IT WAS Dr. Johnson who said, “He who would bring home the wealth of the Indies must carry the wealth of the Indies with him,”and this certainly applies to those who are contemplating a motor trip to some of the historic and literary houses in New England. House hunting is a quest which gains appetite from reading and anticipation. The beautiful old ports of Salem, Marblehead, and Portsmouth have preserved sturdy and exquisite houses built by the famous seafaring families, and these dwellings will mean much more to you if you have some familiarity with Samuel E. Morison’s Maritime If History of Massachusetts, in which are portrayed the virile, audacious men who built them. Salem in its Golden Age (1790-1812), when it was the richest port in North America, is also to be seen in Esther Forbes’s novel, The Running of the Tide, and in The Peabody Sisters, by Louise Hall Tharp, where the courtship of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Sophia is recounted in the Salem of a later day.
I value old houses for the woodwork, for the kitchen fireplace, for the hinges and the hand-hewn beams; for the four-posters, the tables scarred and buffeted by age, the parson’s writing chair with a broad arm which I covet for my own study; and last but not least, for the color and individuality which a house acquires from its most illustrious Occupants.
Very useful to my itinerary is the new book Who Lived Here? (Little, Brown, $5.00) by M. A. Do Wolfe Howe, the biographer, and Samuel Chamberlain, the artist, to be published on June 9; the text and photographs depict thirteen New England houses, all still accessible, and the people who made them famous. I welcome such guidance on the trips I am about to describe. I shall specify the weekdays on which the old houses are open — almost all are closed on Mondays — and such good restaurants and comfortable inns as I recall.
The motorist entering Connecticut on Route 1 gets his first glimpse of characteristic New England architecture in the “salt box" roof of the Thomas Lyons House just over the state line. Two miles further cast stands the Putnam Cottage, known as Knapp’s Tavern during the Revolution (open Thursday, Friday, Saturday). Tradition has it that General Putnam was shaving one morning when, in the mirror, he saw a reflection of the oncoming British troops. He escaped through the rear door and made off at full gallop down the steep and rocky pathway to the road.
The most interesting old house in the neighborhood of New Haven is the Morris House (open weekdays except Monday) in Morris Cove. To reach it you pass through New Haven over Tomlinson Bridge and, turning into Townsend Avenue at Five Corners, head for 325 Lighthouse Road. The first house was built on this site soon after 1680; ii was burned by the British in 1779 and rebuilt a year later by Captain Amos Morris. It has a lovely ballroom with a barrel ceiling, powdering closets for gentlemen to refresh their white wigs, a chimney with a secret hiding hole, a herb garden, and the old family coaches.
After New Haven the next town I would look for is Old Lyme, with its quaint Ferry and the Florence Griswold House (open weekdays except Monday); then follow the Connecticut five miles to the town of Essex with its beautiful main street, fill up your gas tank there, and swing back to Route 1 —with the warning to be on the alert as you approach Stonington. From Stonington, Route 3 will be a short cut to Providence, where the John Brown House (1786) is, according to Mr. Howe, “of it beauty unsurpassed by any house of its period in America.” It is now the home of the Rhode Island Historical Society (open Monday through Friday). When you see it, bear in mind that Abigail Adams used to spend the night here on the first leg of her coach trip to New York or Washington.
As an alternative to the shore road, you can take the new highway (No. 15) to Hartford. A few miles south of the capital, at Wethersfield, are two famous landmarks (both open weekdays except Monday). The first, the Buttolph-Williams House, was used continuously as a dwelling from 1692 to 1947, and has been little changed structurally since its seventeenth-century origin; the second, the Webb House, is a handsome while mansion which Washington visited in the spring of 1781 when he was having his conferences with the commander of the French fleet.
On the way from Hartford to Boston, Route 15 passes through Sturbridge township; about a half mile from the highway you will find a homespun museum of a New England village complete with gristmill, craft shops, printing press, and meetinghouse. The brothers Albert and J.Cheney Wells have spent about a million collecting and restoring these old buildings at the crossroads, with the idea of showing an eighteenth-century village in actual operation. Here are no great mansions, but the blacksmith, the potter, the weaver, the furniture maker, working at the old crafts and on objects which you may buy. It takes close to two hours to get the feel of the little plane and to see it at work. So you may want to break your trip with a meal in the Village Tavern or by spending the night in the comfortable Wight House.
The Connecticut Valley
Motorists coming from the West by way of Albany would do well to pause in the Amherst — Northampton area. There are excellent hotels here: the Ford Jeffeyi in Amherst, and the Northampton Hotel and Wiggins Tavern. In Amherst von ought to see the Nehemiah Strong House (open Tuesday and Friday), which was built in 1774 and now holds the treasure-trove of the town; also, Emily Dickinson’s home and, on the University campus,the Stockbridge House. In Hadley, close by, your aim will be “Forty Acres,”the PorterPhelps-Huntington Mouse (open Tuesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday). It was built by Captain Moses Porter three years before he met death in the French and Indian Wars, was enlarged and enriched in 1799, and has remained unaltered since then. The house is entirely furnished with ancestral articles, many dating from the seventeenth century, and it was Bishop Huntington who, in the mid-nineteenth century, made it his summer home and kept its precious contents intact. Big, rambling, with its many ells and giant fireplaces, it gives you a sense of ihe spaciousness and amenity of the eighteenth cenlury. This is the gem of the Connecticut Valley and its survival will depend upon the interest and donations of visitors.
If you spend the night in Amherst, it will certainly be worth your while to drive the fifteen miles to Deerfield the next morning. This little town with its giant elms is saturated with the traditions — and cruelty—of the French and Indian Wars. The Frary House, the Parson Ashley House, and the Asa Stebbins House are but three of the old ones worth seeing; and if before you go you will glance through Grace Zaring Stones’ novel, The Cold Journey, you will have in mind the dangers to which their onetime occupants were exposed.
There is no object in my extolling the beauties of Boston and Cambridge, for this has been done in scores of guidebooks. “Fascinating Trips to Historic Spots in and about Boston,”distributed gratis by the American Oil Company, seems to me quite the best of the present crop; and if in addition you apply to the New England Council (Statler Building, Boston) for their booklet, “New England Museums and Historic Houses, you will have all the Baedeker you need.
Of the many inviting side trips I select three. In Quincy, ten miles south from the State House, stands the Adams Mansion (open daily), so wonderfully described in The Education of Henry Adams. The Old House, as the family called it, was the home of our second and sixth Presidents, of Charles Francis Adams, Minister to Great Britain during the Civil War, and of Brooks and Henry Adams, the more remarkable of his sons.
The Gore Place (open daily) in Waltham, reached by Route 20, has been rated one of the five most notable houses in the United States. It was the country seat of Christopher Gore, Governor of the Commonwealth, 1809-10; with its incomparable furnishings, its deer park, stables, and farm cottage beautifully intact, it shows how a cultivated American squire lived a century and a hall ago.
In Concord, your first stop should be the Alcott House, where there are so many endearing traces of Louisa May Alcott, the Jo of Little Women. This was the home of an improvident philosopher (“Send him for a pail of milk and he will come home with a cow”) who was protected and cared for by his womenfolk, and their presence quite overshadows his. Once the Alcotts have fired the imagination, it is easy to follow the path to the Old Manse, to “The Wayside,” the only house ever owned by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and to Walden Pond. Think of Thoreau walking in from Walden on Saturday nights and pausing at the Emersons’ kitchen for his expected slice of apple pie.
Salem and Marblehead
North of Boston the big occasion this spring will be the opening of the famous Federal houses in Chestnut Street, Salem, on June 25. These twentyfive mansions with their rose gardens and peonies and overspreading elms compose what is surely the most beautiful of old streets in North America, and you should see them from the outside even if you can’t be present on June 25. This will be the first time since 1947 that the homes have been open. With their silver tea-paper walls, their porcelains and ivories and mahogany brought back to Salem in the great days of the sailing ships — here are the houses which Joseph Hergesheimer called to life in his Java Head. They will be open for just one day, the 25th, when the families of the hosts will wear the old brocades, the Indian mulls, and the Liberty silks which were brought back in the sea chests over a century ago. You can make overnight reservations at the Hawthorne Hotel in Salem, the New Ocean House in Swampscott, or the old Daniels House, Essex Street, Salem.
See Chestnut Street in the morning, take luncheon at the House of the Seven Gables (1668), after lunch visit the Peabody Museum with its incomparable collection brought home by the mariners, and save a little time for the Richard Derby House, the Ropes Memorial, and the Pingree House. No day is ever long enough.
For supper t hat night the Ship’s Cabin at Marblehead beckons. There has long been a rivalry between Salem and Marblehead, and you will notice that I have not tried to incorporate them in a single day. Marblehead has a craggy, wind-swept character of its own, with more than a few pre-Revolutionary houses facing and tilted on its hilly narrowstreets. Marblehead still breathes “The Spirit of ‘76,” the original painting of which hangs in Abbot Hall (and is seen by 150,000 people annually). The town remembers that the first vessel of the American Navy, a reconverted Marblehead fishing schooner, was commissioned by Washington in this harbor on September 2, 1775; it remembers that Colonel Glover’s company of ‘Headers rowed their Commander-in-Chief across the Delaware on that fateful Christmas night and they ferried the retreat across the Hudson when the British had run us out of Long Island. Marblehead is proud of St. Michael’s Church, one of the most ancient meetinghouses in the country. It was built in 1714 and its silver organ pipes, originally at St. Paul’s in Manhattan, pealed the anthem at Washington’s Inauguration. And Marblehead has retained two of its finest houses: the King Hooper Mansion, a perfect example of a residence of a wealthy eighteenth-century merchant; and the Lee Mansion, whose interior woodwork and fittings are almost perfect examples of such skill. The view from Fort Sewall, the sight of the harbor with the afternoon sun on the sails—these are the personal photographs you won’t forget.
Now, after a good night’s rest, I want to take you to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to see some of the most exquisite Georgian houses in New England. Here again a book will give you a foretaste of what is in store. Early American Architecture by Hugh Morrison (Oxford, $12.50) devotes an illuminat ing chapter and many photographs to these houses which lie ahead. Instead of drinking gasoline on the Newburyport Turnpike, I recommend that you take Route 1A, the smaller, winding road within sight of the marshes and dunes. This road takes you past the beautiful Wenham meetinghouse, past the Ipswich Green with its cluster of Colonial frame houses, past Rowley and Newburyport, and into Portsmouth.
Begin with the Jackson House (1664) on Christian Shore, the earliest dwelling in town. (All these Portsmouth houses are open weekdays.) The sharppitched roof, the exposed construction, the wide floor boards, the leaded glass windows, show the skill and strength of the early builders in wood. The Warner House (1716), on the other hand, is one of the finest examples of a brick urban mansion. The mural paintings on the staircase wall, the splendid paneling, the portraits and furnishing of the period, carry you back to the days of the Honorable Jonathan Warner, who lived here until his death in 1814 and was known as the last of the “cocked hats. The Went worth-Gardner House facing the quiet water of the tidal bay was built in 1760 as a present for Thomas, younger brother of John Wentworth, last of the Royal Governors. It has a blocked front with beautiful pediments over the windows and doorway, and the carving inside is said to have required fourteen months to complete.
Then, for a change, stop by to see the Thomas Bailey Aldrich Memorial (1790), the home in which was lived The Story of a Bad Boy — a very human rather than a grand house, every detail of which, from the pump in the kitchen and the knitting beside the family Bible, to the spinning wheel in the attic, suggests the serenity and simple comfort of the plainer folk.
The best hostelry in town is the Rockingham Hotel, and there are delicious meals and comfortable rooms not far away at the Wentworth-by-the-Sea.
Houses at the water’s edge have a singular attraction. Overlooking Portsmouth Harbor on the Maine side at Kittery Point stands the fine late-Georgian house built for Lady Pepperrell in 1760 (open weekdays). Her husband, Sir William, raised and financed the regiment which he led to victory in Louisburg, and for this he was awarded a baronetcy. He was just as successful in business ventures, and when he died was reputed the wealthiest man in the Colonies. His widow devoted much of his fortune to this manor house with its paintings by Copley, Smibert, and Hopner; its furniture by Chippendale, Hepplewhite, and Duncan Phyfe; its fine Waterford glass and Lowestoft china.
Some twelve and a half miles from Portsmouth, with an entrance off Route 103 in South Berwick, Maine, is the Hamilton House (1770), the home of Colonel Jonathan Hamilton, a successful West Indies trader. The house stands on a bluff overlooking the Piscataqua River where the Ranger lay at anchor while Captain John Paul Jones visited with Hamilton before sailing for France. This is the site of Sarah Orne Jewett’s historical novel, The Tory Lover, and her home in South Berwick, to which Mr. Howe has devoted a charming chapter, is as far north as this present pilgrimage and my space will permit. I realize that I have not scratched the surface of Vermont, shown you the shrines of the Cape, or done more than open the door of Maine. We can go farther afield next time if enough are interested.