Monday, July 21, 2008
The David Hubbard House
As many readers know, I am enamored with homeplaces--both the idea and the reality of them: what does the term mean, particularly in our new Kentucky land, and how are they treated? In Kentucky a homeplace is often a ruinous old late nineteenth century structure in a field or wooded spot. Rarely are these houses torn down and more often are just left, unoccupied, to fall into the ground over time. But rarely, either, are they restored. They are more like unkempt monuments to another time or person and are regarded as such. [See my blog, Appalachian Homeplace, among others on the topic.] Benign neglect factors in, but so does family reverence.
The same status could be said of the David Hubbard house in Hancock, New Hampshire. It was purchased by the Nylander family in the 1950s and used as a summer home for many years (and never plumbed or electrified). The Nylanders have always been an historic-minded family. Richard Nylander was curator at SPNEA for about forty years until his recent retirement (and even worked alongside his wife, historian Jane C. Nylander who was SPNEA president for a time in the 1990s). Among books the Nylanders have written, I particularly like Jane's Our Own Snug Fireside-Images of the New England Home: 1760-1860, now back in print with Yale University Press.
SPNEA was a long-time acronym for the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities--or "really long names" as we used to joke--that in recent years has become Historic New England. Based in Boston, the organization was founded in 1910 by William Sumner Appleton, curator and accumulator of old New England homeplaces, so many in fact that over the years the organization has had to deaccession many properties to study houses or private homes under easement. I worked for the organization twice: briefly in 1985 as a tour guide at its headquarters, the Harrison Gray Otis House, in Boston and from 1993-1997 as site manager of Barrett House, a grand old Federal manse in New Ipswich, New Hampshire. Sadly, the house has been more or less mothballed by the organization since my tenure. [In an historic coincidence, Charles Barrett, a prosperous mill owner and original occupant of Barrett House, gave his sister Mary, and husband David Hubbard, the land in Hancock on which to build his farm.] I have digressed, as usual, into back story but this is a blog.
In 1959, Robert Nylander, Richard's brother, wrote an article for the Society's publication, Old-Time New England, about their new "old" Hancock home. At the time he was a senior in high school and his love of the place was evident in this article which can be found in its entirety, in the on-line searchable archive [the photographs in this blog, all I have, are from that article]. The Nylander family left the house more or less as they bought it, a preserved New England farmhouse. One of the oldest houses in town, and also one of the more remote, the house was often visited by trespassers over the years who peered in the windows, like myself, or even entered the building. Over the years we have heard of various tales and scenarios about the house but for the sake of not outing anyone, they are best left where they are.
Last year the Nylander family sold the property to a young twentysomething son of Hancock who has made a good career start as a lesser known Hollywood actor. His original intention was to restore the house. The other day I drove down the road, thinking about the place and wanting to just get a glimpse of it again. I was struck to find a reclaimed field, the cellar hole filled in and grassed over. Large house beams appeared sticking out of a container. Only the barn, barely standing, remains.
Ironically, Roy W. Baker, a longtime preservation carpenter at SPNEA (and who also did some restoration work on our Hancock home when my husband's family first bought the place--you see, there is proof of the often incestuous nature of the historic preservation community), wrote an article three years before Nylander entitled "To Keep a House in Good Standing," [Vol. 146, No. 164, Spring 1956]. Baker's article began:
Acquiring an old New England house brings with it definite and special responsibilities of preservation. To the potential owner some of these problems may appear at first discouraging, but the reward in restoring and preserving one of these old landmarks far outweighs any initial difficulties.
In the past few years the Hubbard house has been linked with some unsavory activities, which another reliable source said contributed to concerns by the new owner for "bad karma" there. Beyond any karmic stigma was the enormity of the restoration efforts. My husband saw Robert Nylander in the store today (our village store is one of the focal points for all information!) who said that the sills had rotted and that the old house was being stored in containers. What may have seemed less daunting for some old house buffs likely was overwhelming for the new owner. Nevertheless, in less than a year, the house is gone: after weathering storms, benign neglect and near abandonment at times for over 200 years. Whatever the circumstances is a piteous end for a fine old place.
I can not speak for either the new owner or the old but I do know what it is like to sell a homeplace out of the family, as I have done with a family farm in Jaffrey. Apart from the land there which we are presently in negotiations for a conservation easement, and have already protected the rest by selling it to the town for water resources, I realize too acutely that the fate of the house and barn is no longer in our hands.
Sadly, Robert's own words at left, in conclusion of his article written when he was an idealistic budding historian in 1959, were not to come true. The house that his family purchased in his youth would only stand for another half century.
NOTE: For a PDF of the complete article ["The David Hubbard House," by Robert Harrington Nylander, Old-Time New England, Volume 49, No. 175, Winter 1959] do a search on Historic New England's archive for Old-Time New England.