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.

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