The Finding Of Old Time Houses
( Originally Published 1907 )
HOW pleasurably the discovery of the "Old Stone House," as we always called it, comes back to us! We came across it shortly after having realized that we should like to live in an old-time house that would be in harmony with old-time furniture.
The house stood upon a hillside, in the midst of a grove of old apple trees, and was but half an hour by railroad from the Western city which was at that time our home. We were passing, on the highroad; and the captivating site and the prepossessing pro-portions and an air such as appertains to the charming stone cottages which one sees by the roadside in England or Scotland, irresistibly attracted us. We mounted the stone steps that led up from the road, so that we might see if the unoccupied aspect were but an accidental simulation. The house was as empty as it looked, and so, that very afternoon, that very hour, we sought out the owner and learned up-on what terms it might be had.
With the coming of the spring we were living there! And in that living we tasted a new savor in life.
An old house is not, indeed, an indispensable adjunct for the lover of the old. Furniture of old design has charm even in a modern house or in a city apartment. But it is a source of additional gratification to house one's ancient things in a building that is also associated with the past.
That little house of stone which was our initial triumph residential, was such an individual house! Old it was, for that part of the country, dating back as it did to the early part of the century just past. What is old or ancient in the Middle West is not so ancient in New York, and what is ancient in New York is not ancient in England, and what is ancient in England would be deemed youthful in Rome.
This house possessed the charm of personal touch and of personal achievement, although not in any sense of distinguished history. It had been built in spite of daunting obstacles, and about the building of it there was a pretty tale of marital devotion.
It was of the sandstone of the neighborhood; heavy-eaved it was, and the front windows looked out over a river valley and those at either end into apple trees and up and down a sweeping hill and valley view.
Half a dozen veritable ghost stories, too, had clustered about it. One ghost dug in the cellar for a pot of gold; another dragged a chain across the roof ; and there were several more. We heard, one midnight (yes, literally at midnight!), the ghost delving with a mattock in the cellar; we heard the rattled chain; and we understood how it was that a deep-seated dread had gradually grown, and why there were some rooms in the house into which residents of the vicinity would on no account enter.
We had the fascinating experience of laying a few of the ghosts by determining the source of the sounds, and as to one closed room, without door or window, which had been closed in, by the original builder, under the long eaves, as a matter of convenience, and about which a tale of ghostliness had grown, we settled the tradition by opening the room to household use and finding that squirrels had been holding ghost carnival there with nuts.
It is pleasant to look back through the years, at that stone house on the hillside, with the apple trees all about it and the spring of water in the cellar. It is altered now, in itself and its surroundings, but we speak of it here, as it was the natural outcome of the gathering of old furniture, and points out a kind of possibility open to the collector who has love and faith.
We smile, too, in retrospect, when we remember that we really had quite a reputation, then, as the possessors of Colonial furniture, in spite of what we now know to be the fact, that our pieces were at that time meagre and few.
A spinning-wheel, for example, ought not really to stand for very much, even though charmingly made, and even though accompanied, as ours was, with a greater wheel for the making of yarn, for such pieces, even though of history, are not for use, nowadays, nor are they precisely ornamental, except in some corner of a large house, where they can with propriety and effectiveness be placed. Yet those wheels did much to give us a status; and there were in addition the Blennerhassett andirons, an old chest of drawers, some china and candlesticks, the brass teakettle, and some other articles. Perhaps we had, in some quarters, a rather higher reputation then, as collectors, than we even now deserve; all of which but tends to amuse one as to the opinions of the world.
We began to realize that we could not remain there forever, that our gathering of furniture must be for some Castle in Spain, still to be acquired; and for a few years there was an interregnum of living in the larger cities of the East. But whether in a house in Philadelphia or an apartment in New York, the search for furniture was never forgotten. On the contrary, we were finding new and wider opportunities and it was a period of interesting acquisition.
The progress of our quest, and the pleasures which such a quest may give, were marked at this time by a dinner which it was now possible to furnish forth in Colonial form.
The soup was served from a huge and aged blue tureen and each of our friends had an old blue bowl. A pewter platter, mighty in diameter, held a turkey which, in accordance with old-time formula, had been fed on beech nuts. A Virginia ham, a veritable Smithfield, boiled in cider and baked with cloves, was also enthroned in blue, and corn-pone and Maryland beaten biscuit added their effect. An ancient tall tankard of pewter held cider, and a pewter mug was at the side of each plate. Each of the enormous dinner plates was old and blue. The salts were three-legged and of the past. The cups were of varying degrees of interest. One had belonged to that Major Tallmadge whose prompt action in the Andre case, in defiance of the hesitating demur of his superior officer, was of such vital importance to the Republic, and it came to us through a lineal descendant. Another, from a friend in Concord, had been part of a set owned by that Major Buttrick at whose command was fired the shot heard round the world. One was from an old family of Tallahassee, one came from England, another from Scotland. Six of the spoons were of the "rat-tail" variety; three, of Austrian make, had been given us by a friend whose family had brought them from that country many years ago, and the other three, a precise match, were found in Venice, a city which was long held by Austria. The tablecloth was of linen spun and woven four generations back, and the liqueur glasses were all old ones, of varying shapes, picked up, each in a different city of the old world, as Tours, Padua, Basle, Milan. The table was an old Sheraton, of mahogany, and the room was lighted with candles; each candlestick having a history or an association with some interesting locality.
At length, while we were still city dwellers, we discovered the house which was to be a further realization of alluring possibilities.
Toward the close of a day in early spring we entered an old-time town, less than fifty miles from New York City. We were visiting friends, who lived in a house that stood before the Revolution, and after dinner we strolled down the single street of the attenuated town, a street shaded by beautiful trees and with close-by hills looking sleepily down upon it.
And at the end of the village stood an ancient quadrupedal sign, placed high upon its pedestal of granite, in the midst of a tiny triangular green. And facing out toward the ancient sign was a large, square-front, red-brick building, stately but desolate, maple-shaded, and with a monster trumpet vine clinging to its front.
At once it fascinated us. In the middle front, beneath a charming beehive window, was a portico, stone-floored, with four white columns rising to its little roof and with an iron railing bending down at either side of the generous stone steps and terminating at the bottom in clustered bars surmounted by a round brass knob at either side.
Solid shutters shut in the windows; yet not forbiddingly-only with a sort of austere reserve. And we peered into the hall through the narrow windows at either side of the door, and gained an impression of spaciousness and freedom.
The owner crossed the street from his house, seeing that a neighbor with visitors was looking at the once-while inn. "Should you like to look through it?" he said.
"Yes, indeed; we are interested in buildings with old fireplaces."
The owner smiled. "There are sixteen of them, counting fireplaces and Franklins!"
We entered through the heavy-paneled door. We walked through the spacious hall, eleven feet wide and thirty-seven feet long. We looked at the arching in the centre with its supports of fluted pilasters.
It was a case of love at first sight. We opened room after room. We handled brass knobs. We fumbled latches. We counted the fireplaces. We mounted to the outlook, in the centre of the roof, and looked at the hills and the sweeping stretches of woods and pasture-land. We went down into the great cellars, ranging beneath the entire house. We stood behind the bar in the taproom. We peered into the mud-turtle roof of the old brick oven. We peered behind the fireboard of the largest of the fire-places. And before long we were able to make the building our home.
A staidly restful village, this, out of our American past. It was prosperous and busy, back in stage-coach days, but it has shed the raspy burr of business and only the sweet kernel of repose remains. The atmosphere of a serene and mellow past enfolds it, and the old-time inn shares to the full the charm of mellowness and serenity. This building was not constructed until after the Revolution, but Washington himself often rode past where it stands and once he camped on the low-sweeping ridge over which the morning sun looks in at our front windows. The entire vicinity is rich in memories of the brave and stately American officers and of their proud, peruked and periwigged allies of France.
So much for the setting. And, for the house itself, it is associated with many a famous man of the past, with Aaron Burr, and Martin Van Buren, and Horace Greeley, and Washington Irving, and Gouverneur Morris, and many another of national or local fame.
The stately old Georgian house was bare of furniture; but its rooms were of the kind that seem half furnished even when empty, so perfect in proportion they are and of such dignified fineness of line. And in the rehabilitation, one could not but have the pleasurable feeling as of restoring to the building its own, of placing old furniture in rooms that had been made for it.
With a garden, and flowers, and an orchard of two-score trees, we could feel that we had delightfully gone back to the land as well as gone back into the delicate atmosphere of the past.
Exceptional, all this'? No. Others have done similarly. Almost any one can do similarly if he so wishes. And, in regions where there is nothing of old-fashioned architecture, houses may be built like those of the past. A group of lovers of the old in one of the cities of the West recently bought a near-by village, every house in it, and all the land, and then remodeled the houses with great effectiveness after old designs and are allowing no new houses to be built except of the same general style.
But in many a section no altering, no copying is needed. At almost any place within from twenty-five to fifty miles of New York, Boston, Philadelphia or numerous other cities-often at still nearer points-you may be sure of finding an empty old-time house.
If such a house be desired for use in summer only, or if nearness to a city be not essential, the field is vastly wider. In the Berkshires, sought out though they are by thousands as a place of recreation, there are scores of deserted houses open to the storms of winter and the sun of summer. We counted over thirty in a single day's drive in the Farmington valley.
But it is the possibility of finding old-time houses within easy reach of great cities that is most unexpected and captivating.
Not that they give every indication of being ready for delightful occupancy. On the contrary, they are apt to give a first impression of being highly undesirable wrecks; as being, for one reason or another, impossible; and they are liable to be weather-beaten and in need of paint and their surroundings to be overgrown with weeds. It is with old houses as it is with old furniture : the eye of faith is necessary.
Why, some time after our happy discovery of it, and before we knew that we should be able to live here ourselves, we told of it to two friends who had confided to us their longing to find some old place in the country not too far away from New York. They came here; they looked the house over; but they had not the eye of faith, and they decided that it would not do. "Why, the walls of the hall are blue and the woodwork is red!" they exclaimed in horror!
The charge was true enough. The evidence of eye-sight was incontrovertible. But how long should it have taken them to change the two offending colors?
Those friends have been here, since-and noted, with a puzzled surprise, that the hall is white and buff, as befits a Colonial hall and as this one was originally.
It was with pleasurable zeal that we began to settle ourselves in the once-while inn, with its ancient sign-post, so picturesquely placed, and its monster lilac bushes. And an interesting coincidental touch is that Shakespeare uses the name, saying that "in the suburbs," at an inn of this very name, "it is best to lodge."
One evening, recently, there was seated with us a fine old lady, whose memory ran far back into the past. She spoke of tales that were told when she was young, and of her own far-away girlhood here; she told of men and women of a time that is past and of how, at balls at this inn, guests came from many miles away to dance till dawn, and of nights upon which, men said, there was high play here and great sums lost or won. And then she told of how, in this very room, she had once sat close to Washington Irving, fine gentleman of the old school that he was, and of how he looked and acted and spoke. "Mr. Irving was not precisely what one would call a handsome man," said the old lady softly, "but one could not miss seeing that he was a distinguished one." And she told with awe, too, of how he briefly referred to his late friend, Sir Walter Scott.
And the old clock ticked in the hall, and the leaping fire glimmered in the score of reflections in the room, and outside, in the darkness, rows of reflections of candles were shining, as if to light all of us back into the glamour and the mystery of the past.