I snapped these pictures of a graceful early 19th century house with my phone camera on a rainy day last year. I know nothing about it, but have admired it for years. It sits across the Route 2 from the Connecticut River in Charlton Massachusetts. This is Asher Benjamin territory, near his hometown of Greenfield, and as all over New England, many houses in the region bear his mark.
In recent years, Charlton Academy has sprung up in its grounds, and as the Academy has grown, the beautiful house has grown ever more ghostly, apparently unused and unloved, its maintenance not the highest priority. It’s condition is so unsullied by attempts at prettifying, or the modern curse of plastic shutters and replacement windows, that I can’t but but admire its purity. On this visit, I noticed that there were broken panes in the arched windows in the gables, never a good sign.
It’s hard to absorb. I grew up admiring these pre-industrial age houses, graceful and spare, often built by untrained carpenter architects using nothing more than their good eyes and handbooks like Asher Benjamin’s American Builder’s Companion to create these buildings. They are potent symbols of the country whose birth and early years paralleled their own. Almost since they were new, they’ve been admired and coveted, and suddenly, a decade ago, tastes changed, what people want changed (thank-you, HGTV, for all the destruction you’ve wrought), and across New England, one increasingly sees forlorn examples—too old, too big, too small, too close to the road, no great room—-the reasons are many, but what I do know is that they are disappearing, or being tamed into McMansion-Easy-Maintenance submission, and we are poorer for it.