Kim Knox Beckius, author of ‘New England’s Historic Homes & Gardens’
Kim Knox Beckius, a writer who lives in Connecticut, takes readers on a virtual tour through 36 of New England’s most treasured properties in her latest book, “New England’s Historic Homes & Gardens” (Union Park Press, 2011), which features the photographs of William H. Johnson.
Q. What inspired you to write this book?
A. Growing up in New York’s Hudson Valley, I played on the lawns of the Vanderbilt and Mills mansions, and in high school I was a tour guide at a local property. I’ve also worked as a program director at a historic mansion, so historic houses have been my play spaces and workplaces.
Q. How did you select the 36 profiled properties?
A. First, they had to be open to the public. Then Bill and I worked together to narrow the list. Bill’s focus was on what was visually stunning, while mine was on the stories to be told of the people who lived inside. These are places where people fell in love, had arguments, lost everything, and had real lives and dreams unfold. We also wanted to represent various architectural styles and periods in time from the Colonial era right up to the 20th century.
Q. What are some of your favorite historic houses in New England?
A. My favorites change based on the seasons. In the summer, the Castle in the Clouds in Moultonborough, N.H., has a spectacular setting overlooking Lake Winnipesaukee. You can also hike around the incredible grounds, which even feature a waterfall. I also really like The Mount, Edith Wharton’s home in the Berkshires. They have done forensics to re-create the grounds just as she enjoyed them, and the gardens are just lovely.
In the fall, the William Cullen Bryant Homestead in Cummington, Mass., is a really scenic property. It’s so beautiful to walk around and enjoy the crisp autumn air, and you can see how it inspired Bryant’s poetry. Another great property is the Roseland Cottage in Woodstock, Conn. The juxtaposition of the sherbet pink house and the bright palette of the leaves is breathtaking. And during the holidays, the Newport mansions are dazzling. They do a spectacular job of dressing them up.
Q. Did any property stand out as a hidden gem?
A. The Skolfield-Whittier House in Brunswick, Maine. It’s just the craziest place that looks like a Victorian family left right in the middle of something and never came back. There are dishes in the sink. It looks like the lady of the house left her cosmetics scattered about. You feel like Goldilocks with these people who will be back at any moment. The family suffered some terrible losses in the house, couldn’t stand to be there anymore, and left it with the stipulation that nothing inside was to be touched. It’s just been suspended in time.
Q. The book is more than just an architectural review. It delves into the lives led inside these homes. Is there a particular home where you really felt connected to its previous occupant?
A. I have always had an affinity for Nathaniel Hawthorne, and you can get a real sense of his presence at The Wayside in Concord, Mass. You can climb up into the tower studio where Hawthorne spent his final years and see his stand-up writing desk. He was in so much pain, likely from cancer, that he had to stand to write. But as ill as he was, there was still something burning inside that he had to get out. There was a devotion to craft that comes through. There’s a kind of Yankee resilience there. His humanity really comes through.
Q. Parents planning family trips may think their kids will find historic houses dusty and boring. Are they right?
A. They are so wrong. Properties have become very creative in attracting visitors, including families. At The Fells in Newbury, N.H., kids get backpacks with compasses, magnifying glasses, and maps, and they are unleashed onto the property to explore. There’s a trail where kids can build their own fairy houses. Plus, there’s a wonderful tree that was planted by Teddy Roosevelt under which families can picnic. More properties are also instituting family rates that cap admission fees, no matter how many kids you have. For some properties the most you pay is around $25, which makes for a wonderfully affordable day trip.
Q. If you could move into any one of these houses, which would it be?
A. The Castle in the Clouds. It’s wonderful to think of living in a castle in such a beautiful setting. I’d live there in a heartbeat, but I would probably regret that first heating bill.
Christopher Klein can be reached at christopherklein.com.