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The road less traveled

Art, antiques, history, and nature mark a leisurely Cape thoroughfare

By Jaci Conry
Globe Correspondent / November 9, 2008
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A winding two-lane byway that parallels the shores of Cape Cod Bay, Route 6A is seldom frequented by summer travelers intent on their final destination. The road twists and turns for 34 miles from Sandwich to Orleans, past scenic salt marshes, cranberry bogs, open land, and tidal flats. This route is for travelers who want to savor the journey.

Also known as the Old King's Highway, Route 6A is believed to have evolved from Native American trails that extended from Plymouth to Provincetown. It was a cart path for Colonial settlers, and in the late 17th century the nar row road became an extension of Plymouth Colony's King's Highway. During the next century, spurred by the rise in maritime activities, businesses developed along the route, and stagecoaches regularly traveled it. During the 1800s, wealthy sea captains built stately Federal, mansard, and Greek Revival homes alongside older Colonials and Capes.

Today, the buildings on Route 6A represent four centuries of architecture, and the Old King's Highway Regional Historic District is considered the largest and longest contiguous historic district in the nation. In many areas of the route, there is a sense of timelessness. This is largely due to the Old King's Highway Regional Historic District Commission, whose duty is to ensure the road is preserved and maintained. The commission regulates exterior design, paint colors, signs, and fencing on all properties on the road.

While architecture buffs find Route 6A intriguing, art enthusiasts and antiques lovers find it equally appealing. Many historic buildings house studios and galleries displaying the work of painters, potters, glass blowers, and jewelry designers. More than 50 structures have become antique shops offering items that appeal to both casual and serious collectors.

Beginning in Sandwich Center, stop in the sprawling Sandwich Antiques Center where you'll find fine furniture in Regency and Georgian styles, as well as pieces made in New England in the 18th and 19th centuries. The shop also has an extensive collection of antique firearms, some of them pre-Civil War. There are also reasonably priced Beatrix Potter prints from the early 1900s, and hand-colored fish engravings made by Jardine Lizars in the 1830s. Among the shop's gems is a relic from New Bedford's whaling days, an 1874 swordfish bill with scrimshaw etchings, and a refurbished 1923 tender designed by Boston boat builder George Lawley.

Not far down the road is the Giving Tree Gallery, a trove of creative jewelry. Owned by mother-daughter duo Judith and Rachel Smith, the gallery features the work of more than 100 nationally recognized designers, including Alexis Bittar, Jeanine Payer, and Me&Ro. There are decorative home accents for sale as well as kinetic sculptures and mobiles. The Smiths welcome the public onto the shop's 5 wooded acres, which overlook marshland and feature sculpture gardens linked to the gallery by a 52-foot suspension bridge.

Crossing into Barnstable Village you come upon Harden Studios, housed in one of the earliest structures on Route 6A. Built in 1690, and known as the Deacon Robert Davis House, it had been in the same family for over 300 years when Carla and Charles Harden bought it in 1995. After some modest updates, they opened a store specializing in Early American furniture.

Among the most stunning pieces displayed under original beamed ceilings and atop wide plank pine floors are an 1820 "cylinder" desk made of mahogany and tiger and bird's-eye maple, with Sandwich glass drawer knobs, and a massive wooden eagle that glints with gold leaf in places, which presided in the pilot house of a sailing ship in the 1850s. The shop's oldest item is an antique Gothic box with detailed carving and metalwork, circa 1500-1600. Adjacent to the house, an old harness maker's shed now serves as a small art gallery featuring paintings and photography by Charles Harden II, etchings by Carol Travers Lummus, and pottery by Holly Heaslip.

On most days you'll find Kevin Nolan in his studio, Barnstable Pottery, across the street from Harden Studios. The space doubles as a gallery displaying Nolan's contemporary stoneware serving pieces, vessels, and ocean-inspired sculpture and fountains. His potter's wheels are positioned in the front of the studio so that he can engage customers or watch the road while he works.

"I love this location. Route 6A is serene, old-world New England at its best," he says. "It's very relaxed and that appeals to those of us who work around here, as well as to the customers."

It's worth a stop in Yarmouth Port at the Edward Gorey House, where the life (1925-2000) and work of the acclaimed author, artist, and set and costume designer is celebrated. The rooms of the rambling 1820 house where Gorey spent his last 17 years have cases displaying his books, drawings, and personal effects, including his first pair of shoes and his adolescent diaries. Through December the museum hosts an exhibit celebrating Gorey's contributions to children's books with original works he created for his own titles, and illustrations he did for other authors, including Edward Lear and T.S. Eliot.

In Dennis, the Cape Cod Museum of Art is devoted to enlightening the public about the rich artistic heritage of the area. The museum's seven galleries include a 900-piece permanent collection with many works dating to the turn of the 20th century by artists Charles Hawthorne, William Paxton, and Hans Hoffman. The collection also showcases pieces by contemporary local artists. A large gallery on the main floor displays special exhibits. Through Jan. 25 the work of sculptor Arnold Geissbuhler is on display.

Also in Dennis, you'll encounter dazzling gold, platinum, and sterling silver jewelry designs by renowned goldsmith Ross Coppelman. His custom pins, necklaces, earrings, rings, and bracelets feature gemstones in striking settings, many of them inspired by ancient Egyptian, Aztec, and Roman designs. A bracelet may feature sapphires arranged as constellations and a ring could be decorated with a diamond sunburst.

Brewster has the highest concentration of antiques shops of all the villages along 6A. Even the most seasoned collectors will be enthralled by the selection at Countryside Antiques, run by Greg Mize, a retired physician.

"We shop the world so you don't have to," says Mize, whose frequent buying trips take him to the British Isles, Scandinavia, and China. Seven rooms of his 200-year-old former sea captain's home and adjacent barn are filled with antique scrimshaw, porcelain, and oil paintings by 19th-century marine artists such as William Pierce Stubbs. Furniture ranges from 18th-century German Bierdermeier to Early American farm tables. However, what truly sets the shop apart is the China Trade Room, where pieces include an early 1800s Ming transition scholar's desk, a pagoda dating to the 1760s, and an 8-foot-long sign carved with Chinese characters proclaiming "Prolong Life" from the late 1800s.

About a quarter mile down the road is Spyglass, a barn brimming with 18th- and 19th-century nautical antiques. Most impressive are the shop's rare telescopes and barometers; among the treasures is a celestial telescope made in London in the 1780s for $38,000. Owner Brad Finch, an expert in the restoration of telescopes and barometers, works on many items that arrive in his shop, and this particular one was a labor of love.

"It came to me in pieces and several parts were missing. Putting it back together was really amazing," he says. Other items need no restoration, like a recently acquired 1790 English barometer made of mahogany. Finch, who used to run his business in downtown Chatham where there is heavy foot traffic, says Route 6A is different. "It's a driving Main Street. There are great benefits to that; when customers are in the shops it's never a crowded situation. They have the opportunity to really look around, to ask questions about pieces, to take their time figuring out what they want to buy."

Jaci Conry can be reached at jaci@jaciconry.com.

If You Go

Sandwich Antiques Center

131 Route 6A, Sandwich

508-833-3600

www.sandwichantiquescenter.com

Giving Tree Gallery

550 Route 6A, East Sandwich

888-246-3551

www.givingtreegallery.com

Harden Studios

3264 Route 6A, Barnstable

508-362-7711

www.hardenstudios.com

Barnstable Pottery & Art Gallery

3267 Route 6A, Barnstable

508-362-1113

Edward Gorey House

8 Strawberry Lane

Yarmouth Port

508-362-3909

www.edwardgoreyhouse.org

Cape Cod Museum of Art

60 Hope Lane, Dennis

508-385-4477

www.ccmoa.org

Countryside Antiques

2052 Route 6A, Brewster

508-896-1444

www.countrysideantiquesinc.com

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