SOUTH BERWICK — The view from Hamilton House looks clear across the Salmon Falls River to dense forest, but the perspective the home offers on summer, and how we spend these fleeting days, is even broader.

Initially built by shipping merchant Jonathan Hamilton on a busy riverfront site in 1785, this Georgian mansion became a summer home a century later for two wealthy Boston ladies, Emily Tyson and her stepdaughter Elise.

They filled the home with straw matting, antique furnishings, colored glass, maritime decor and wallpaper depicting local scenes that showed their love for New England.

As with many vacation homes that are passed down, the interior of Hamilton House never changed much after they moved in, the furnishings holding the secrets of the season and memories that made the intermittent visits feel more familiar.

The Tysons are gone now; their house is a museum. It welcomes all visitors as a teaching tool for how summers used to be, when women and children decamped to a place with a mountain or ocean breeze for the weeks between the close of school and Labor Day, and the men worked back in the city, stopping by for a weekend or two.

While homes have obviously changed, so has how we spend our so-called leisure time. For one thing, the modern family is more tightly scheduled.

Children are enrolled in various activities. Teenagers work, as do both parents. Even those who hope to get away for a week with a rented house may be unable to do so in this economy.

What can we learn from preserved places like Hamilton House? Let’s reflect on what it recalls about summers past: long, lazy, unplugged days surrounded by things both comfortable and comforting, as well as an escape to nature and the people we love.

What the summer house gave us was a physical and psychological exile from the pace and demands of city life; a change of venue as an extra enticement for friends and family to visit; and a garden with flowers to smell and vegetables to pick.

While summer homes like Hamilton House represent a lifestyle that is not attainable today for most people, we can understand and appreciate how life unfolded there, slowly.

We can cherish the idea of long days of summer and share them – in person, not just through Facebook.

When I was a child my family lived on Long Island, close to the ocean and many summer homes.

Now that I am responsible for preserving not just the historic homes of people all across New England, but also the stories of those people, I am reminded of what was important to families like the Tysons.

History shows that it was similar to what is important to families today: time and each other, as well as objects that hold the stories of our lives, be they collections of family photographs or a mother’s miniature spoon display.

Of course we can’t all have – or perhaps even want – summer homes.

But we should use these remaining days of summer to gather family, shut off the television, and surround ourselves with traditions and memories that bring us pleasure.

Furthermore, these ideas of the summer home and what that embodied for the Tysons should be within reach for all of us – and not just in the summer.

If we could think of the summer house as an idea – even an ideal – not just a physical place, but a state of mind, we could spend more time reconnecting with friends and relatives, exploring memories at museums and within our own families, and taking in simple pleasures as often as possible, not just during vacation.

It’s something I would welcome year-round.


– Special to The Press Herald


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