The National Historic Landmarks Program is like a hall of fame of American culture. Far more stringent and exclusive than the National Register of Historic Places, the Landmarks designation honors touchstones of our culture — places where the United States became itself. Not surprisingly, New England is rich with such spots, including several where writers found their voices and artists realized their visions. The following three locales are excerpted and condensed from our forthcoming book, Historic New England: A Tour of the Region’s Top 100 National Landmarks.
WINSLOW HOMER STUDIO
“The rare thing is to find a painter who knows a good thing when he sees it,” Winslow Homer (1836-1910) once remarked. He definitely knew a good thing, or, more specifically, a good place. The artist spent the last quarter century of his life at his studio on Prouts Neck. This rocky knob jutting into Saco Bay just north of Old Orchard Beach is surrounded by a slate ledge shoreline of heroic proportions. Homer painted it repeatedly, usually in stormy weather, creating the archetypal images of Maine’s rockbound coast.
Born in Boston, Homer left his apprenticeship as an illustrator to seek his fortune in New York. When the Civil War broke out, Harper’s Weekly dispatched him to the Virginia front, where he illustrated camp life and battles for the next four years. In 1863, he made his first professional oil painting, Sharpshooter. Its combination of fluid realism and life-and-death subject matter foreshadowed the style and moral compass of his mature work. By 1875, he had given up illustration to pursue painting full time. That same year, the Homer family first visited Prouts Neck. The painter’s brother Charles and their father eventually bought most of the peninsula to develop as a summer community.
In 1883, after they built their own massive house, they gave Winslow the carriage house. He lived there without electricity or running water, heating with the fireplace and a cast-iron stove. He painted in the structure’s 1890 addition and the upstairs loft, which has a balcony overlooking the ocean. Charles accused his sibling of “wearing out the view.” But what a view it is — straight out to sea and southward along the coast to Wood Island Light. For a moment, it feels like the artist is there himself, squaring up a vision with his hands.
> Scarborough, Maine, 207-775-6148, portlandmuseum.org/homer
> Tours Thursday-Sunday, 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m., through October 29. No tours on Columbus Day weekend.
MARK TWAIN HOUSE
Best known by his pen name Mark Twain, Samuel Clemens (1835 – 1910) wrote that the happiest 17 years of his life were spent in this house on the west side of Hartford. He and his wife, Olivia, commissioned the 25-room Gothic Revival brick house from prominent New York architect Edward Tuckerman Potter and engaged Louis Comfort Tiffany to carry out the interior design. They spent lavishly and lived well, filling the home with a mixture of custom furniture and fine pieces that they dragged back from Europe.
As Clemens was fond of saying, “I was born modest, but it didn’t last.”
Tours begin in the room most designed to impress: the central front hall. There, Tiffany covered the walls in a stenciled Moorish pattern that would have jumped and dazzled by gaslight. The library provides the most intimate picture of family life. In the bay-window nook opposite the fireplace, Clemens would tell his daughters bedtime stories featuring each of the pictures on the fireplace wall and the souvenirs displayed on the mantel.
The sensibility of the house is so feminine that Clemens’s frontier ruffian savant persona seems curiously absent — until the tour arrives at the third floor. In one corner is the “friends’ room,” where Clemens’s buddies who had drunk too much would sometimes spend the night. Most evocative of all is the billiard room, where a large table dominates. But there’s still space for Clemens’s writing desk, where he composed, among other books, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The room opens out to two covered porches — perfect spots for an old riverboat man to step out and enjoy a cigar.
> 351 Farmington Avenue, Hartford, Connecticut, 860-247-0998, marktwainhouse.org
> Daily 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; last tour leaves at 4:30 p.m. (closed Tuesdays in January and February).
HERMAN MELVILLE’S ARROWHEAD
In the landlocked Berkshire Hills, Herman Melville (1819 –1891) sat at his desk, gazed at Mount Greylock, imagined a white whale, and wrote America’s great novel of the sea, Moby-Dick. His 18-month sojourn aboard the whaling ship Acushnet in the 1840s was well behind him, and he had begun to establish himself as a writer in Manhattan when he and his wife, Elizabeth, decided to move to the Berkshires. In 1850, they purchased a 160-acre farm with a 1790s farmhouse in Pittsfield. The couple shared the home with their four children and his mother and sisters.
He escaped the human hubbub by writing upstairs in his study, furnished with a desk in one corner and a writing table and chair facing the window. After he had fed his horse and cow, finished his other farm work, and eaten breakfast, Melville would climb the stairs, close the door, and hole up there to work. His lunch was left at the door.
Melville had drafted The Whale while in New York. With Nathaniel Hawthorne’s counsel to make the book more “serious,” Melville sat at his desk, stared at Mount Greylock, and revised his manuscript until it became Moby-Dick. In Melville’s defense, it’s not hard to imagine the 3,491-foot mountain as a whale — especially when the summit is covered with snow in winter and fog rises from the peaks like sea spray.
During the writing process, when he had wrestled with his metaphoric angels long enough and the ink was dry on the page, he would rejoin the family, perhaps for a stroll across the upper pastures where the high whine of summer cicadas can be nearly deafening. Or he might have just sat on his piazza, rocking into the gloaming as the great hump of Greylock closed in the horizon.
> 780 Holmes Road, Pittsfield, 413-442-1793, mobydick.org
> Daily house tours through October 23. Visitors center opens at 9:30 a.m. First tour at 10 a.m. Visitors center and house close at 5 p.m.