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The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home

October 14, 2009

Welcome to a new feature here at the Time Machine — reviews of books about “place,” history, family or why we “preserve.”

Over the summer I read a book that seemed to touch on all of these, but I found it so incredibly engaging and charming, found the author’s ability to weave recollection with actual history so mesmerizing, that I just couldn’t figure out how to share it with you without writing some sort of garbled, breathless, quote-heavy mess that would take all the fun out of reading it yourself.  And then, voila, I discovered the book reviewer of my dreams:  Anne Fontaine who is articulate, insightful and has a wide-ranging understanding of art, science and everything inbetween.  So, herewith her take on The Big House:  A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home by George Howe Colt.

Imagine knowing, from the time you are very young, that you will see your cousins every year, spend weeks in the company of your parents, grandparents, assorted aunts, uncles, and visiting guests and, even better, get to swim, sail, play tennis, fish, and explore in a casual sea-and-sky atmosphere of complete belonging and wild beauty. You will understand, then, George Colt’s heartfelt attachment to the artfully assembled, Sardines-worthy collection of exposed studs, embellished gables, and ancient fixtures of his family’s summer home. Built in 1903 on a bluff called Wing’s Neck overlooking Buzzard’s Bay on the Cape, it has been weathered and steeped in the memory-enhancing qualities of sea-salt air, adding enviable cachet to the everyday memories and associations that would, in any event, magically turn a wood-shingled, eel grass-stuffed building into both family member and identity.

Scattered throughout the house, the accumulated flotsam of summer success is displayed with relaxed abandon. The sailing pennants, tennis trophies, and paper silhouette memorials of local fish caught by variously-aged relatives celebrate their individual achievements and provide a sense of continuity to what was essentially a benevolent, if somewhat insular, club. George Colt and his extended family were reminded of, and immersed in, family history every summer of their lives. The Wing’s Neck house served as a touchstone, restoring them during their stays while providing a new batch of memories to sustain them until they returned.

The Big House is also a warts-and-all (mostly all) tribute to Colt’s entrenched New England family. Their hail-fellow-well-met openness, often at odds with remnants of Puritan stoicism, was a source of both fascination and frustration for him. Interlaced with his candid discussions of their joys and sorrows is the chronicle of a small town adjusting to the influx and exodus of residents as fortunes were found and lost. The amazing beauty of the place continues to draw a steady stream of admirers to the point of risking its own ecological health, a process Colt’s family witnessed from its beginnings. It becomes very clear that along with the rare privilege of being a resident in such a place comes the additional responsibility of being a caretaker for its future. George Colt’s family has managed that responsibility well; his wonderful, nostalgic book will inspire a rush of similar memories in those who have also spent long youthful days at the beach, inspire curious others to peruse coastal real estate offerings, and generally underscore the magic and importance of having some form of tradition in all our lives.

Click the book cover image above for more info at Amazon.

To visit vicariously, click here for the Wing’s Neck blog (and don’t miss the pictures of the wagon parade).

Click here to visit Anne Fontaine’s Penny Candy Reviews to find more books for your reading list!

An excerpt from The Big House:  A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home

It is an extraordinary structure, a massive, four-story, shingle-style house as contorted and fantastic as something a child might build with wooden blocks.  My grandmother once wrote that while growing up she had been embarrassed by its whimsical appearance until, reading a book of fairy tales, she came across an illustration of a castle of similar design.

The peaked roof, covered with bays, gables, and dormers, is pitched as sharply as a wedge of cheese stood on its rind.  The walls are ringed with porches and breezeways.  Two huge chimneys lie diagonally along the roof, as if they had toppled during a storm and miraculously come to rest with every brick in place.

Children love to count the rooms, of which there are nineteen  (or, if you count the bathrooms — as children usually do — twenty-six).  There are eleven bedrooms, seven fireplaces, and a warren of closets, cupboards, and crannies that four generations of Wings Neck children have used for games of Sardines.

From the water, the house appears to rise from the pines like a ship from an enormous green wave.  The most prominent house on Wings Neck, it has been a familiar landmark to generations of sailors approaching the harbor.  Several years ago, I was at a party in Boston, talking with someone about sailing in Buzzards Bay, and I mentioned that my grandparents had a summer house on Wings Neck.  As I began to describe it, he interrupted me:  “Oh, you live in the Ghost House!”  Wings Neck children also know it as the Haunted House, the Wicked Witch of the West House, and the House of the Seven Gables.  (Actually it has eight.)

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