Hamilton House (c. 1785)

Romancing the past

South Berwick, Maine

Shipping merchant Jonathan Hamilton built this striking Georgian mansion and National Historic Landmark c. 1785. Its picturesque situation on a bluff overlooking the Salmon Falls River made it an ideal location for Hamilton’s shipping business and, more than a hundred years later, for the summer retreat of Emily Tyson and her stepdaughter Elise.

Today Hamilton House reflects the occupancy of the Tysons in the early twentieth century and is recognized as one of the region’s quintessential Colonial Revival-style country estates. The house features two whimsical murals commissioned by the women as well as antique furnishings and handcrafted decorative arts they collected. The elaborate perennial garden, with its charming garden cottage, provides visitors with a place to stroll and picnic overlooking the river.

Plan Your Visit

Location

40 Vaughan’s Lane
South Berwick, Maine 03908

Days & Hours

Wednesday – Sunday
June 1 – October 15
11:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.

Tours on the hour.

Last tour at 3:00 p.m.

Admission

$10 adults

$9 seniors

$5 students

Free for Historic New England members and South Berwick residents.

Directions

From the south, I-95 to Maine Exit 3; from the north, after the York tolls, take Exit 2. Follow Route 236 north for 9 miles; after junction with Route 91 take first left onto Brattle Street; take second right onto Vaughan’s Lane and continue to end.

Parking

Ample parking in field above house. Follow signs from the parking area to the visitor center located in the brown garden cottage.

Contact Information

Riverside Reflection

Hamilton House overlooks the Salmon Falls River.

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  • Riverside Reflection

    Hamilton House overlooks the Salmon Falls River.

  • Front Hall

    A broad arch spans the center hallway. The wallpaper is a reproduction of original pillar and arch wallpaper commissioned by the Tysons.

  • Parlor

    The wall mural by George Porter Fernald depicts important Colonial and Federal-era buildings of the Piscataqua region.

  • Parlor Looking Into Hallway

    Here is another look at the mural, which is based in part on French scenic wallpaper.

  • Tyson Chamber

    The master bedchamber features elaborate woodwork, early American glass, hooked rugs, samplers, Currier and Ives prints, and more.

  • Vaughan Chamber

    The Tysons enjoyed collecting American furniture and decorative arts, much of which is on view in the second-floor rooms.

1-hamiltonhouse_historyA Shipping Merchant’s Country Seat

Jonathan Hamilton (1745-1802) was a Berwick, Maine (then still a part of Massachusetts), native who rose from humble beginnings to become the most prominent merchant in the region by the mid-1780s. Hamilton began his mercantile career selling local fish and timber. During the American Revolution he amassed a fortune through privateering ventures which allowed him to expand his business into shipbuilding, timber harvesting, partial ownership of local mills, and the ownership of sugar plantations on the island of Tabago, West Indies, from which he imported rum, molasses, and slaves.

Hamilton’s base of mercantile activity was centered in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where he rented wharf space and owned a chandlery shop with his partner Mr. Lord. In 1783 he purchased land at Pipe Stave Landing on the Salmon Falls River in Berwick. An advantageous location for loading and building vessels, the parcel of land already had a long history of local use. In fact, prior to the Hamilton purchase, the site had belonged to David Moore. According to Moore’s 1777 probate inventory, a house, a wharf, and ways for building vessels were present on the property. Moore’s house burned several years before Hamilton purchased the property, but the wharf and ways remained intact for use by the new owner.

Between 1785 and 1788 Hamilton created his own country seat at Pipe Stave Landing, building a grand mansion on the bluff overlooking the river. Tax records from 1798 indicate that Hamilton’s house was the highest valued in Berwick. In fact, it was taxed twice as much as the next best house, Tilly Hagen’s house (today known as Sarah Orne Jewett House in downtown South Berwick). From his new home Hamilton conducted trade, built and serviced vessels, ran a shop, and became part owner of a nearby mill.

After Hamilton died in 1802 his sons did not carry on the business at the same level of prosperity. There are allusions to their lack of ability and integrity, but most likely they were caught in the crunch of the Jefferson Embargo of 1807 and the War of 1812. The embargo and war crippled shipping throughout New England, hastening the decline of many family fortunes and the death of small shipping centers like Berwick.

Hamilton’s daughter Olive and her husband Joshua Haven purchased the property from Hamilton’s sons, living there between 1811 and 1815. The property was owned by Nathan Folsom, a former business associate of Hamilton, from 1815 to 1839. Folsom, who purchased the house as an investment, probably leased it during this period.

8a-wallpaperhanging1898A Family Farm

In 1839 Hamilton House was purchased by Aipheus Goodwin and his wife Betsy. The Goodwins were farmers and, as New England’s economy shifted away from shipping and toward agriculture, it was fitting that the town’s landing now became a family farm.

Several generations of the Goodwin family raised sheep and a variety of other crops at Hamilton House. Although the family enjoyed several decades of prosperity, the New England agricultural economy began to suffer from western competition toward the end of the nineteenth century. As a result, the family’s resources diminished and the house fell into disrepair. With growing opportunities for well-paid factory work in South Berwick and surrounding towns, and agriculture on the decline, the Goodwin family decided to sell the farm.

1b-emilytysonandsarahornejewett1905A Colonial Revival Summer Estate

The Goodwins could afford to make few changes during their tenure in the house, making it a preserved example of early architecture. The old-fashioned look of the house endeared it to local author Sarah Orne Jewett, who feared it might be torn down if sold to the wrong buyer. In 1898 Jewett convinced her friend Emily Tyson (shown, left, with Jewett), widow of the president of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and her stepdaughter Elise Tyson (later Mrs. Henry G. Vaughan) to purchase the house. The Tysons were part of a new wave of summer residents who were caught up in the Colonial Revival romance of owning country houses which reflected the grace and prosperity of colonial forebears and provided a healthful rural retreat away from the heat and pollution of cities.

The Tysons hired Herbert Browne of the Boston architectural firm Little and Browne to oversee some interior changes and to design additions to the west and east sides of the house. The Tysons also embarked on creating a grand Colonial Revival-style garden at the east side of the house encircled by an elaborate pergola. All major work was completed by 1900. Important additions to the property made in the following decade included murals painted in the parlor and dining room of the house by George Porter Fernald and the construction of a charming garden cottage fitted with interior paneling salvaged from a colonial home in Newington, New Hampshire. Luckily, Elise Tyson was an accomplished amateur photographer whose photographs of interior and garden views provide a rare and wonderful documentation of the early years the ladies spent at the property.

After her stepmother’s death in 1922, Elise Tyson Vaughan and her husband Henry Vaughan (married 1915) were encouraged by William Sumner Appleton, the founder of Historic New England, then known as the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, to keep the house. The Vaughans had built a house, again aided by the firm of Little and Browne and with murals by George Porter Fernald, in Sherborn, Massachusetts. Around 1925, Elise did some redecorating at Hamilton House in keeping with the spirit of the earlier era and summered there until her death in 1949.

14-thesalmonfallsriverBecoming a Museum

Elise Tyson Vaughan bequeathed Hamilton House and its gardens, outbuildings, and surrounding fields to Historic New England in 1949. She left the adjacent woods to the state of Maine in the name of her late husband, Henry Vaughan. Today the woods have many popular hiking trails and are maintained as Vaughan Woods State Park.

Shortly after Historic New England acquired the property, the garden pergola, which had fallen into disrepair and was nearly destroyed in a hurricane, was removed. The architectural additions made in the Tyson era, including the kitchen wing on the east side of the house and the bedroom and porch on the west, were also removed to reveal the house in a form more closely reflecting Jonathan Hamilton’s occupation. Although we may regret the removal of these architectural elements today, they were, at the time, in keeping with current attitudes toward preservation and restoration to early periods (at the expense of later additions) prevalent in the 1950s.

Summer Fun at Hamilton HouseReviving the Colonial Revival

In 1987 Historic New England embarked on a project to recapture the Tysons’ Colonial Revival vision of Hamilton House. The bases of the restoration were interior and exterior photographs of the house and gardens taken by Paul Weber for a series of articles published in House Beautiful magazine in 1929. Major garden restoration began in 1992 and continues today.

Collections on Display

Wallpaper

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Candlestick

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Hooked Rug

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Landscape History

Today’s Hamilton House landscape reveals its eighteenth-century mercantile roots, nineteenth-century agrarianism, and the Colonial Revival style that has evolved over the past century. Known as Pipe Stave Landing, this site is located ten miles from the Atlantic Ocean. Alpheus and Betsy Goodwin bought the property in 1839 to farm and produce wool. They planted orchards, fenced fields for their sheep, and built a barn.

In 1898 Emily Tyson and her stepdaughter Elise purchased Hamilton House. Working with architect Herbert Browne, they fashioned the property into a pleasure ground embodying a 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. A vine-draped kitchen ell visually linked the house to a plant-covered pergola surrounding the garden. Past a sundial and marble fountain, granite steps led to an arch towards the fields rising to the east.

Additional 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, a tea terrace, and worn millstones. By 1907 a cottage served as garden folly and destination. In the main house, murals show elegant strollers enjoying riverside gardens. The bond between house, garden, and nature remains today. Guests see what Hildegard Hawthorne said in 1910: “It is all one harmony, house and grounds and human spirit.”

 

Property FAQs

Find out about parking, accessibility, photography policy, and more.

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  • Can I park at the museum?

    Parking at Hamilton House is ample. The parking area is located at the end of Vaughan’s Lane and is located in a grassy field above the house. A gravel path with signs leads visitors from the parking area to the visitor center in the garden cottage.

  • Are there restrooms at Hamilton House?

    Yes. There are two restrooms, one handicapped accessible, in the red carriage barn. Restrooms are open to the public during regular museum hours and special events.

  • Do we need to take a tour or can we just look around?

    All visitors to the house receive a guided tour.

  • Is the museum accessible to people with disabilities?

    A tour of any Historic New England property requires a considerable amount of standing and some walking. Hamilton House has not been equipped with accessible ramps, elevators, or chair lifts. Folding chairs can be provided for visitors who would like to use them during a tour. We are glad to offer guests a visual tour of the museum from the comfort of our visitor’s center located in the garden cottage. Visitors with limited mobility may be able to enjoy a first-floor tour of the house and grounds. Service animals are always welcome. We encourage visitors with concerns to call ahead. We are happy to work with you to make your visit an enjoyable one.

  • Can I visit the grounds at any time?

    The museum grounds and garden are open daily from dusk to dawn.

  • Can I take photographs at Hamilton House?

    Interior and exterior photography for personal use is allowed at Historic New England properties. For the safety and comfort of our visitors and the protection of our collections and house museums, we ask that you be aware of your surroundings and stay with your guide. Video, camera bags, tripods and selfie sticks are not permitted. Professional/commercial photographers and media should review the press room for contract and fee information.

  • Is there a museum shop on site?

    Hamilton House has a small museum shop located in the garden cottage. The shop offers a selection of books relating to Hamilton House, local history, and gardening as well as gift items. Downtown South Berwick is located only one and a half miles from Hamilton House, offering a number of dining options. Our staff is happy to offer recommendations.

  • How can I book a group tour? What is the cost?

    The cost for a group of eight or more is $1 off the regular admission price. Visit our Group Tours page or call 207-384-2454.

  • How do I become a member of Historic New England and get more involved?

    Join Historic New England now and help preserve the region’s heritage. Call 617-994-5910 or join online.

Related to this Property

Visit nearby Sarah Orne Jewett House.

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Host an event on the Hamilton House grounds.

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Become a member and tour for free.

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