Dead Men’s Houses

Hi, all. Suze here. Happy Thursday!

There’s something sad going on in my neighborhood. A house is coming down. Not just any house, though. It is (or was) a classic New England saltbox built in the 1740s. The last owner of the house was an elderly woman whose family had lived and farmed there for generations. She died a few years ago, and the place has been vacant since then, a victim of the economy. Her absentee heirs managed to sell off one parcel of the farm, which fronts on a busy road on one side, and a large medical building went up. The parcel with the house, which fronts on the same busy road as well as my residential road, did not sell, most likely because the heirs were asking an astronomical amount of money.

The old girl’s got good bones!

I’ll be honest. Until the “For Sale” sign went up, I had no idea the house was that old. I thought it was a newer home built to look that way. At some point it had been re-sided with shakes over the clapboards, and the place was in darned good shape. It didn’t have one of those name plates you see all over New England showing the name of the original owner and the date the house was built. I’d never been inside, only knowing the owner to nod and say hello as one or the other of us was taking a morning walk.

Now the house is nearly gone, and it’s bittersweet. On the one hand, my town is losing one of its ancient homes, and my neighborhood is losing a piece of history. On the other hand, the house isn’t actually being destroyed. A post-and-beam company is  dismantling it, tagging each hand-hewn beam and support so that it can be reassembled somewhere else for a person who truly appreciates its significance. I have hope for the old place. Not so much for my neighborhood. I’m sure a subdivision will go into that acreage eventually.

I may lose some of you here, now that I’m about to wax literary. Everytime I go past what’s left of the house, I can’t help but think about a passage in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables. Bear with me, okay? Matthew Holgrave, the mysterious daguerreotype artist, is a boarder in the House. He is speaking to young Phoebe Pyncheon, the last descendant of a once-proud family:

I ought to have said, too, that we live in dead men’s houses; as, for instance, in this of the seven gables!”

“And why not,” said Phoebe, “so long as we can be comfortable in them?”

“But we shall live to see the day, I trust,” went on the artist, “when no man shall build his house for posterity. Why should he? He might just as reasonably order a durable suit of clothes,–leather, or gutta percha, or whatever else lasts longest,–so that his great-grandchildren should have the benefit of them, and cut precisely the same figure in the world that he himself does. If each generation were allowed and expected to build its own houses, that single change, comparatively unimportant in itself, would imply almost every reform which society is now suffering for. I doubt whether even our public edifices–our capitols, state-houses, court-houses, city-halls, and churches–ought to be built of such permanent materials as stone or brick. It were better that they should crumble to ruin, once in twenty years, or there-abouts, as a hint to the people to examine into and reform the institutions which they symbolize.”

The Turner-Ingersoll House in Salem
Now, I’m fairly sure Hawthorne/Holgrave is not actually advocating tearing down every building on the planet every twenty years and building something new in its place. What he is saying is that we should examine our beliefs about who and what we are as individuals. The histories of our families and of our communities should not shape or define us completely. Ultimately, each of us is responsible for creating her own “house” — whether that’s the physical building in which we live, or our own consciousness. Take what you can from the past, but build a new future on it.

Done with the literary criticism here! (You’re lucky. I could go on and on. I absolutely adore The House of the Seven Gables and can talk about it ad nauseum!) Click here for more information about the Turner-Ingersoll house in Salem, Massachusetts, Hawthorne’s real-life inspiration for his novel.  I’m pretty glad this place is still around. It’s one of my favorite places to visit. As for Hawthorne’s other most famous novel, The Scarlet Letter, I’ll tell you a secret. I’ve always thought that would make a wonderful musical. Can somebody call Andrew Lloyd Webber for me?

What about you? How much do you allow your history to influence your life? Or if you’re not feeling self-reflective, what book would you most like to see turned into a musical?

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12 thoughts on “Dead Men’s Houses”

  1. This was a fun post, Suze! I smile when I read literary passages like this and think of how many of those beautifully long and masterfully constructed sentences would be broken into two or three by a well-meaning editor today.

    I love old houses. Our 170 year old Federal Colonial is built on old hemlock beams, giant granite blocks, and has six inch thick solid wood walls from floor to ceiling. It isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Although my husband is slowly working to upgrade and modernize, we try to re-use as much of the original wood as possible. I think that’s the best we can hope for in moving forward with progress. All things pass away over time, but the lessons learned and the stories of old that are passed to the next generation are what keep history alive. As sad as it is that your neighbors house is coming down, it’s wonderful that the beams will be used again, and much sadder that the family has lost its history.

    1. I know — mere mortals can no longer get away with sentence construction like that — largely, I think, because most readers don’t want to work too hard. Reminds people of high school English classes, perhaps. Historic house construction techniques though were amazing, weren’t they? The house coming down in my neighborhood was actually held together by wooden pegs. I know because I went and looked at them. Fascinating stuff.

  2. Enjoyed the post, Suze! I’m often nostalgic for historical buildings and would love to live in an old heirloom type of house some day–when I’m an old granny baking cookies for the grandkids.
    My favorite Hawthorne is the Scarlet Letter and the beginning of the story in particular where he goes back to the Old Custom House and finds the relic of The Scarlet Letter–presumably the actual piece of tattered cloth–and the note telling the tale. Loved the notion of the find in the attic of an old building.
    Thanks for sharing!
    Stephanie Queen

    1. I love The Scarlet Letter too. I can just picture all the townspeople doing a musical number as Hester emerges from the jail (or should I say “gaol”). I see her handing off baby Pearl to some old woman and joining in the dance. And remember the scene in the book where Pearl dances on the tombstone? It’s made for a tap dancing number, I tell you!

  3. OH gosh, I always feel so heartbroken about old houses coming down! When we were in the market to buy a house, the first thing we told our agent was that we needed an old house. Not wanted–NEEDED. We sort of got it; our house is one hundred years old, and has a history closely linked to that of the neighborhood we live in (it was part of factory housing, which *I* could go on about ad nauseum, but that’s for another time!). Even so, I would *LOVE* a saltbox from the 1700s… I just feel such a connection to time and place–it’s weird.

    1. I’m heartbroken about the house too :( I’m doing my best not to be judgmental about the choices the heirs made, but it’s hard! Because it’s my neighborhood, and it’s changing, and I have a horrible feeling that a subdivision is going to replace the fields. I grew up in a 100 year old Victorian, where my mom still lives. My parents did some 1970s renovations that changed the place a lot and I remember having a hard time with it. Even as a kid I had a strong need for historic preservation!

  4. Where would we be if all the old historical homes were gone? Mark Twain’s house in Hartford, Paul Revere’s house in Boston, not to mention the countless others all in and around New England! We would certainly have lost part of our historic soul.

    1. I agree, Gerri. The historic houses are a huge part of what makes New England New England. I am ashamed to say I’ve never been to the Mark Twain house. I’m putting that on my must-do list immediately.

  5. I’m sad to see the old house go. And I wonder what will end up in it’s place. To tag onto Geri’s comment, our town has lost quite a bit of it’s historic soul already. The entire corner, where the prison now sits used to be Shaker land. Most of the buildings were either bulldozed by the state or dismantled and moved to other states for their historic Shaker villages (now tourist sites – elsewhere). And I find it totally ironic that the Shaker’s land, who were pacifists to the core, is now used to house violent criminals. I wonder what they would think of that.

    1. Interestingly (well, interesting to me, anyway), the house next to mine is an old Shaker building that was moved over from the prison site at least 100 years ago, possibly longer. I believe it was some other kind of building that was converted into a house, because the Shakers lived in dormitories and this building would have been too small to have served that function. I can think of at least 2 other very old houses that have been bulldozed in this town within the last few years. It’s so disheartening, even though I know I couldn’t save them.

  6. I love architectural history. Although I have no desire to live in a 200 year old house, I go nuts to be in one. Tom’s family founded Branford, CT in 1644. The Harrison house on Main Street in Branford, built in the mid 18th century, proudly stands shouting its heritage. It has the original everything, preserved for posterity. It is open to the public, and is being tenderly cared for. I hope it stands forever. The Paul Rudolph house in Westport, CT, built in the 1970′s, recently lost its preservation battle. So sad. The architectural community fought a hard battle to keep it, but money won out. The excuse was that it was not old enough to be considered valuable. Paul Rudolph was an extraordinary architect and served at Yale for years as Dean of the architectural school. Great post Suse.

    1. I love, love, love to tour old houses! I will definitely put the Harrison house on my list of places to visit. Unfortunately, money nearly always wins out, which is what happened to the saltbox in my neighborhood.

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