We asked architectural writer and longtime New England resident William Morgan to share his choices for the 5 best historic house museums in New England.
When architectural writer and longtime New England resident William Morgan lived in Kentucky, old houses were what he missed most about the region. Relocated to Rhode Island, he indulges his passion by writing books such as The Cape Cod Cottage and A Simpler Way of Life: Old Farmhouses of New York and New England. We asked him to share his choices for the 5 best historic house museums in New England.
Eleazer Arnold House: 1685
This is still a medieval-style house, with its tall proportions, massive Elizabethan chimney, and stone end wall, unique to Rhode Island. (Stone houses were rare in early New England.) But this substantial home shows how far the colonists had moved from basic shelter. As a successful farmer and politico, Arnold could afford a house with six rooms. The Arnold House was restored by Norman Isham in 1920, and again in 1950 by the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (now Historic New England). Both conservation efforts were undertaken to maintain the Arnold House’s unusual early character. Lincoln, RI. 401-728-9696; historicnewengland.org
Wentworth–Gardner House: 1760
This wooden house—fashioned to look like stone—overlooking New Hampshire’s Portsmouth Harbor demonstrates how elegant and stylish houses had become by the mid-18th century. Yet this accomplished Georgian mansion was almost lost; it was acquired by antiquarian Wallace Nutting, who sold it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The Depression foiled the scheme to move the house to Central Park, and thus the Wentworth–Gardner survives in its timeless waterfront setting. Portsmouth, NH. 603-436-4406; wentworthgardnerandlear.org
Plimoth Plantation: 1627
The reconstruction of the Pilgrims’ dwellings at Plimoth Plantation serves as a reminder of just how difficult the early days of settlement were. One meager room, a thatched roof, a wooden chimney, and mere slits for windows made for tough living. Plimoth’s houses echo the cottages the settlers knew back home in eastern England, but they quickly had to be modified to survive Massachusetts’ rigorous climate. Although it was a small village, there was a sense of community, a trait that helped the Pilgrims to endure. Plymouth, MA. 508-746-1622; plimoth.org
Olson House: Late 1700s–1871
The Olson house is a quintessential saltwater Maine farm. Best known as the setting for Andrew Wyeth’s famous painting Christina’s World, the house is now a museum. Visitors may wander through the empty rooms where Wyeth painted many views and portraits during his long friendship with Christina and Alvaro Olson. But more than the pervasive Wyeth legacy (he’s buried here), this unrestored farmhouse informs us with the truth of the isolated, hardscrabble life that was the lot of so many northern New Englanders. Cushing, ME. 207-596-6457; farnsworthmuseum.org/olson-house
Mark Twain House: 1874
“Mark Twain,” Samuel Clemens’ riverboat-inspired pseudonym, suggests places like Hannibal, Missouri, and the Mississippi. But he spent 17 very productive years in Hartford, Connecticut. We generally ascribe qualities of modesty and frugality to New England’s old houses—yet this magnificent Victorian speaks of the city’s heyday as a commercial powerhouse, and its exuberance expresses its owner’s larger-than-life personality. Its 25 rooms, filled with memorabilia, mahogany furniture, and Tiffany decorations, make for a lively sensory experience. Hartford, CT. 860-247-0998; marktwainhouse.org
Did we miss any of your picks for the best historic house museums in New England? Let us know in the comments!