The sun hasn’t made more than a brief appearance since November and I wonder, will it ever come back? Yesterday, the clouds parted briefly to reveal sun and blue sky and that felt alarmingly unfamiliar. I wanted to put a straw in the sun and gulp it down.
Now snow blankets the new lawn, sparkle-less under these overcast skies. I have lost sight of stonewalls, and the old foundations in the yard. Inches more threaten to fall tomorrow filling in the trails of dogs, coyotes and squirrels and covering the tiny footprints of the birds that hop under the feeder.
What a difference from last summer, when the sun beat down unmercifully on our newly planted grass and the rain never came. Timing is everything.
The red house is now 80% complete. We can wait for winter to unpack boxes, paint, fine-tune, decorate– Turning our attention to the long neglected yard, the gardens and the grass.
The gardens and yard had been poorly tended since the late 1990s when the house changed hands, so we knew we had a fairly large landscaping project ahead. The damage incurred digging drainage trenches and foundation work added lots of insult to injury: the marble terrace –chopped up and obliterated, plants–uprooted, stonewalls–knocked over. Old foundation–crumbled walls. What used to be patches of grass, now littered with rocks, gravel, and cement chunks. Oh Boy.
We often wonder what the yard looked like when it was in its prime.
I have been able to piece together an idea of what Miss Hague’s yard may have looked like from recollections of people who visited Miss Hague and Christina Conklin, the master gardener who nurtured the gardens when she owned and lived on the property during 1975- 1998.
“Although I was young, my memories of her and the two cottages are very sharp. Both were that New England red color. There were lovely gardens out back leading to a small stream. Polly and I (the only remaining members of our immediate family) still talk about them. The gardens were like an English country garden, organized beds, but loose flowers without the sort of restrictions found in French gardens. Those gardens were a magical place with paths down to the stream, a little rounded bridge, and paths through the beds. Miss Hague could be seen in the mornings in a straw hat with a tie, snipping away and filling up a shallow basket with blooms from the taller plants. There might have been some vegetables and a strawberry patch. Not sure.” (Penelope Duffy, daughter of Dr. Alfred B. Starratt who inherited Miss Hague’s house upon her passing in 1971.)
In the course of all the research I have done about Miss Hague and the red house I stumbled upon a book by Robin Karson, Fletcher Steele, Landscape Architect, An account of a Gardenmaker’s life, 1885-1971 that documents the renowned landscape architect Fletcher Steele designed the gardens for Miss Hague in 1935.
Fletcher Steele graduated from Williams College and entered the Master of Landscape Architecture program at Harvard in 1907. Steele created over 700 gardens from 1915-1971. He was widely regarded as the key figure in the establishment of modern landscape design. Steele believed that landscape architecture was an art form, like painting or music. Steele renovated the gardens at Naumkeag for Mabel Choate, one of Marion Hague’s closest friends, which explored early Modernist rethinking of design and materials.
I have been unable to access any of Steele’s plans or drawings of the gardens at the red cottage. It certainly makes the mind reel, wondering how delightful and unique they could have been.
The other night I was sitting on the couch, fireplace in full swing, all warm and cozy on a cold winter evening. The fragrance of Valentine lilies wafted, filling the air with a marvelous sweetness. A rack of lamb marinating in mint and garlic was resting on the kitchen counter. Maxine was snoring. (Those of you who know how I really feel about a snoring dog will get a chuckle out of that) Will handed me a glass of red wine and sat down beside me. And for the two hundredth time I looked at him and said, “ Can you believe we live here?” and we clinked our glasses in toast.
“ Two and a half years ago if someone had said this is what the red house will look like I probably wouldn’t have believed them.”
And then Will said, “ If someone told me how much it was going to cost…”
Good thing we didn’t have that crystal ball.
This major renovation was nothing short of a marathon putting our new marriage to a quite a test. Good thing we had the endurance to see this project through and still be talking to each other! I’ll toast to that any day.
Writing about the red house renovation process in real time has been really hard for me at times.
If you take a look at the blog history you will see that it wasn’t until May of 2015 that I finally got to posting on the progress we made in January. I quickly skipped over everything that occurred between February and June and blissfully posted about moving in on June 23rd, our third wedding anniversary. Was I in denial or avoidance? Probably both.
In case you are curious how we got from last January to the couch in front of the fire a year later, here goes a recap of February with lots of images:
February 2015 delivered another month of frigid temperatures, frozen heavy machinery and disappearing contractors. Will kept trying to cheer me up, reminding me that we were no longer taking things out of the red house (demolition) – but actually putting things back in. I just rolled my eyes.
Now as I sort through the dozens of photographs I took I just can’t believe how much progress was made – astonishing to say the least.
The radiant heat was installed in the mudroom and concrete floor poured.
Framing the interior begins
Insulation is blown in
Restored windows are installed
The cement mixer moves to the other side of the house and pours for basement floor and bulkhead foundation.
The installation of the French drains was completed in February leaving the yard, patios and stonewalls ravaged and all but destroyed.
Our contractor promised the crew would return in spring to put the yard back- well he was wrong.
The red house really is a wonderful place to be in. It is a happy house. It is full of light and welcoming energy. At the end of the day, when Will and I sit down in front of the fire to catch up on the news, not one evening goes by without looking at each other and saying,
“Can you believe we live here?” We are indeed so very very fortunate.
It feels good to fill the rooms with friends and family. I wonder a lot about who lived in the house before us, and if they all felt the same way.
This holiday season we put the red house to the ultimate test and hosted four generations of my family (which happens to span 89 years in age between patriarch and the twins) and everything worked, everything flowed, everything was perfect. Just ask Grace and Henry who figured out how to run in circles around the downstairs, playing peek-a-boo and dissolving us all into gales of laughter.
So yes, a day doesn’t go by when I think I have to get back to posting on the blog- to keep you all updated and to tell you all how all that hard work was worth it. It is not that I don’t want to, or am no longer interested- I do have a lot to post about- but it is just…. call it Christmas, call it working, call it my new role as airbnb chambermaid…call it too many excuses right?
And then this happened- a comment on my blog that magically appeared and has given me just the reason to start posting again :
I came across your blog about the red house that belonged to Marion Hague. I was doing some research on Marion Hague, who happened to be my great, great aunt. My father, James D. Hague was the last owner of the North Star gold mine in my family. I would love to tell you more about Marion, Eleanor, et al should you be interested.
I couldn’t be more excited about contacting this person, and finding out more about Miss Hague- I have missed writing about her.
My blog has become a casualty of the back-to-back renovations of the white cottage and red house we have been working on over the past two plus years. This May, when the temperatures were still so cold and the ground remained frozen several feet below the surface, I stopped posting. I became a prisoner, held captive in a state of wordlessness. It overtook me without a hint of notice. Why?
The harsh weather had slowed down the renovation process of the red house to a snail’s pace, now barely inching towards the finish line. We had hoped to be moved in by April 1st. Mid May, still cold and six weeks later, being granted a Certificate of Occupancy seemed nowhere near in sight. The frozen terrain prohibited the installation of the gas line and water line so our plumber joined the ranks of MIA. The excavators were a “no show” for weeks at a time, leaving huge trenches and mountains of soil in their wake. Our yard looked like a ravaged war zone. Our contractor’s team, still working without any heat source, was exhausted.
As for Will and I …well….
We had been living in the tiny space of the cottage for the past seven months and that intimacy was wearing thin. Peace and privacy? All but thrown out the window. Each morning at 7:00 AM a disharmonious symphony of rumbling heavy machinery, high pitched whining saws, and pounding hammers greeted us. Even the sound of Will’s dog Maxine soundly snoring was enough to make me ricochet off the walls.
Frustration levels were rising all around us.
SO…my blog posts became the first victim of this new wordlessness state of mine. I started to dread scrolling through the daily reels of the photographs I took, documenting the daily progress of the renovation. I was running out of steam. Instead of spending luxurious amounts of time tapping away on my mac top, romancing this renovation on social media and posting new photographs, I withdrew. I bottomed out.
But- thanks to a visit to Newport this month to see my Uncle Jack who said “Gee whiz what ever has become of that marvelous blog of yours?” I am getting some words back.
Stay tuned for a little back tracking, and a little more about being wordless in our social media crazed world.
An old friend e mailed me yesterday and asked what was going on with the house and the blog. I haven’t posted in months. Why? Well I have been busy, that’s all!
We got the CO in June, two years after we bought the house- and spent our first night on the evening of our third anniversary in the red house. We rented the cottage to a member of the BSO this summer. All is good- but lots to do
January was busy.
January was freezing.
Our crew persevered.
They were intrepid.
Days are filled.
Excavators, backhoes, jackhammers
Concrete, trenches, drainage pipes.
Serious work begins.
January 1st, 9:00 AM.
Excavator arrives here.
No frost yet.
Water connection begins.
Danny Clark digs.
He installs pipe.
He refills holes.
Drives excavator home.
Happy New Year.
Building permit approved.
New addition begins.
Old addition ends.
Ground is broken
Jackhammers shake house.
It is 7:00 AM
Neighbors don’t complain
We are grateful
Ledge is broken.
Dirt piles high.
Foundation is dug.
Foundation is framed
Greenhouse tent made.
Keeps ground warm.
Frost has set in.
Concrete truck arrives.
Shoots concrete in.
Concrete is spread.
Greenhouse tent returns
Propane heaters crank.
No room for frost.
Foundation walls poured.
Propane heaters crank.
Greenhouse tent removed.
New foundation finished.
Addition is framed.
Sills are rotten.
Drainage is issue.
A big issue.
Architect advises us.
We need drains.
I imagine it.
Garden bed size?
Lined with stones?
Was I wrong…
Trenches are dug.
Five feet deep.
Four feet wide.
Garden is destroyed.
I am despondent.
Deep freeze sets in.
Trench progress halts.
Diesel engines too cold.
I hide inside.
Basement is next.
Water meter freezes.
Water floods basement.
That’s no fun.
Structural engineering begins.
Concrete poured in.
Concrete covers dirt.
Concrete covers ledge.
Stone walls supported.
More than a little paint and wallpaper….
When I found Miss Hague’s letters and checks I dropped into the research rabbit hole to find out what I could about her. I came across a considerable amount of information that will make a fun and interesting post one day, but now it is time to get back to writing about all the work we have done on the red house.
There is a lot to document as I catch up with this blog. The project is not a sprint, but more like a marathon and today I feel our renovation is at the 20 mile marker, so close and yet still so far to go. Kind of like this spring.
I have been scrolling through the hundreds of photographs I have taken and it is an astounding reminder of all the work we have poured into this renovation, and how much progress we have made.
I wonder how to condense it all, without driving everyone, including me, to boredom. Pictures help but…..In my writing workshops with Michelle Gillett I have been working on a new writing style-condensing a ten year period of time to only two pages using short, three word sentences. I think it is a really cool exercise and thought I would use it to try to capture the renovation progress of three months, October, November and December,into three word sentences, with photos of course.
“I always called it Miss Hague’s house. She was an old lady who lived there for years. She had one of the first cars in Stockbridge. Her license plate was the number 3.”
Susan Leroy Merrill, Yale Hill resident.
Miss Marion Hague owned the red house from 1914, perhaps even earlier, until 1971 when the house and contents passed onto the local Episcopal minister upon her death. I was so excited to find the letters and her cancelled checks that it has led me to do a fair amount of research, digging up clues and trying to string together random snippets of information to find out more about her.
Doing the research about Miss Hague has been like slipping down Alice’s rabbit hole and the next thing I know I am somewhere else, my own version of Wonderland-Miss Hague’s world, and weeks have passed and I haven’t posted a word.
Surprisingly this has also become six degrees of separation for my husband Will, who is related in various ways to several of the main characters in Miss Hague’s life that I have stumbled upon, including the artist Lydia Field Emmett who also owned one of the three plots of land in the deed, Frank Crowninshield who started Vanity Fair, and Joseph Hodges Choate, lawyer and diplomat.
My research into whom Miss Hague’s parents were has become a fascinating look into American history..think gold mines…abolitionism…artists… There is much much more to discover and post.
This is my teaser alert….
Miss Hague’s father, James D Hague, Harvard educated, was a mining engineer in San Francisco, Ca. He purchased North Star Mining Company,Grass Valley California, in 1887. It was the second largest producing gold mine in the country. Miss Hague’s mother was Mary Ward Foote, great grandaughter of General Andrew Ward who served under George Washington in the Revolutionary War, also cousin of Harriet Beecher Stowe, American abolitionist and author, and sister in law of Mary Hallock Foote, an American illustrator and author.
How is that for starters? It only gets better from here.