Be sure to click on photo for larger to see the fine detail.
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.
The Dilettante, living the dream of his good friend Helen Bass, decided to get lost last Thursday.
On the way home on a business trip, with work left to do, driving in staggering heat and traffic (‘traffic’ being a euphemism for almost endless interstate highway road construction slow-downs through Massachusetts and New Hampshire), I cracked, and rather than continue responsibly on my way to the day’s final destination, at 3:49 PM I veered left, off I-95 at exit 2 and up Rte. 127 to South Berwick and Hamilton House, one of the loveliest destinations in Maine.
The road running northeast from South Berwick to Sanford is a mostly lovely one, with only a blessedly brief incidence of strip malls, winding through an old landscape of farms, and the charming village of North Berwick. After North Berwick, signs became confusing, and obviously I misread them, because rather than arriving in Alfred, I wound up in the city of Sanford, an interesting old company town, prosperous and neat, still bearing the name of its industrial patron, Mr. Goodall, on most of its public buildings and former factories.
Eventually, I was headed straight again, and in the waning afternoon light at last arrived in Alfred, a neat little town arranged around a village green surrounded by mostly 19th century buildings in good repair, and a few small businesses. I was surprised to find that this rural little town, on Bungamut Lake, and site of a former Shaker settlement, is also the Shiretown of York County.
Seen in the early evening light, everything about ‘downtown’ Alfred speaks of friendliness and pride in the village. Not too polished, not too gritty, but just right, and friendly. How can one not fall in love with a village whose library sports a ‘Summer Reading Party, Tuesday Evening’ sign on its lawn?
The inscription on the war memorial on the village green charmingly troubles to mention that it is made from locally quarried granite
The house was originally built around a small courtyard, although demolition of the original kitchen long ago has changed the shape to an ‘L’. Inside was a curving staircase, and a mantel decorated with imported composition ornament, a relative rarity in rural Maine in this era. (for the ultimate example in Maine, visit the Ruggles House, here).
And now for the shock: The balustrade is gone. The house, neither well maintained nor totally neglected, lacks its signature feature, the balustrade, unique in Maine. And while the Dilettante understands all too well the economics of such things, and has not been able to determine its fate (although I have a sinking feeling that the extraordinary iron bow & arrow that I saw at an Antiques show last year, reminding me strongly of the ones at the Holmes house, may well have been one from the Holmes house.
One can’t save everything, and of course one man’s treasure is another man’s trash, but to see one of the important early architectural features of Maine possibly lost is a sad thing. Preservation is an iffy thing in America, and too much goes unappreciated. One can only hope that the balustrade is stored and waiting to be replaced….but if even Samuel Yellin’s studio cannot be preserved, and is raped for salvage and profit, what hope for the work of an anonymous Maine blacksmith of the early 19th century?
As I was typing the first draft of this post earlier today, the estimable and ever entertaining architectural historian Christopher Monkhouse happened to pay a call. When I told him what I was writing, he replied how funny it was that I should mention it, as he had recently thought about a Gilbert Stuart-ish portrait of the same John Holmes, painted in the early 19th century, that he had once owned.