HISTORIC INTERIORS: A Country House Near Boston

Blogging is very self-indulgent.  One gets to think out loud about one's interests, and share the musings with interested readers---who, with their comments, give the blogger new insight into old passions.

I've been thinking a great deal this year about the graceful old Federal houses of New England---those first flowerings of design from our young country, that so well reflect the ideals, political and social, of the founders, and that for so long defined the look of most New England towns.  In particular, I determined to write about a group of country houses, those with the newly fashionable oval rooms in particular, built around Boston between 1790 and 1820.   I don't flatter myself that I have new insight to add to the impressive body of scholarship published about these houses over the last hundred years, but hope that you enjoy my light summaries.

What brings me back to the subject of oval rooms today is a group of late 19th century photographs passed on by a friend---but more about those in a moment...

McIntyre's drawing for the entrance front of the Vale, which looks backwards to the Palladian tradition of Somerset House, more than to the newly fashionable neo-classicism that characterized the Federal style (from Old Time New England, Spring 1952)
McIntyre's drawing of the first floor plan (from Old Time New England, Spring 1952
'The Vale', in Waltham, Massachusetts was designed in the 1790's by the great carver-architect of Salem, Samuel McIntyre, for merchant prince Theodore Lyman.   Lyman began development of his estate in 1793, laying out a park and garden in the informal English style of Capability Brown, with a stream dammed to form an ornamental lake, and glasshouses against a brick wall, in which Camellias and other exotics were grown.
The entrance front in the mid-19th century, showing McIntyre's completed design.  The Greek Revival entrance portico is an early 19th century addition
The house designed by McIntyre, completed in 1798, was based on designs in English builder's pattern books, but executed in wood, the plentiful building material of New England, rather than the stone of Old England.  With his typical mastery, McIntyre translated details like quoins and pilasters, meant to be stone, to wood with high effect, yet the scale (the main block was only fifty feet wide), unlike its English prototypes, was domestic, not palatial.  

The Ballroom as it appeared in the early 20th century.
The composition was Palladian, with a separate kitchen wing connected by a hypen, balanced a few years later by a ballroom wing.   The center hall led directly to an oval room centered on the garden front facing the glasshouses, referred to by the family as the 'Bow Parlor'. 

The Bow Parlor, as it appears today.  The white painted Hepplewhite chairs are part of the original Lyman furnishings
Lyman lived in great style in his new house.  After his death, it passed to his son, and in turn his grandson, Arthur Lyman, treasurer of the Lowell textile mills.   What had been one of the grand houses of the area at the beginning of the century was by now dated and old fashioned, and not suited to the more expansive scale of living made possible by industrial age wealth.  Fond of the old house, Arthur Lyman hired the local firm of Hartwell & Richardson (no relation to H.H. Richardson, about whom more in a minute) to enlarge and remodel the family homestead in 1882.

First floor plan as it appeared before 1883 renovations. Note the long curved interior walk to a privy at top right, forming one side of kitchen courtyard, and at a further extreme, a two-holer in the shed at the upper corner.  An indoor water-closet may be seen left of the bow parlor . (Old Time New England, Spring 1952)

The new plan, with modern interior plumbing, but the outside privy still survives. The staircase has moved to left of Bow Parlor

Their first design was for a complete transformation of the house, and was not executed.  Evidence is strong that Arthur Lyman had second thoughts about how drastically he wished to alter the old family homestead, and the final design, completed in 1883 sought to save some of the character of McIntyre's design, even to the extent of re-using the second floor pilasters by McIntyre to frame the new two story bays that pushed out from the entrance front.  Although respectful by the standards of the time, in fact McIntyre's elegant composition was irrevocably altered and subsumed by the new house.  Inside, mantels were replaced, high wainscots installed, yet the Bow Parlor and the Ballroom both survived untouched, as artifacts of the family's past splendors.

The rejected proposal for renovation (American Architect & Building News)
Hartwell & Richardson's accepted design for the renovation (American Architect & Building News)
Interior details in the 'Colonial' style for the new staircase and parlor (American Architect & Building News)
Mr. Lyman writes to American Architect explaining his desire to preserve as much as possible of the old house
 Which brings us back to the photographs that my thoughtful friend supplied.   She thought I might recognize them (I'm a bit of an idiot savant at recognizing buildings from minimal evidence---emphasis on the idiot part), and indeed I did.   They are 21 views of the interior of 'The Vale' after the Hartwell and Richardson remodeling of 1883.  In the rooms can be seen a mix of 18th and 19th century furnishings accumulated by several generations before a 1930's 'restoration' that sought to do away with many of the Victorian 'colonial' flourishes of before.   Like their ancestor before them, that generation of Lymans preserved the Victorian parlor, with its oak woodwork and fire surround of deMorgan tiles.  Today 'The Vale' is owned by Historic New England.

Please click on pictures to enlarge
The Bow Parlor.  The French style furniture suite is original to the house
Two views of the new family living room in the location of the old kitchen.  The tiles surrounding the fireplace are by William deMorgan
The ballroom looking toward the cross hall
The cross hall looking from the new staircase toward the ballroom
The second floor landing
The Drawing Room.  Two of the White Hepplewhite chairs can be seen
The cross hall toward family living room
Dressing room, opening to entrance portico roof
Two rooms in the nursery suite.  Ever thrifty, the Lymans retained the 1850's ingrain carpeting.
The bedroom above the Bow Parlor
Two views of the master bedroom.
A present day view of the master bedroom, after being stripped of its Victorian decorations in the early 20th century (photo uncredited from Historic New England Website.
Present day view of the garden front.  The central bay of the Bow Parlor remains as McIntyre designed it.

Before we end today's lesson, it is worth noting that Arthur Lyman's sister, Lydia,  married Robert Treat Paine, a housing reformer descended from a signer of the Declaration of Independence. They lived across the street, on property given them by her father.  When they remodeled the existing house on that property, they hired the other Richardson, H.H. himself, as their architect, and their naturally landscaped grounds were a collaboration with Frederick Law Olmstead.  For that house, click HERE

For previous Dilettante posts about lost Federal country estates in the Boston area, please click HEREHERE, and HERE.

For more about The Vale, click HERE for  the Historic New England website



I'm working on two of my usual sorts of posts, but I'm suffering from the after-effects of a little to much food, candy, wine, and general holiday cheer this morning, so you'll have to wait.  Overeating was a problem this fall as colder weather set, but I am happy to report that after the last few days, I finally have had enough food.  Way enough.

The local Historical Society's 1815 house, decorated for its Holiday open house.  The wallpaper is an Adelphi reproduction of an early 19th century paper found in another local house (Click HERE for more).  The ship in the painting, the 'Ranger', was built only a few dozen feet from this room.
 At dinner last night, over smoked salmon and crab mousse, friends and I were commenting about the relative lack of Holiday decorations around town this year.   Was it an effect of the poor economy, or was it because our village suffers from a surfeit of 'Good Taste', and therefore people are too timid to put on a display that doesn't involve more than a few white twinkle lights--here the Dilettante confesses that no matter how much 'Good Taste' he may suffer from the rest of the year, he does love the occasional over the top  kid-pleasing, crowd-pleasing, awe-inspring Christmas light display.  Nothing says Christmas like electric Santas visible from space.

The local bookstore after the rush.  Earlier, the counter was a frenzy of gift-wrapping .  For those who don't have a good independent bookstore nearby, I can only say I'm so sorry.
For me, the Christmas shopping season begins not on the Friday after Thanksgiving, but on the 23rd of December.  If only the canned Christmas music that has accompanied my daily errands in stores for the last six weeks would wait that long, the world would be a better place.  

Without, a local restaurant in the former blacksmith shop (click HERE for more) had almost the only bright lights on Main St.  Within, a bartender wearing a Santa hat was ready with two martinis for us.  That's my idea of a Santa.
At the other end of the Christmas decorating spectrum was the sweet, restrained Charlie Brown tree at the local Library.  Under it were placed donated presents to be taken later to the area homeless shelters.  Beneath the gloss of affluence that veneers our area, shelter occupancy and food pantry demand are at an all time high, even as our accidental Governor, although once homeless himself, continues to demonize the poor.

 In this part of Maine, the biggest Santa this season has been Stephen King.  His output of horror stories belie a very generous man, who has given tens of millions to this region, in the most thoughtful and personal of ways.  Click HERE for that story.



For all who love books and community, this Op-Ed piece from today's Times.  Read it, and make certain that your next book purchase isn't online.




On the first Sunday in November, the weather was gray and indifferent, not pleasant enough to encourage outside chores, not bad enough to stay inside with a book.   Even as I was contemplating this dilemma, knowing that outdoor chores were really the correct answer, the phone rang.   It was Sidekick, in much the same mood, wondering if I might be interested in a road trip 'up' to the Colby College Art Museum in Waterville (although actually due west a couple of hours, like all trips inland in Maine, it feels 'up').  Road trip with a favorite partner in crime or chores?  The decision took about 1.3 seconds.

On the outskirts of China, a Greek Revival farmhouse with beautiful Ionic columns
Further down the road, this handsome whitewashed brick Federal was once the summer home of Ellerton Jette, who was the chairman of the Hathaway Shirt Company, whose long defunct factory was once Waterville's major employer.  Here was housed much of the collection of American art that Jette later donated to  the Colby Art Museum.
For those too young to remember, 'The Man in The Hathaway Shirt' was one of the most successful ad campaigns of all time.  Hathaway was a small regional manufacturer when Ellerton Jette went to David Ogilvy, then arguably the most powerful man in advertising, with a tiny budget and convinced him to take on the Hathaway account.  The rest is history.  When the Dilettante was little, Dunham's of Waterville, with its rows of pastel oxford button downs was where we all got supplied with our Hathaway shirts and Bass Weejun loafers.
Not quite two hours later, after a drive through China, we arrived at Colby. The  campus is a handsome one, created in the 1930's.  It is a classic of its era, the creation of one Dr. Bixler, then the ambitious president of what the then small regional college.  Sitting on  Mayflower Hill, its Georgian buildings and quadrangles were inspired by the great early Universities, including Harvard and the University of Virginia.

The original 19th century Colby College Campu
The centerpiece is the Miller Library, a  Colonial Revival building with a whiff of Independence Hall in its architecture.  191 feet high, it was, until the 1970s the tallest building in Maine.  (Since you ask, the current tallest building is an apartment building in Portland.  At 203 feet, it ranks 46th or 47th---depending on how you interpret the Wikipedia information---among each State's tallest buildings.  Only Vermont, North Dakota, and Wyoming rank higher, I mean, lower.)

The Miller Library on the 'new' campus at Colby College, for years the tallest building in Maine.
We parked and strode to the museum entrance,  only to be confronted with a chain link fence with a sign that said 'Closed for Renovation until November 8th'.  We had checked the schedule online before leaving home, and on the museum's schedule page found no evidence that the museum was anything but open.  As it turned out, the closure was mentioned on the home page, but we had googled 'schedule', thus by-passing that page.  You'd think those smart people at the museum would have troubled to mention it on their schedule page also, wouldn't you?  Thank-you.  So would I.  Especially on the schedule page.  Really.

The museum was closed to prepare for the construction of the new Lunder Pavilion, to house a collection of artworks donated by the Lunder family, heirs to the Dexter Shoe fortune.  While I find it a handsome design, I question the agressive way in which it breaks scale with the surrounding buildings.
Colby's collection is well worth the visit.  Among the works we didn't see that day are:

John Singleton Copley
Mrs. Metcalf Bowler (Anne Fairchild), 1758-1759
Oil on canvas
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Ellerton M. Jetté
Winslow Homer
The Trapper, 1870
Oil on canvas
Gift of Mrs. Harold T. Pulsifer
John Marin
Stonington, Maine, 1923
Watercolor and charcoal on paper
21 3/4 in. x 26 1/4 in.
Gift of John Marin, Jr. and Norma B. Marin
Fairfield Porter
Stephen and Kathy, 1963
Oil on canvas
Museum purchase from the Jere Abbott Acquisitions Fund
Regrouping, we decided to save the day by going through Rome---and then continuing on to South Solon and visit the South Solon meeting house, with its amazing frescoed walls, for our dose of art.  

In Norridgewock, on the banks of the Kennebec, this 18th century tavern hangs on, barely....
Hungry, we stopped for lunch in Skowhegan, an old mill town on the Kennebec,  where a few years ago HBO filmed 'Empire Falls', based on the novel of the same name by Richard Russo, about...an old mill town.  The first time I went to Skowhegan, decades ago, the last log drive was taking place on the Kennebec---millions of logs being floated downriver for processing.  Not environmentally sound, but a stirring sight nevertheless.
The last log drive on the Kennebec.  In places, one sees the Kennebec as it appeared 240 years earlier, when Benedict Arnold led his troops upriver to Quebec during the American Revolution
The 'Empire Grill',  the old diner from the movie, had closed, and a sports bar offered no sustenance.  On the strip heading out of town, we found a family restaurant, in what appeared to be a converted Pizza Hut---the architecture is unmistakeable.  Perhaps here I should mention that a friend refers to the road out of Skowhegan as 'the driveway to Quebec', and one definitely senses the French Canadian influence in the area culture. 
For these two hungry tourists, the defining moment was when we spotted Poutine on the menu.   Somehow, in a lifetime of trying all foods bad for me, this one had eluded me, a Canadian logger favorite of French Fries covered with brown gravy (ever the effete elitist, I was about to type 'sauce', but in fact, it was gravy) and melted cheese curd, and in our case, crumbled bacon.  Appalling in concept, delicious in execution.

Poutine.  Okay, so it wasn't Lutece, but trust me, we licked the plate clean.
We reached Solon in the mid-afternoon bellies full, arteries clogged (did I mention that we also had the restaurant's home-made meatloaf sandwich, well prepared and delicious---comfort food on a crisp fall day,on the largest slices of bread I have ever, ever, ever seen?  It was a sandwich for Brobdinagians).  Solon is an old town, its streets lined with handsome buildings that have see better days.  In this part of Maine, the way of life is often hard, employment scarce, and the smug pleasures of the coast, romanticized and ordered to the satisfaction of the well to do, are far behind.

Up in the middle of nowhere:  the Solon hotel anchors the town.  A friend said 'Oh yeah, the Solon hotel.  R.E.M. played there'.  One learns to expect the unexpected in rural Maine.
As in most of early 19th century Maine villages in more prosperous times, the evidence of talented builders using Asher Benjamin's pattern books for inspiration can be found.  This lovely little Greek Revival doorway, complete with triglyphs and metopes (however oddly spaced in the apex of the pediment) can be found on a Cape on Solon's Main Street.  In this part of Maine, tin roofs are the norm

Across the street, this oddly shallow 19th century house, not even 12 feet deep,  is irresistable.
The road to South Solon
A handful of early 19th century farmhouses survive on this high ridge--this example has escaped modernization, and has yet another lovely pattern book door surround.   It sometimes seems that the early builders could do no wrong.
At the meeting house, we spent a happy hour marveling at the 1950's frescoes in the late afternoon fall light.  While there, we were charmed by the appearance of a young man who had grown up in the neighborhood and had brought his son to see the murals and the pew where his father had sat when he was a boy.   For a full account of the Meeting House and its frescoes, please click HERE

We decided to go home by way of Athens, and mapped out our trip, only to find that the road petered out to a single dirt lane.   With the light waning, we decided this was not the day to be lost driving about the woods of Maine, and turned around and head down to I-95.   All was not lost, though, for we were rewarded on that back road by this view of Saddleback Mountain and the Rangeley hills an hour distant.

Leaving the Meeting House, a rainbow illuminated a sky that echoed that of the frescoes within
The view from a field near Athens. 
(Skowhegan was also the home town of Maine's estimable Senator, Margaret Chase Smith. In this season of really silly presidential hopefuls, here story is worth recounting.  Click HERE for the Dilettante on Mrs. Chase)