorporating into their home – well, the apple ends up falling very far from the tree.  Sometimes it ends up a kumquat!

It reminds me of a story I used to read to my children, about a little bear who draws a picture of his mother at school.  On his way home he shows the picture to his friend, the alligator, who says the mouth is too small.  So he makes it larger.  Then he meets his friend the elephant, who says the nose is too short.  So he makes it longer.  Then he meets the giraffe, who says the neck should be taller, and so on.  You can imagine the picture by the time he gets home.  But of course, his mother loves it!  And, I suppose, from the inside of the house, the homeowner who got everything they ever wanted in their house, will love it too.  But from the outside, it’s probably hard to tell which is the front, the side, or even, which way is up!

This is alright for the fast lane folks, I guess, where a house is just a house, a place to get it done. But some of us want to move slower, savor every moment.  To some of us, it all matters.  We want to envelop ourselves in the hand made, where we can caress the paneling, admire the hand carved mouldings, ponder the past over a grand hearth.  We want to walk across old pine boards, open real wood doors, lift an iron latch.  We long to gaze out of small paned windows with wavy glass.  We yearn to enjoy the simple elegance of the colonial house, grounded in history and constructed by hand.