The Fairest of Them All: Hamilton House, Then & Now

 Hamilton House as it appeared when purchased by the Tysons in the late 1890s  Unusually for an early New England house, there are three facades, of which these are the back (land) and kitchen fronts.  The door on the river facade would have been the main entrance in the 18th century.

Hamilton House, in South Berwick, Maine, is one of the loveliest--and most romantic-- properties imaginable.  Set on a bluff at the head of the Salmon Falls River and backed by rolling meadows and woodlands, it is an Arcadian ideal brought to life. A large, simple Georgian inspired house built in 1785 by Jonathan Hamilton a West Indies trader, and in his day part of a bustling settlement overlooking his busy wharves,  it had fallen on hard times by the late 19th century.  Enter the Tysons, persuaded by their friend Sarah Orne Jewett, who had based her novel The Tory Lover at Hamilton House, to buy it and restore it.  Emily Tyson was the widow of the president of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, and she and her stepdaughter Elise set about 'restoring' Hamilton House to a glory that far exceeded its earlier life.

The approach to Hamilton house is beautifully orchestrated to heighten the sense of remoteness and traveling back in time.  One leaves the highway for a country road, and in turn leaves that road for a narrow country lane, which ends at the simple gate to the driveway, merely two cart tracks, at which one gets first glimpse of the house.

The Tyson's domestic needs were greater than those of Jonathan Hamilton.'s day.  Their renovation architect, Bostonian Herbert Browne, an early proponent of the Colonial revival, also practiced in a grand baroque style that bordered on lunacy (more about that in an upcoming post).  He exercised restraint here, adding two low wings (since removed) , one for services, one a porch and first floor bedroom, fronting both with neo-classical treillage covered in vines to make them appear to be open porches.  Even as many of their peers were erecting large houses in the fashionable seaside resorts a dozen miles to the south on the coast, the ladies Tyson were part of another movement, one that eschewed fashion in favor of romantic simplicity.

As one approaches the house, the drive is paved with flagstones, leading to a flagged circle in the grass near the house, a firm rebuke to all those McMansion forecourts with fountain in the center

Jonathan Hamilton's barn was moved, and a lovely sunken garden was built in its foundations, with a shady pergola, now lost, bordering the river bluff and framing the views.  In the house, with its large and well proportioned rooms, few architectural changes were made.  Taking their cues from the relative simplicity of the interiors, decoration was light and airy---white ruffled or chintz curtains, painted furniture, straw matting, cheerful old fashioned wallpapers---the principles of Elsie deWolfe applied to a colonial inspired design. 
  In the hall, scraps of the original English 'pillar and arch' pattern wallpaper were found, and the Tysons had it reproduced, probably the earliest instance of in America of an historic wallpaper being reproduced in situ.

 Hamilton House as enlarged for the Tysons by architect Herbert Browne (Tyson family photographs, SPNEA)

Loggia added by the Tysons

A garden house was built soon after, using elements salvaged from the early 18th century Sally Hart house in Newmarket, NH.   This building combined the materials and sensibility of an early American house with the picturesque quality of a 16th century English cottage.

The garden house

Their creation complete, the Tysons sat back and enjoyed the acclaim as visitors arrived. And what visitors: One day Isabella Stewart Gardner and Henry Davis Sleeper, her summer neighbor on Eastern Point in Gloucester, MA, who had recently built an English arts and crafts style cottage there, motored up from the North Shore.  And what they saw at Hamilton House was to have a profound effect on the story of interior design for the next 75 years.

 A corner in the garden house.  This mix of early architectural salvage and carefully and romantically arranged antiques was something very new and fresh in the early 1900s. (Max Weber photograph, originally published in House Beautiful, 1926)

Sleeper was riveted by the Tyson's collections of hooked rugs, colored glass cued to the decorative schemes of each room, old fashioned furniture, and old prints and objects, all composed in lovely arrangements..  Most of all, he was riveted by the garden house.  On the drive up to South Berwick, the party had noticed an ancient house being demolished in Essex, Upon return, Sleeper bought that house, and began incorporating the salvage into his own house, decorating it brilliantly with furnishings like those he had seen at Hamilton House that summer afternoon.   Sleeper's work at Beauport caught the eye of Henry Francis Dupont, who hired him to do up a huge house at Southampton, which in turn begat Dupont's Winterthur, which house, along with the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg, did so much to begat the much more correct and dull version of 18th century American Georgian that dominated a certain sort of WASP taste through the 1970's.  But, I am wandering from my subject.  Back we go.

 The dining room, with murals by George Porter Fernald.  The use of humble painted chairs with fine mahogany furniture was also new and fresh, and demonstrates the Tyson's talent at the game of high and low.

A few years after completion of their initial decorative schemes, the Tysons had the inspired genius to ask George Porter Fernald, an artist from nearby Portsmouth who had already created charming painted valances for the windows, and had painted some furniture for them,  to paint over their leafy floral wallpapers in the drawing and dining rooms.

 The Drawing Room Murals, with idealized views of the Pisquataqua region.  The leaves and trees survive from the wallpaper over which the murals were painted

 In the drawing room, he painted scenes of famous buildings of the area  Charmingly, the murals incorporated leaves and trees from the existing wallpaper.  In the dining room, a classical landscape, reminiscent of scenic wallpapers, made for one of the loveliest rooms of its time.  Porter ran the horizon of the mural to echo that outside, and captured exactly the colors of the outside landscape on a summer day.  The distinctions between outside and inside thus blurred, a visual poetry was achieved.  Of the many beautiful rooms in every style that I've been in, this is one of the loveliest of all. 

The dining room as it appears today.  The painted valance boards are a little slice of heaven.

After Mrs. Tyson's death her stepdaughter, by now Mrs. Henry Vaughan, continued to occupy Hamilton House in the summer. In 1946 she left the estate to the  Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (SPNEA), now unfortunately renamed  "Historic New England.  Hamilton House was part of a larger movement in American culture and aesthetics, and is one of the best surviving examples of Colonial Revival decoration, its interiors now carefully restored to the early 1900s scheme.  Most of the pictures below are from a late afternoon, late summer visit that I made this year, interspersed with a few photographs originally published in House Beautiful in 1926,    The garden house will be featured in an upcoming post.

The door on the riverfront, inspired by English Builder's books, with stone terrace and grindstone added by the Tysons

 And the view from that door

The side door originally opened to a hall, now an extension to the dining room, with views to the sunken garden
The back door, now the main entrance, with sidelights added to the original central motif by Herbert Browne

 The view from that door. Old fashioned Loveliness abounds in every direction

The arched doors of the carriage shed, with wonderful classical detail over, applied simply to the board siding (sadly, this arch was covered with square doors)

 The cross axis of the garden from the carriage shed in 1926, and now

 Main Garden axis toward house, 1926 and now (photo from Virtual Tourist Berwick)


Unknown said...

What an amazing home, and story...thank you for the photos and history your shared. I love old homes and will definitely take a ride to see this one. We live in an 1830 home in southern Maine and love antiques and vintage things. I will definitely be following your blog. Happy New Year!

The Down East Dilettante said...

Cheryl, welcome, and do indeed visit Hamilton House---the grounds are open year round, and the house during the warm months---a lovely place to while away a late afternoon

Scott Waterman said...

Very interesting! I immediately recognized the mural as I have a reproduction of it in my clipping file. I think it was in HG (early 90s?) -not sure as the pages I have don't indicate the publication. I always thought the work had such a curious quality and now I know why!

The Down East Dilettante said...

Scott, it has a totally curious quality, and unfortunately, being painted over the brittle paper has not helped it survive in perfect condition. The photos do not do justice, however---the murals are slightly crude---scenic quality, I think one would call it, but the conceit of matching them to the landscape outside, while classicising the scenes works wonderfully. The blue and green pigments have aged and gotten richer. Very beautiful. I'll post the drawing room murals another day

Toby Worthington said...

Oh my....that was marvelous.
I was hooked from the very first image and it just
got better and better every step of the way. The
idea of painting over existing wallpaper and retaining some of the printed trees, is not only charming as you say, but shows great confidence on the part of the muralist. The only other time I've seen that done was by the great Rex Whistler at a small house in Brighton during the 2nd world war.
But getting back to the subject at hand, it seems to me that the very late 19th century and the early 20th produced some remarkable interiors, as well was houses, having a sort of lighthearted classicism that was delightfully free of pedantry.

The Down East Dilettante said...

Thanks so much TW. I've probably been to Hamilton House 20 times, and it still hits me between the eyes everytime---everything just works...

And stay tuned, because I've got the Garden House coming up, and then a surprise related post of newly breaking information about the principals of the tale...

Reggie Darling said...

Ah, DED, you are trodding hallowed ground here. Hamilton House is one of my most favored houses in America, and its dining room the subject of a guest post that I wrote on EEE as one of the rooms that has influenced me the most. That, and the sitting room at The Grange that Ogden Codman did up around the same time the Tysons wreaked their magic at HH. The setting for HH is indeed magical, and takes one away back in time to a place and time far lovelier than originally. My one regret of the house is that SPNEA (I still can't bring myself to call it by the much degraded name it goes by now) ripped off the wings when they initially "restored" the house to its supposed 18th century appearance, and only realized later that its colonial revival appearance was what made it so uniquely special. Fortunately they were able to return the interiors to their appearance when the Tysons lived there, mostly. I adore HH and its romantically "simple" interiors, and one of the details I adore the most are the blown glass door stops, which I to this day dream about owning. I look forward to your next installment! Reggie

The Ancient said...

I much prefer the house without those two wings, which look all wrong to me. (Good grief, put the servants in their own building -- there's plenty of room.) The same goes for all those shutters. They clutter the lines of the house, and look particularly bad on the arched window above the door and the dormers.

The gardens, on the other hand, are extraordinary, particularly the one on the site of old barn. I also like what Dilettante is calling the stone terrace. (Why is it so hard to get grass to grow like that in Virginia? Sigh.)


Have you got another picture of those painted valance boards in the dining room?

The Down East Dilettante said...

Reggie, there are only two or three things that can make me sputter more than the stupid renaming of SPNEA---George Bush's second election, for example.

Here was a venerable organization with a name that made a catchy acronym, and they and in a fit of branding (or do I mean blanding) they dumb it down, and for a few years certainly seemed to lose their way in a sad bid to be popular.

Ancient, I'll post a picture of the valance in the next post. As to the grass, I expect it would be cruel of me to mention that it was also a particularly dry summer :-)

As to the shutters, absolute accord. Most of these 18th century buildings stand up very well without them---and far preferable to those plastic things

ArchitectDesign™ said...

Now that is a beautiful property: and a story to match. Thank you!

The Devoted Classicist said...

What a lovely house! I have mixed feelings about the removed wings because the idea of three public elevations is so attractive. (I have long been influenced by Weatherstone in Sharon, CT, now owned by Carolyne Roehm). Viewing on my iPhone, it looks like the trim is white, but the clapboards are light blue; is that just an illusion?

The Down East Dilettante said...

John, the house is currently a soft but definite gray, ever so slightly on the blue-ish side of the color wheel

Anonymous said...

Can't get enough of the Hamilton House? See more photos - including interior views - on the Historic New England website: http://www.historicnewengland.org/historic-properties/homes/hamilton-house

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post - wonderful house - on my list for my next visit to New England - iconic wallpapers and garden. KDM

The Sidekick said...

DED, our visit to Hamilton House several years ago was one of my all time favorite outings with you, and that is really saying something! The setting is perfect and the interiors completely lovely in their deceptive simplicity.
Thanks for reviving those summer memories on a cold winter day.

Janet said...

I plan to take my assignment to visit Hamilton House very seriously in 2011. So good to see you last week. I hope the third glass of wine did not push you too far over the edge.

The gentleman and I are finally home in Washington, and looking forward to spending a quiet evening in Downeast Maine chez Chaimberlain.

Vandy said...

Hi, I was wondering if you were able to take anymore pictures from inside the garden house. I am interested to see what the ceiling of the main living area looks like. I am gathering ideas for a remodel of my home in Portland, OR. I have been so inspired ever since I first saw these pictures. I want more detail! Please share if you have them.

The Down East Dilettante said...

Vandy, so sorry, your request for more photos of the interior of the garden house just caught up with me. If you get this, Email me at downeastdilettante@live.com for more pics.

Mika said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mika said...

Thanks for Sharing. but can you upload more pictures. thanks again keep posting

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Unknown said...

Wow! thats the real THEN AND NOW! perfectly preserve.

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ArchitectDesign™ said...

So glad to have finally visited (and circuitously because of your post!)

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