Homes and Gardens on Display

Yesterday I went on a house and garden tour in the next town. There are many historic houses in that town, especially on their main street, which looks more like a stage set for Anne of Green Gables than it does a real town, operating in the 21st century. But it does operate every day, […]

By Edie Clark

Jul 19 2009

Yesterday I went on a house and garden tour in the next town. There are many historic houses in that town, especially on their main street, which looks more like a stage set for Anne of Green Gables than it does a real town, operating in the 21st century. But it does operate every day, like any town in this United States, with a store and a deli, a library and a real estate office all set beside an imperial looking inn which, I think has some distinction such as oldest operating inn in the country. Something like that. Inside several of these old homes there are Rufus Porter murals and many other such delights. The houses on this main street are close together, in many cases, no room for as much as a car between the structures. They are painted historically correct colors, deep reds and creams and grays with a hint of lavender and I believe all of this is closely monitored by the town’s historic district commission. I recall, for instance, a kerfuffle about Christmas lights one year — someone had festooned their main street dwelling with lights that seemed too garish and they were asked to remove them. That is the sort of vigilance that the town keeps in order to maintain this incredibly tranquil appearance, this illusion of the 19th century. Not all the houses on the tour were in town and not all the houses were old. But yesterday was an opportunity to peek inside the mystery of some of these dwellings, and wander behind the houses into their tranquil and well-tended gardens.

I am very admiring of anyone who puts their house on tour, opens their home to an inquiring and largely unknown public. This strikes me as a huge gesture of generosity. Tickets were sold for the handsome price of $20 each, all sponsored by the town’s women’s club. I went with two friends and when we bought our tickets, we were given a booklet with the history of each house on its many pages. There were 12 houses open to the public. Most of the houses had a basket of white booties at the door. The option was to pull the booties over your street shoes or remove your shoes and walk through the house in your socks or in your bare feet. The first house we encountered was in the middle of town, just beside the booth where we picked up our tickets. It is a big two-storey Colonial, painted deep red. I have passed by it many times and even once knew the owner, a very elderly and very lovely lady whose life had begun in the 19th century. She passed away some long time ago and I believe that the new owners moved here from Boston a few years ago. We entered through the garden, a small but showy arrangement of flowers and shrubs and lawn, just right for the small space it occupied. The lawn looked down on the pond that is the center of the town. It was one of the first real hot days of our reluctant summer and some young people were jumping into the water off of a dock. Inside, the owner had taken some care to make it seem as if the house was alive with activity. In the dining room, the table was set beautifully, crystal goblets and cobalt china, as if guests were expected any minute. In the children’s room a book of stories was open on the little table. In the kitchen, four very tempting, very perfect chocolate chip cookies sat on the bread board, as if just removed from the oven. Dog food was in the dish. But no dog.

At each house, the ladies of the club sat in the rooms to give guidance and perhaps to safeguard as we padded through the rooms. I walked throughout each house in my bare feet, which gave a certain intimacy to the experience. Feeling the old floorboards and brick hearths, warm and comfortable beneath my feet, I realized I only ever walk through a house barefoot when I am part of that house in some way. That felt like such a gift, to be allowed into the deepest recesses of these homes. It called to mind summer mornings, coming down to breakfast in my aunt’s big old Colonial many years ago.

The day went by very quickly. We saw many people we knew and thus enjoyed unexpected visits, received news of all kinds. We followed the map in the booklet and drove all over town to where houses had been built in remote places on roads we’d never driven. We ate our picnic sitting on Adirondack chairs overlooking a birdwatcher’s marsh. We saw new houses constructed to look like old houses. We saw old houses retrofitted with state-of-the-art kitchens and laundry rooms. We saw porches that looked out over gardens that mimicked Versailles. We saw treasures locked behind glass as they would be in a museum. We studied the titles in the bookcases. In one house, we saw a bound copy of The Papers of George W. Bush. In another The Chronicles of Narnia. And in yet another, Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, all windows into the owner’s soul. We saw dolls gathered on quilted beds. And inside a house built in the 1700s, a lavish Jacuzzi in an alcove in the air-conditioned bedroom. The tub was situated beside a large many-paned window. A man standing near me said, “Now wouldn’t that be a great place to be in a blizzard?” I had to agree, so long as the power didn’t go out.

It all spun by like a movie on fast forward. The gardens were magnificent, weedless. The kitchens were spotless, frozen in time; the ornate sideboards, mahogany highboys and grand pianos dazzling. The tour went from 10 to 4 but by 2 p.m. I had to concede, having only visited a few of the houses available to my curious eyes. I left my friends to enjoy the rest. I perhaps felt exhausted from all that beauty, all that perfection. I returned home, where my dogs greeted me noisily and delighted me with the fact that they had not left me any unwanted gifts on the rugs. I viewed my weed-filled gardens and noted that the lawn needed mowing and there were dishes in the sink. I felt grateful, grateful for having been invited into so many interesting homes and gardens, grateful for having seen the perfection, grateful for my home, where things always are less than.