Overlooking the Salmon Falls River in South Berwick, Hamilton House was built around 1785. Photos courtesy of Historic New England

Of the six Maine properties run by regional preservation organization Historic New England, two are in South Berwick. Sarah Orne Jewett House Museum and Visitor Center anchors downtown, while Hamilton House overlooks a widening stretch of the Salmon Falls River on the outskirts.

Built around 1785, Hamilton House’s setting, above the shoreline where Jonathan Hamilton (1742-1802) engaged in trade and shipbuilding, adds to the grandeur of the four-on-four Georgian-style dwelling. Gabled attic dormers and four tall chimneys seem to lift the steeply pitched hip-roof higher yet. Classical door frames center three of the facades. Tall windows herald the high-ceilinged rooms and wide center hall within.

Guided tours begin in the garden cottage and proceed under a trellis, through a sunken garden and over millstones before making their way inside the mansion. A path on the 35-acre grounds links with the trail network at neighboring Vaughan Woods Memorial State Park, once part of this estate.

Hamilton House’s elaborate garden, like its furnishings, are a testament to its last residents, Emily Tyson and stepdaughter Elise (later Vaughan). They purchased the property in 1898 as a summer retreat and updated it in the whimsical Colonial Revival style – then all the rage. After finding a wallpaper scrap, the pair had the center hall’s original pillar-and-arch wallpaper reproduced. Straw mat floor coverings are also Tyson-era recreations from Hamilton’s day.

The last residents had murals painted over the wallpaper in the dining room, seen here, and the parlor.

The women had murals painted over wallpaper in the dining room and parlor. For the latter, the artist worked blue-green foliage from the paper into trees and plants in an idyllic canal scene. Lining the imaginary waterway are prominent buildings from the Piscataqua River region, including the Hamilton and Jewett homes and mansions in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. On the longer exterior wall, arches adorned on their underside with the maze-like meander pattern offset windows flanking the fireplace.

Directly above the parlor, the master bedchamber features the same alcove design. Bedrooms showcase the Tysons’ collection of early American colored glassware: green in the master, blue and white in the guest room. There’s a 1793 blanket chest from Spain in the upstairs hall, but the decorative elements mostly recall America: hooked rugs, Currier and Ives prints, a tiger maple chest of drawers.

The Tysons were friends of Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909), a prolific and critically acclaimed author whose short stories and novels, including “The Country of the Pointed Firs,” were set in Maine. Both the Hamilton and Jewett homes appear in her work, which was popular in its day. Angled at the wide intersection of Main and Portland streets in the town center, the 1774 Jewett residence is also an outstanding example of the region’s Georgian architecture, albeit on a less grand scale. Both dwellings have arched windows centering elegant staircase landings.

The desk in the second-floor hall where Sarah Orne Jewett wrote when she lived in this South Berwick home.

Jewett was born in the home now named for her, but her paternal grandparents resided there while she was growing up in her parents’ Greek Revival (1854) next door. Now the Visitor Center, it has a small gift shop and shows exhibits by local artists. Sarah and her sister Mary, neither of whom married, moved into the older (and larger) family home in 1887.

Furnishings and decor thus reflect the sisters’ latter decades. Sarah’s desk is at the front end of the second-floor hall, overlooking downtown, as it was when she lived and wrote here. Her ell bedroom looks essentially as it did upon her death. In step with the Arts and Crafts movement, the sisters chose a vibrant tulip pattern for the center hall (the current paper is a reproduction) and painted the library a matching Pompeian red. But several rooms still have 1850s wallpaper. Mary’s bedroom, the home’s most ornate, has striking floral-patterned 1770s flocked wallpaper.

Mary Ruoff is a freelance writer in Belfast and a contributor to Fodor’s New England travel guide. 


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