Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Big House

The Big House: a century in the life of an American summer home
George Howe Colt (Scribner, 2003)

All over the Atlantic coast there are hundred-year-old houses passing into the third and fourth generations of ownership by a single family. Summer after summer of genial seaside matriarchy, with the menfolk turning up Friday night to go sailing or play a little tennis; and kids collecting seashells, or, driven within by rain, playing Sardines, or paging through their fathers' very own copies of the Hardy Boys.
George Howe Colt is the right man to tell his particular version of this archetypal story. He has the right house for the job--"a massive, four-story, shingle-style house as contorted and fantastic as something a child might build with wooden blocks." The Big House, as it's known within the family, is the most prominent house on Wings Neck, which stands on the Cape Cod side near the head of Buzzards Bay. The house boasts nineteen rooms, seven fireplaces, and a year-round population of mice, squirrels, and bats.
And he has the right family -- descended through one great-grandmother from the Forbeses of Naushon, the Atkinsons and Colts have all the marks of the Boston Brahmin--winter homes in Dedham; Harvard for the men; Miss Winsor's School and the Chilton Club (and the occasional insane asylum) for the women; and the proud vestiges of former wealth. "The Boston area was full of families like ours, venerable tribes that had nothing left to remind them of their former prominence but their names--which no longer counted for much--and their ancestral summer homes." The visitor is not meant to be able to tell whether they are sleeping on the original horsehair mattresses because the family can't afford new ones, or because these are perfectly good, and so long-wearing. (Probably both, of course, but it wouldn't do to discuss it.)
Times being what they are, with two-earner families unable to drop everything and give their children a couple of months by the sea, The Big House is too expensive to keep, and too high-maintenance to sell. Can anyone of George's generation come up with what it would take to buy it, let alone renovate it? Change is always painful, but the house winds up in good hands.
The Big House is a worthy addition to the pleasures of literary WASP-watching. Colt combines historical perspective with deep affection for this hardy tribe; we can only envy the legacy he is leaving for his own descendants.