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Inspiring Mrs. Roosevelt

House tour echoes first lady’s book that found America in Hingham

The Girl Scout house is on the Hingham tour. The Girl Scout house is on the Hingham tour. (Robert E. Klein for the Boston Globe)
By Constance Lindner
Globe Correspondent / June 9, 2011

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A month after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Eleanor Roosevelt set out to capture the nation’s idealized spirit. She ended up producing a paean to Hingham.

“The shady streets of Hingham are lined by a thousand quiet homes, some of them mansions whose beauty and dignity date from the Colonial period, others modern and small and unpretentious,’’ Roosevelt wrote in the book “This Is America.’’ “The same contrasts exist in every town in America, but the same love of freedom and liberty dwells in every home.’’

Roosevelt discovered Hingham in a visit with photographer and coauthor Frances Cooke Macgregor in her Stoddard Road home. It was Jan. 6, 1942, and the first lady felt she had come upon the perfect vehicle to help Americans remember what was at stake in the war and what they were fighting for.

Hingham provided “the template for a microcosm of American ideals,’’ said Suzanne Buchanan, executive director of the Hingham Historical Society. The result was that three-quarters of the photos in the book, which was supposed to be representative of the entire country, are of Hingham.

That rare, out-of-print edition will come alive tomorrow and Saturday at the society’s 87th annual house tour. Two of the homes featured in “This Is America’’ will be part of the tour, and a copy of the book will be on display at the society’s headquarters at Old Derby Academy at 34 Main St.

Among those captured for posterity are grocer Tom Howe, “likely to know more about the family affairs of his customers than any other single person’’ and in hard times, never one to let people down, wrote Roosevelt; or stern-faced school principal Selma Beatrice Simpson, “who you didn’t want to mess with,’’ said nonagenarian and former pupil Thomas Studley; and the Norman Rockwell-worthy Thomas family gathered around the dinner table.

“This was a more rural town than people realize, where you went to school and later, played outside in the fields until it was dark, and then got called home for dinner,’’ said John Thomas, who was only 2 years old when Roosevelt came to town.

The book was written at the tail end of the documentary photography project that the Roosevelt administration began in 1935, when images of the dispossessed affected by the Great Depression were so compelling that they made their way into the pages of the newly established and immediately popular Life magazine, according to Buchanan.

“Frances must have felt, like Eleanor Roosevelt, that matching words with photos would somehow make a statement about American life,’’ she said.

In the book, Roosevelt makes an analogy between the town’s football team, a league of nations with players of English, Scottish, Irish, Italian, Jewish, Portuguese, Greek, and Swedish descent, saying that the world could learn a lot from the distinctly American game with all nationalities playing together.

“Peace and tolerance for each others differences was our forefathers’ ideal . . . and if we play our part with courage and clear-sightedness, we may become the hope of the world,’’ wrote Roosevelt.

Roosevelt understood how dwellings can convey powerful messages, and made much of the presence of grand homes next to equally attractive cottages — all symbolizing the attainability of the American dream.

Two of the homes mentioned in the book are on this year’s tour.

The simple two-entrance Captain Benjamin Loring House on Leavitt Street was built by saddlemaker Thomas Loring in 1690, just before his marriage.

His son, Benjamin, incorporated late Queen Anne woodwork when remodeling in 1730. And in 1785, another Thomas, believed to be the original architect’s great-grandson, added a west side to the house.

Its Georgian style, characterized by a chimney on either side of the home, and simple, symmetrical style, lends an original appearance to the addition.

“Visitors are surprised to discover the original exterior of the house still visible behind an interior stairway door,’’ said Hingham Historical Society member Sandy Asher.

Other surprises over the years include an 1896 woodshed fire that woke occupant Joseph Thaxter at 1 a.m. and was put out “pluckily and intelligently’’ by firemen, according to local historian Julian Loring.

And 20 years later, flames of a different sort were fanned by a Mrs. Lovejoy, who hosted women’s suffragist meetings at the house.

At the stately portion of Main Street just off Hingham Square known as Bachelor’s Row, the elm tree-canopied stretch is said to have inspired Roosevelt to call it the prettiest Main Street in America. Though the trees were lost to Dutch elm disease, the town planted other species in their stead.

Shipmaster Isaac Hinckley’s 1811 brick-ended home at 126 Main St., with its neoclassical details of the Federal period, is also in the book. Not much has been changed by the current owners, except for a “castle’’ play space built on the back of the house for their children.

The nautical-themed rope-pattern molding along the ceilings and fireplaces remain from when Hinckley built the house — a nod to his seafaring life. Hinckley made several yearslong voyages to China, dying a month into a journey home from Canton, and leaving behind his wife and six children.

During Roosevelt’s visit, Elsa Talbot of the national clothing chain (though not yet established as such) lived in the Hinckley house.

There are eight houses on the tour. In them, “you can see the evolution of architecture over a span of 275 years of this town’s history, from a 1690 house to commercial artist Ruth Potter’s home in 1969,’’ said organizer Jen Schwartz.

Like Roosevelt, those taking the tour might pick up on the “history and sensibilities encoded in the woodwork itself, which makes us so aware of those who came before us,’’ said Asher.

Buchanan concurs. “No matter our background, we cannot help but pick up on the Yankee sensibility that surrounds us, influences the way we live our lives, and is our shared heritage.’’

The 87th Hingham Historic House Tour will take place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. tomorrow and Saturday. Tickets are $25 in advance, $30 on tour days. Call 781-749-7721 for details.

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