To understand Hamilton House today, you have to picture it as it was in 1785, when Jonathan Hamilton, a wealthy merchant from South Berwick, Maine, decided to build himself a house on a bluff overlooking the Salmon Falls River.
The front lawn of the eighty-acre property swept down to the river, which provided the only access to the house. Wharves and warehouses lined the shore alive with ships carrying rum and molasses—and slaves—from the West Indies. Ships filled with local timber put out into the river, heading to sea. Gristmills and sawmills hummed upstream. Just a few years after the American colonies became the United States, the area throbbed with the beat of maritime commerce.
Hamilton is believed to have spent about $6,000 building his house, outbuildings and warehouses, an almost unheard-of amount in that day. He enjoyed the house and the booming economy until his death in 1802; shortly afterward, both the economy and the house began a slow decline.
Today, the house stands alone and quiet. The river flows serenely at the foot of the front gardens, unimpeded by human activity. Roads thread the area, bringing tourists to view this remnant of a bygone era, now owned by Historic New England (formerly the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities) and lovingly restored during the last twenty years.
That the house still exists at all is thanks to Emily and Elise Tyson of Boston, who bought the decayed mansion in 1898. Old homes such as Hamilton House were being abandoned all across New England as its agricultural economy faltered. But Maine was finding a new foothold: as a summer retreat for the rich.
Emily Tyson, widow of the president of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and her stepdaughter Elise were smitten with Hamilton House. At the urging of Emily Tyson's friend and neighbor, author Sarah Orne Jewett—who had made the house the setting of one of her novels—they bought the place and began restoration.
They blended antiques with country furniture and had murals painted on the walls, reflecting their idealized image of the country's past. They added two porches, a piazza and a kitchen wing. They created a garden that became a New England icon.
In a move unusual for the time, the Tysons took a sample of Hamilton's original wallpaper and re-created it for the forty-five-foot entry hall. The wallpaper remains in place today. They displayed ship models in the hall, a tribute to Hamilton's former life, and put objects from the China trade, maritime prints and hooked rugs with maritime themes throughout the house.
The house was once again whole, the image of what the Tysons imagined colonial life to be. For that reason, the style is referred to today as Colonial Revival.
In 1949, Elise Tyson, by then Elise Vaughan, deeded the house to SPNEA, which in the 1960s undertook another restoration. It was the fashion then to restore buildings to the way they looked when they were built, so SPNEA removed much of the Tysons' work. But styles changed again, and in 1987 SPNEA began another overhaul, this time returning the house to its glory days under the Tysons.
Richard Nylander, senior curator at Historic New England, oversaw the repainting of all the woodwork and the conservation of the Tysons' wallpaper. Using pictures from House Beautiful, which featured the house in 1929, and some rolls of wallpaper found in the attic, he painstakingly rearranged furniture, tracked down wallpaper patterns and curtain fabrics, re-created murals and succeeded in recapturing what he calls the Tysons' “romanticized version of the past.”
The work on the house may be largely finished, but Nylander is still after the final details. He recently found a wallpaper pattern that matches the one in the main bedroom.
About the house, Nylander says, “It's a magical place. Mrs.Vaughan used to call it a wondrous place.”
EDITOR'S NOTE Hamilton House is open June 1 through October 15, Wednesday through Sunday, noon–4 p.m. with tours on the hour, $8. 40 Vaughan's Ln., South Berwick, Maine, (207) 384-2454.
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