this new england

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just when I thought I’d had enough of winter, it takes my breath away.

what’s wrong with this picture?

I have a complaint.  What a surprise.  I just don’t understand why some people want to change Paradise.  I suppose if they make it to heaven, they’ll be switching out the pearly gates for low maintenance fiberglass and changing the gardens to plastic!

In my own neighborhood these days some terrible changes have been taking place.  We have a historic district that is cared for by the historic district commission.  Within that district are a few houses built before it was designated historic.  These were not faithful reproductions, but acceptable.  Over the last thirty years, through the building booms, a few rear lots and approved building lots appeared that kept the neighbors and the commission busy and worried.  Builders and newcomers wanted to build and live on our lovely, historic street.  I completely understand wanting to reside in such a picturesque place, and we welcome any sensitive, like minded folk.  Two centuries ago there were many more houses here that were lost during the days of the Depression, it would be great to have them back.  Or let them come to restore some of the homes that have been neglected and need restoration. Come, love this place as we do, help restore, enjoy and protect it.

But that is not what most newcomers have in mind.  Someone please explain to me why these folks don’t understand what it is that drew them here in the first place.  It is right under their noses – wood clapboard houses, small paned windows, brick center chimneys, brownstone steps, split rail fences – how easy is that?  So simple.

These people need a lesson in seeing.  As in art – it’s about seeing.  Everyone should take a drawing or painting class at some point in their lives to learn to see.  It’s amazing how much is missed when you don’t.    In this case, one of the folks who built here, just one house removed from the historic district, saw a beautiful neighborhood but apparently missed every detail that made it special – and built herself an Arizona ranch!  Yes, big windows, stucco walls, flat roof.  Another, fortunately for them but unlucky for us, came in before the district was designated – and built a raised ranch.  Lord help us.  Mother nature cracked its foundation twice as they were building – she was on our side! – but as man is apt to be stubborn – he fixed it.

A more recent newcomer purchased an old timer’s reproduction home, that had weathered nicely over time and had a good stand of old tree growth and lush landscape.  He proceeded to replace the front door with a mission style/modern door, placed plastic domes over his basement windows and moved his electric meter smack in front of the house!  Guess he likes looking at electric meters?  Then proceeded to devastate the picturesque landscape, strafed it, cut down all the old growth trees, opening it up to the surrounding neighbors properties – so it now looks like a bomb hit it.  (and the neighbors wish it had).  He plans to build a ranch house on the lot behind (approved long ago).  Unfortunately, historic district commissions cannot dictate the style of house, only its materials and try to assuage the details.  Now why would someone with these intentions move into such a place?  Why would anyone want to upset their neighbors, destroy a neighborhood, thumb their noses at the past?  It is ironic that the very thing that draws them here, they do not see or understand, and thus proceed to destroy.  The neighborhood is forever changed.

The changes are insidious.  Decorative cornices are removed to make way for low maintenance aluminum.  Wood clapboards removed for low maintenance vinyl.  True divided lite windows replaced with vinyl and snap in grills.  Wood or slate roof shingles replaced with black asphalt.  It goes on.  Even wood split rail fences are being replaced with fiberglass!

I want to live in an old sepia photo taken in 1910.  I want to walk down around the bend on that dirt road that leads to the big crooked house with the well out front and the giant elm spread over it.  I want to live in a house that nature can take back any time and not leave a trace.  I like living in a real world.  It may be less convenient, but not by much.  An extra sweater in winter, a bit more elbow grease in maintenance, a floor that leans this way or that, but overall a much more human experience.  I look out my window, through the wavy glass held together by muntin bars fashioned by a craftsman’s hand, and I see the tree they came from.  I think of the floors it gave us, the paneled walls, the corner cupboard, the kitchen table, the salad bowl.   The bricks for the chimney came from the clay under the ground by the stream.   How can you not be moved by this?

If only the sensitive would move into these peaceful places, I guess we’d have found Paradise.  Perhaps that is not to be, but we must keep trying.  We must educate them.  We need to teach them at an early age, to open their hearts to the past, and open their eyes to see.

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!

arizona anyone?

This is some January we’re having.   Usually this month is kind to us, more of an extended Autumn, but this one’s a doozy.   Every year, after twenty inches of snow, I ask myself why we do it, why do we stay? Why don’t we head south, or southwest, say to, Arizona?  Well the obvious answer, besides work, is that there aren’t any New England colonials there.   If those hearty souls – the early settlers – could stand it without plowed driveways and with only fireplaces for warmth, certainly we, with our electricity, central heating, down coats and comforters, can handle it.  Heck, they even had to trudge through snow to use the outhouse…

I have to say, after all the shoveling, the icy paths, and icicles clinging like crystal monster teeth from every eave – I don’t mind it!  I’m enjoying it.  The cool, crisp air is invigorating, the clean white snow creates a picturesque landscape, especially of colonial homes and open spaces.  Red barns and cardinals, picket and split rail fences, saltboxes and farmhouses, against yard high snowfall is the stuff of magazine covers.  Photographers like Ansel Adams  created masterpieces from these environs – but the right stuff had to be there for them.   Streets, farmlands and villages that have preserved their land, their history and architecture are the right stuff.  It’s the stuff that speaks to our inner sense of harmony, peace and balance.

That is why we don’t head south.  I think to embrace and fully enjoy the fruits of Winter’s labor enriches the soul, and makes one feel more deserving of the richness of Spring.  So for now, until the icicles melt, the paths clear, and the river swells from the north’s flood, we’ll persevere, hunker down by the hearth, count our blessings and our progress over these last few hundred years and, of course, keep shoveling – with a smile.

who will be the caretakers?

One chilly New England morning in our drafty 17th century house, our daughter was hurrying around in nylon stocking feet across our splintery wide pine floorboards in search of shoes.  Needless to say, she was not in a good mood when her stockings caught on some protruding rose head nails  “completely ruining her day.”  More than thirty years of living  in this house, maneuvering through the worst of its restoration days, and she still thinks she can walk barefoot across the floors unscathed?  She swore that if we left her the house, the first thing to be replaced would be those ornery floorboards.

And I thought I knew this child?  I actually thought she would be the one who would care the most.  I thanked heaven for that revelation, and now know what to do with our house when we’re done with it.  There will be interviews!  There will be a protective covenant!  There will be photos and pleading and overseers.  I will pay someone to maintain “no trespassing signs” for perpetuity.  I’d rather nature took it back than have some ignorant soul replace the floors with smooth sanded tongue and groove, the windows with insulated ones with snap in grills, vinyl siding, asphalt roofs and aluminum doors.  Our biggest nightmare is to have a future owner disgrace it.  But unless you can leave it to a preservation society with a huge endowment, there are no guarantees.  Ignorance, naiveté, insensitivity, abound.  The only guarantee is that, if possible, future owner be forewarned – I will come back to haunt you.

This brings me to a question that many of us antiques lovers are asking these days – is there enough interest from today’s youth to sustain these old homes for tomorrow?  Everyone under 40 seems to be glued to their blackberries, computer screens, GPS’s and cable TV.  In between they’re fitting in everything from Yoga to Zumba, carting kids to a dozen activities, and trying to earn a living in a recession.  Who has time to care about old houses?  They’re expensive to fix, drafty to heat, and difficult to maintain.  In an age of quick fixes and cheap solutions, ambiance, character and history take a back seat.

It’s a cycle.  These homes have lived through this before.   Many were lost, but this time I think the indignities previously mentioned, like vinyl siding and asphalt, will actually sustain them until that next generation of sensitive, caring folk – enjoying a recurring prosperity – can rediscover and restore them.

Recently I wrote a letter to an editor of an antiques journal, commiserating with his laments on the digital age and lack of youthful interest in all things old.  Here are excerpts:

Hello Mr. Fiske,

…..I was just reading your article about the digital age.  Well done, as usual, and a bit distressing.  Yes, we are surely seeing a great change in technology and culture as we’ve previously known it, and we, as old dogs, will have to learn new tricks.  It’s disconcerting at this stage in our lives, but we were not promised an end to the challenges, just a little help with medicare and living expenses :)

But our hearts still warm at the sight of a banister back chair, or the warm patina of an old dresser.  And yes, there’s nothing like seeing it in person.  Of course, I have to touch it.  I have to reach into the past and connect with its maker.  (Which is why I’m dangerous in museums!)  ….. I have hope that the younger generation will eventually come around, and slow down enough to notice these treasures.  While they’re busy right now trying to carve a life out of a dense job market, and scramble through this awful recession, I believe they will turn their attentions backward again, when they realize that everything of substance is behind them.  The virtual world may be good for certain technical, medical and scientific progress, and a bit of entertainment, but we are still human.  We still long to touch something of quality, something hand crafted with style and grace.  We need to connect with our ancestry, and learn something of our past.

I think, for this new generation, it is not the product, but the packaging.  I believe they would love the product once they were introduced to it.  Their heads are in the stars right now, but their feet are still on the ground.  They live in houses that need furniture for comfort and art for the soul.  With patience, wisdom, and a little savvy, we can engage them in their world…..

….Toward that end I am presently fashioning a program to introduce students to 18th century architecture.  I think they’ll be inspired to see the early house frame and how they can take it down and put it up again with pegs, and how the early craftsmen fashioned their doors, their paneling, their cupboards, and how “green” is not a new concept, but it’s been right here in their own back yard for over two hundred years.  If even only a few are inspired, then we can gain satisfaction in knowing that the job of preservation and the work of caring for our treasures, large and small, will continue to flourish with them….”

We must be active and alert in our struggle to maintain enthusiasm for the treasures of our heritage.  It is not just the work of preservation groups.  We must be personally diligent, patient and persevere.

Now I have to go hug my house, and have a talk with my daughter.

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.