Hamilton House Landscape History
Today’s Hamilton House landscape reveals its eighteenth-century mercantile roots, a stratum of nineteenth-century agrarianism, and the predominant Colonial Revival framework that has evolved over the past century from estate to museum.
Known as Pipe Stave Landing, this site is located ten miles from the Atlantic at the head of deep water navigation, making South Berwick a seagoing town. Merchant David Moore, owner of this site prior to the American Revolution, left a probate after his death in 1777 which included a fine mansion, 266 feet of wharf, a warehouse, shipyard, and beach for cleaning the bottom of vessels. Jonathan Hamilton, who owned a share in the nearby Chadbourne mill operation, acquired the site in 1783. Hamilton owned a plantation on Tobago, twelve ships and a successful business trading in rum, sugar, molasses, tea, and timber. After Hamilton died in 1802 the trade embargoes and War of 1812 diminished the industry at Pipe Stave Landing. South Berwick residents Thomas and Theodore Jewett next acquired the warehouse and wharves, built the 386-ton Olive and Eliza, and used it in successful trade from this site for two decades. Remains of wharves still appear along the river’s edge at low tide.
Alpheus and Betsy Goodwin bought the property in 1839 to farm and produce wool for an expanding textile industry. They planted orchards, fenced fields to enclose their sheep, and built a barn. After the Civil War, railroads made cheaper produce from the west available, and the demand for wool declined. After only two generations the Goodwins were forced to sell the property. The fields are mown for hay today.
The railroads that brought competition to New England agriculture also opened the region to wealthy city folk in search of summer retreats. In 1898, Emily Tyson and her stepdaughter Elise purchased Hamilton House. Working collaboratively with architect Herbert Browne, they embarked on a project to fashion the property into a pleasure ground that would embody their romantic vision of America’s colonial past. Fences were removed and the barn relocated to make the space adjacent to the house a perennial garden. The house acquired piazzas, sleeping decks, and a vine-draped kitchen ell that visually linked the house to a plant-covered pergola surrounding the garden.
Past a sundial and marble fountain, an axis led up granite steps beneath an arch towards the fields rising to the east. Additional vegetative and architectural elements served both to enclose garden rooms and frame views to the river, an iconic elm tree, and artfully constructed haystacks. The garden also included opulently casual flowerbeds of old-fashioned plants, a tea terrace, and worn millstones. By 1907, a cottage, constructed from salvaged colonial buildings, served as garden folly and destination. Guests invited into the house discovered murals of architectural landmarks peopled with elegant strollers enjoying riverside gardens.
The bond between house, garden, and nature remains today. Concert goers, wedding guests, museum visitors, and outdoor enthusiasts all discover what Hildegard Hawthorne expressed in 1910. After a visit with the Tysons she wrote for Century magazine, “It is all one harmony, house and grounds and human spirit."
Historic New England is currently taking steps to restore the gardens to their Colonial Revival splendor.