Sunday, September 21, 2014

In Praise of Historic House Museums: The Wing Fort House, c.1640

Sunday, September 21, 2014
Isabella reporting,

According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, there are more than 15,000 historic house museums in America - which is more house museums than McDonald's restaurants (14,267 in 2013, if you're counting.)

A recent article in the Boston Globe suggested that there are perhaps too many of them, and that there had to be better ways to make use of historic houses than opening them to the public as museums. This met with a surprising amount of public indignation, but the truth is that people love these small, local museums in a way that they'll never feel about the Met or the Smithsonian.

I know I do. The lure of an old house with a historic marker beside the front door is nearly irresistible to me. Last month I visited one of my favorites on Cape Cod, the Wing Fort House, above left, in Sandwich, MA. The earliest portions of the house were built in the 1640s – only twenty years after the Pilgrims landed – which gives it status as the oldest home lived in continuously by a single family in New England. That family is the Wings, whose name is still attached to the house; the "fort" part comes from historical tradition that the house was originally built with fortified walls in case of attacks by Native Americans.

And that, really, is what has earned this house a place on the National Register of Historic Places. It's not an outstanding example of early architecture. No crucial battles took place on its grounds. No Wing became president. One member of the Wing family in the mid-18th c. prospered sufficiently to enlarge the house to its present size in 1760, but that's about all. It's simply a large New England farmhouse that hasn't changed much in the last three centuries. In fact, the last Wing to live here (into the 1940s) did so without modern conveniences like electricity.

Still owned today by the Wing Family of America, the house is maintained as a family heritage site, with displays of family papers and documents. The furnishings were all donated by the family, and are an eclectic mix, as is often the way in house museums. There are 19th c. hooked rugs, made by a seafaring Wing on long voyages, grim-faced portraits and porcelain teapots, toys and arrowheads and spinning wheels (because every old house museum in New England has spinning wheels and arrowheads.)

Most of all, all those Wings left something more valuable than any antiques. Like every house museum, this one carries the intangible essence of all the people who were born, lived, and died within its walls. Memories and experiences are powerful things, and – not to be too woo-woo here – it's easy to feel the presence of all those long-gone generations of Wings while walking through their house.

There's also one tiny feature of this house that's breathtaking because it's so rare. Because the house was so little changed over the years, it still had its original painted floor in the parlor. Designs were painted on 18th c. floors to mimic patterned carpets, but few survived due to wear and changing tastes.

Alas, well-meaning "restorers" in the 1950s believed that bare floorboards were more "colonial", and the painted designs were removed. The restorers, however, missed one little square of the floor that had been covered inside a later cupboard, right - a tantalizing hint of how impressive that original painted floor must have been.

All photographs copyright 2014 Susan Holloway Scott.


Anonymous said...

I've worked in historic houses for more than 30 years, and there's nothing closer to time travel than stepping over the threshold! My favorite recurring thought? The sunlight coming through a window makes the same pattern on the floor as it did centuries ago...

Lillian Marek said...

The "unimportant" houses are the truly fascinating ones to my mind. Unlike the stately mansions (the ones that feel like a stage set for important events), these lesser houses allow you to imagine people going about their daily lives doing ordinary things like eating breakfast or helping children learn their lessons or sitting by the fireside with a basket of mending.

gsbeez said...

I am a docent in a historic home and the people I show through enjoy the home so much because we stress not only the history, but how the people lived in the home. These homes are a valuable part of our national history. I want to tour this home soon.

SusanS said...

Thank you so much for bringing attention to the "old house museum" controversy. While I realize that such museums are expensive to keep up, these old houses help to share and preserve our heritage. When I travel, they are always at the top of my list of places to visit.

Michelle Hamilton said...

As someone who has worked in two historic homes, the Whaley House in San Diego, CA and Ellwood Manor located on the Wilderness Battlefield in Orange County, VA, I love working in historic homes. It is true that working in a historic house is like time traveling. I love working in a home that was occupied by people from the past and to try to imagine what life was like for them. You do feel the spirits of the past.

Though I do understand some of the criticism, as many are run and operated by volunteers, not professional historians and the quality of the tour and the displays often reflect a lack of proper training.

Unknown said...

Speaking of historic houses, have you given any coverage to Old Merchant House in NYC? It is a 1830's mansion on 4th St and is in terrible danger because of construction next door, which threatens to shake down the whole place.

QNPoohBear said...

I love historic house museums and visit as many as I can. That is the one thing I like about living in New England. There are so many of them and it's a wonderful way to learn about how people lived.

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