Thursday, August 29, 2013

Old Summer Houses


I found Possum reading the paperback I'd taken to Maine to reread, and still haven't finished. I can't blame him — The Big House is a perfect August (or anytime) book. Written by George Howe Colt, it's the story of a vast, Shingle-style summer house on the Cape that welcomed five generations of his family — the happy place of many childhoods and the most cherished spot of lifetimes. The Big House was for sale when Colt began writing the book; like so many huge, ancestral summer houses, its ownership was shared among a number of relatives who found it too expensive to maintain.

Colt had a lifelong love affair with that house and it permeates every page. If you love old houses, too, it's the best kind of book — he makes the house and all of its stories come to life.

The best of New England's old, coastal summer houses are large, rustic, unheated, and full of windows. They are often oriented toward the water instead of the road, with a huge porch or "piazza"overlooking the sea, where everyone gathers to read, talk, and have drinks in creaky heirloom wicker. It's the most civilized way I can think of to enjoy the end of a summer afternoon. 

On our recent trip to Mount Desert Island, we visited an old New England family who has preserved just such a rambling, Shingle-style house, time-sharing it with more than a dozen other families descended from the original owner. The house is called "Coffeepot." We'd driven past the small wooden sign announcing it for years, always amused and wondering what the story was. 

We even became so fond of the name that Toffee's full name is Toffeepot, to remind us of happy times driving around the island. 

By serendipity, my husband met a member of the family, made the MDI connection, and learned she stayed in the house. We received an invitation to meet the family on our next trip north. I love how life turns out. Sometimes.

We came for drinks on the porch. The house, porch, ocean view, family, and visit were all memorable. Wonderful, in fact. The rooms and furnishings look almost exactly as they did when the house was new, around 1917. We saw photos to prove it. The bathrooms have their original fixtures, including clawfoot tubs. The kitchen has some updated appliances but I wouldn't call them recent. The dining room cabinets are filled with 19th-century dishes and silver, still in use. And all of the walls and ceilings are still unfinished lumber — no plaster anywhere — with the patina of time. The family told us they'd just replaced the original horsehair mattresses in the last year or so. No TV and no Internet, of course. Just wifi. Just perfect, if you ask me.

So, how did the house get its name? I'll just say that the family keeps a framed, black-and-white photo of a rather fancy silver object on the mantel. To read the story, go here.

In the main room of the house, I spotted a copy of The Big House sitting on a table. Our hostess told us she was looking forward to reading it. I can't imagine a more perfect setting for the experience, but I encourage you to read it, too, wherever you happen to be — in summer, or in fall.

1 comment:

  1. I read this book a few years ago and enjoyed it immensely. I still think about it from time to time slipping into the hide and seek games of the children and mentally pulling one of the books from the (first edition?) complete set of Dicken's. I felt as if "I" were having to sell the house in the end and felt great sadness for the family. I think I need to read it again.

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