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The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home by George Howe Colt


Rating: (Mildly Recommended)


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I was drawn to George Howe Colt’s book about his family’s Cape Cod home, The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home for several reasons. The house is located on Wings Neck. My bride is descended from the Wings who arrived 300 years earlier than Colt’s family. I’ve had a lifelong interest in old houses, and these shingle-style summer homes are usually a real treat, especially when well preserved. I recall as a child how magical summers were when our family headed to our beach house, and looked forward to reading someone else’s memories. Once drawn to the book, I was captivated by Colt’s fine writing. Here’s a sample of Colt’s craftsmanship (pp. 213-216):

On a 1906 map of Wings Neck my brothers gave to Anne and me as a wedding present, the 395 acres of Trust land is divided into sixteen lots. A 1988 map divides it into nearly a hundred. There are many more driveways disappearing into the woods than there were in my youth, and some of those that had only one sign nailed to a tree now have two or three or four. The thwack of tennis balls and the chirp of cicadas now compete with the rasp of chain saws. Each year more boats crowd the bay, an increasing number of them made not of wood but of fiberglass, with motors, not sails. As I sit on the Big House porch, I no longer know the names and owners of all the boats going in and out of the harbor. We don't dare swim to Atkinson's Buoy, the channel marker named for my great-grandfather that lies a few hundred yards off the Bluff. A longtime resident tells me he was at the Big Cove last weekend; although it was crowded, he didn't recognize a single face.

Although no one mentions it, there has also been an unmistakable shift in the demographics of Wings Neck. In their 1904 prospectus extolling its desirability, my great-grandfather and his partners had assured prospective buyers that property restrictions would discourage "undesirable elements." (In other words, the land was divided into lots so large that only the rich could afford them.) These undesirable elements were not specified, but the desirable elements at whom the prospectus was aimed knew this was a code phrase for people who didn't come from what were known as "prominent Boston families." Initially, this was easily accomplished; the syndicate sold estate sites byword of mouth to cousins, college classmates, business partners, and clubmates. Neighbors in Wings Neck were neighbors in Boston. Reflecting on her cozy childhood summers, my grandmother wrote: "I suppose my mother thought we all needed a 'wider view' so we had one summer a house in South Dartmouth, and often visited relations at Matunuck, R.L, and Naushon." Her wider view, therefore, consisted of even-more-exclusive summer haunts, all of which were stocked with relatives. In 1949, my grandparents sold a parcel of land to a Boston doctor who was no one's brother, uncle, or even third cousin once removed. The clucking of tongues was nearly audible.

And when this interloper erected a one-story snow-white cube, as shocking as a Picasso among John Singer Sargents, those tongues said, "I told you so." That the house was said to be designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright's made no difference—made it, if anything, even worse: after all, that Wright fellow was from Chicago.

Since then, as trust funds have dwindled, more Old Money has been replaced by New Money. Today, the $84,350 my grandfather and his friends paid for 395 acres wouldn't buy an acre, with or without a water view. Hoping to slow the proliferation of new houses, a coalition of residents has been trying to buy up property before it comes on the market, while the Wings Neck Trust is attempting to persuade owners to put land under conservation restriction. But the horse is already out of the barn. Last summer I went lobstering with a longtime resident who gave me an informal tour of the north side of the Neck, pointing out the new houses. A generation ago, newcomers would have been identified by family—such and such a place was bought by So-and-so Cabot who had married So-and-so Hallowell. These days, newcomers are described by occupation. My guide showed me a house recently built by a developer and an old estate refurbished by the largest fish wholesaler in New Bedford. The new houses are no longer hidden away at the ends of long driveways. They have carefully landscaped gardens, wooden entrance gates, fenced-in yards so well manicured they could be used for tournament croquet, house numbers painted on oars that have never touched salt water, labyrinthine play structures (in a place where children have always used rocks for jumping and trees for swinging), and, in one case, even though Buzzards Bay is no more than fifty yards away, a heated swimming pool.

Not everyone finds these aesthetic changes undesirable. Several years ago, a new Wings Neck resident thinned the woods on his property, cutting out the catbrier and the underbrush and leaving only the larger trees, so the sunlight could filter through. There was a certain amount of grumbling at the Big Cove, but each year since then, a few more residents—including some of the grumblers—have followed his example. There have also been rumors that several owners have been systematically clearing their beaches of rocks and boulders in an attempt to expose large stretches of sand, something never before seen in these parts.

While residents have been thinning the woods, they have been letting the paths that once stitched the Neck together grow wild. Indeed, although there are more neighbors, there may be less neighborliness. The boat race schedule has dwindled, and there hasn't been a Neck-wide game of Capture the Flag in years. There are signs that the inhabitants of Wings Neck no longer share the same values. A recent buyer built a grand new house blocking his neighbor's view of the water; another resident, despite protests on both aesthetic and environmental grounds, built a deepwater dock in his backyard, only a hundred yards from the communal deepwater dock at the Big Cove.

I remember the fuss back in the late seventies, when a Boston banker bought one of the Neck's oldest estates. He poured money into the property—too much money, people said—thinning out the woods, pruning the hedges, cutting down trees. One evening, as his neighbors were settling down to cocktails on their porches and watching the sun set over Buzzards Bay, they were startled by an extraordinary sound: the blare of rock music and the laughter of what sounded like hundreds of people at a very lively party. They had no doubt where the noise was coming from. The next morning, a delegation of tribal elders that included my father invited the banker for a chat on the Big House piazza. Over ginger ale, they talked about the fragile ethos of Wings Neck, about the way things had always been done—the word "haven" was used—and extracted a promise that such a breach would never occur again.

I was at the Big House that night, and I knew that behind the word "haven" lay the unmentioned fact that the banker's money was new, and that his neighbors, a studiously tolerant bunch, were magnanimously prepared to welcome him—as long as he acted as if it were old. At least he was from Boston, and thus theoretically amenable to reason. One Wings Necker, a man who could remember back to the days when the iceman still made deliveries along the paths, recently mused to his family, "Some Texan might buy one of these houses and change this place overnight."

On the Neck, of course, fear of change is nothing new. "As others bought property and built houses, we almost looked upon them as 'intruders,'" wrote a longtime resident in a privately printed history of Wings Neck. "People put up signs at the ends of their driveways and everything became more organized. It was no longer the simple life we had once become used to." She was writing about her childhood on Wings Neck before the First World War.


In the late afternoon, the sun drops behind the pines on the far side of the millpond. The surface of the water takes on a new clarity, perfectly mirroring the yellow-green grass, flecked here and there by patches of sea lavender. Gazing at the millpond, I can easily imagine that it hasn't changed since Judah Wing harvested salt hay for his cattle here in the nineteenth century, or even since the Wampanoags, centuries earlier, dug up quahogs to cut into wampum. (Even this, I know, is an illusion; since I was a child, the serpentine channel from harbor to pond has gradually been straightening itself out, carving an ever-more-direct path to the millpond.)

We are the only ones left on the beach. The tide is midlow again. We have been here most of the day. It is time to head home for supper. Susannah carefully opens her collecting jar and releases the hermit crabs she's amassed. They scramble away in what she calls a "hermie parade." Now she returns two crabs to the jar, which she clutches to her chest as we walk back through the woods to the Big House. As we leave, a great blue heron settles in a far corner of the millpond. A gull drops a clam over and over again, until it shatters on the rocks.

Disappointment began as I learned, through Colt’s disclosures, that he and his relatives are twits. They neglected caring for the house, and almost let it be sold outside the family for failing to make commitments. The house decayed as the social class became displaced by meritocracy. Toward the end of the book, there’s more melodrama than needed, and the attachment to the place seems extreme. Nonetheless, anyone who has spent time at a summer home, or who has a large extended family, will find much to enjoy thanks to Colt’s fine writing in The Big House.

Steve Hopkins, November 24, 2003


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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the December 2003 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: Big House.htm


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