Romancing the Past
Hamilton House, South Berwick, Maine
Curator Richard Nylander discusses SPNEA’s quintessential colonial revival house on the Piscataqua.
Over a century ago Mrs. George Tyson of Boston and her stepdaughter Elise purchased a desolate but majestic hundred-year-old house located on a bluff overlooking the Salmon Falls River in South Berwick, Maine. Despite the fact that Mrs. Tyson had seen the house only once, in the dead of winter, when it stood empty, surrounded by three feet of snow, the house seems to have exerted a magnetic appeal. In March of 1898, she wrote to Sarah Orne Jewett, "All of our roads seem to lead us towards the Hamilton House." Miss Jewett must have been delighted with the comment, for she had made it her mission to find a responsible purchaser for the house, which she called "a quiet place that the destroying left hand of progress had failed to touch."
The house had been built about 1787 by Col. Jonathan Hamilton, a West Indies merchant, as a symbol of his prosperity. That prosperity, however, was short lived. Hamilton died in 1802, the region’s economy entered into a decline, and for the rest of the century, the house was used as a farmhouse. It was the Tysons’ goal to return it to its former glory and recreate the gardens that, according to tradition, had once surrounded it. In undertaking this labor of love, the two women were part of a movement, known today as the "colonial revival," that sought a simpler past, if only for the summer, as a refuge from the pressures caused by urbanization, industrialization, and immigration. They hired Boston architect Herbert W. C. Browne to help translate their vision into reality. Both architect and clients strove to disturb the original fabric as little as possible when introducing modern amenities like plumbing and an up-to-date kitchen.
From the beginning, published accounts of the Tysons’ restoration judged it a grand success. One author wrote, "The house itself is pure colonial…Mrs. Tyson has not only succeeded in restoring all its old beauty, but she has also given it the very atmosphere of its own time." Another commented, "In isolation, simplicity, and ripeness the atmosphere of the whole place breathes of the olden time." The key word used by both authors is "atmosphere," for Mrs. Tyson and Elise were more interested in evoking the spirit of the past than slavishly recreating it.
The strongest link to the historical past is the hall wallpaper, which the Tysons had reproduced from the pattern chosen by Hamilton in the 1780s. Although commonly done today, in 1898 reproducing an antique paper was an unusual and distinctive step. The Tysons took more liberties with history on the walls of the drawing room, where they commissioned George Porter Fernald to paint murals depicting historic houses in the Portsmouth, New Hampshire, area, lined up along the Piscataqua riverbank in imitation of the French scenic wallpaper Les Monuments de Paris.
The Tysons decorated the house with antique furniture, colored glass, hooked rugs, and Currier and Ives prints, employing the prevalent definition of "colonial" as anything made before 1840. The furnishing scheme was completed with typical summer house amenities such as painted furniture, straw matting, an abundance of books, and white curtains, producing an informal and eclectic appearance.
In 1987, SPNEA embarked on a project to recapture the Tysons’ colonial revival vision of the Hamilton House, using photographs taken in 1929 for the magazine House Beautiful. With the interiors nearly complete, work has begun on the extensive gardens.
—Richard C. Nylander