By Allison Nekola
Architectural Digest recently anointed 16 estates across the country as “America’s Best Country Houses,” and no surprise to those who keep track of such things, seven of them were New England properties — all under the stewardship of nonprofit organizations dedicated to preserving the region’s architectural heritage and the fascinating history that it reveals.
Lyman Estate in Waltham, Massachusetts, Beauport, Sleeper-McCann House in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and Roseland Cottage in Woodstock, Connecticut, all properties of Historic New England, which owns 36 historic sites, were named. So were The Elms and The Breakers, two Gilded Age mansions owned by The Preservation Society of Newport County, which owns 10 properties. Rounding out the list are two properties each owned by independent nonprofits set up for the sole purpose of preserving these historic places: The Mount, author Edith Wharton’s summer manse in Lenox, Massachusetts, and Hildene, the Manchester, Vermont, home built in 1905 by Robert Todd Lincoln, the only child of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln to survive to adulthood.
Thanks to the tireless efforts of dedicated preservationists, these one-of-a-kind estates are open to the public, and summer is a great time to visit them to enjoy not only the architecture and decor, but also the gardens and settings that made them so attractive to their first owners. Today we offer a brief review of the three Historic New England sites. Next week, we will do the same for the other four fine country estates.
The Lyman Estate, Waltham, MA:
Commonly known as “The Vale” because of its location in a shallow valley with a brook running through, The Lyman Estate has stood tall since its establishment in 1793. For four generations, the Lyman family sought refuge in the country house, where they could escape the summer heat in rural Waltham. Originally built in the Federal-style by architect Samuel McIntire, the estate underwent two major renovations, first when it was enlarged in the Victorian Queen Anne-style in 1882 by Henry W. Hartwell, and again in 1917, when it was remodeled in the Colonial Revival-style by Nonie Tupper. The property was donated to Historic New England after 1951 and today includes 37 acres of lavish gardens and historic greenhouses along with the mansion, carriage house, and the gardener’s cottage.
Inspired by English aristocratic country homes, typically combining a mansion and pleasure garden with a working farm, flowering shrubs are still found along the pathways and flowerbeds cut into the lawn. Each spring the rhododendrons, azaleas, and magnolias, which have managed to survive each year since before the Civil War, burst into blossom. The sugar maples lining the entrance road, the copper beaches beside the camellia house, and the large tulip tree by the parking lot, are the oldest remaining trees on the property. Historic New England’s goal for the restoration of the estate is to showcase the evolution of the estate as well as its complex history.
The Lyman Estate – 185 Lyman Street, Waltham, MA.
Open every third Saturday, year round, 10:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m.
Admission, $5 for adults, $4 for seniors.
Beauport, the Sleeper-McCann House, Gloucester, MA:
What began as a modest cottage built by Henry Sleeper and Half Hanson in 1907 evolved into one of America’s finest country homes as the years progressed. Sleeper filled the interior with collections of colored glass, china, folk art, and silhouettes. Outside, he developed a complex garden, where naturalistic plantings of native species at the gates were replaced with formal brick geometry and hybrid and specimen plants closer to the house. The garden is small but the combination of Arts and Crafts designs and the use of local materials amplifies its magnetism.
The 18-foot long adjacent lot became grounds for an extension in 1911, thus creating the Book Tower, Shelley Room, Pineapple Room, and eventually the Linebrook Parish room. Themes, objects, and significant events, such as his mother’s death, inspired changes made to the house, which served as a retreat for Sleeper, whose favorite spot was a brick terrace overlooking Gloucester Harbor.
Beauport, the Sleeper-McCann House – 75 Eastern Point Boulevard, Gloucester, MA.
Open Tuesday – Saturday, May 23 – October 17, 10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.
Admission, $15 for adults, $12 for seniors, $8 for students, free for Historic New England members and Gloucester residents.
Roseland Cottage, Woodstock, CT:
To escape the thick smog and congestion of New York City, Henry Bowen chose Woodstock Connecticut, with its rural hills, refreshing ponds, and historical background, as a summer location for himself and his family. He called upon Joseph C. Wells in 1846 to build his retreat, a 6,000-square-foot Gothic Revival cottage. A crucial feature of the estate is the formal parterre, which is accessible through windows of the parlors, dining room, and second-floor bedrooms. In it, 600 yards of boxwood hedge surround 21 colorful beds of more than 35 varieties of perennials and thousands of annuals.
To accommodate his growing family (10 children in total), agricultural pursuits, and social affairs, Bowen acquired more land, expanding to 6-acres by the end of 1870. It wasn’t until 10 years later that the house went through major decorative changes adding fireplace tiles of the most recent decorative style, new and vibrant wall coverings and carpets, and stained glass to fill the windows. The next set of renovations wouldn’t be until 1920 when the house was updated with electricity, modern plumbing, and an oil-fired central heating system. The estate was purchased by Historic New England in 1970, which has since undertaken the restoration of the house and gardens.
Roseland Cottage, 556 Route 169, Woodstock, CT.
Open Wednesday – Sunday, June 1 – October 15, 11:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.
Admission, $10 for adults, $9 for seniors, $5 for students, free for Historic New England members and Woodstock residents.