The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home

( 15 )

Overview

In this intimate and poignant history of a sprawling century-old summer house on Cape Cod, George Howe Colt reveals not just one family's fascinating story but a vanishing way of life. Faced with the sale of the treasured house where he had spent forty-two summers, Colt returned for one last August with his wife and young children. The Big House, the author's loving tribute to his one-of-a-kind family home, interweaves glimpses of that elegiac final visit with memories of earlier summers spent at the house and of...
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Overview

In this intimate and poignant history of a sprawling century-old summer house on Cape Cod, George Howe Colt reveals not just one family's fascinating story but a vanishing way of life. Faced with the sale of the treasured house where he had spent forty-two summers, Colt returned for one last August with his wife and young children. The Big House, the author's loving tribute to his one-of-a-kind family home, interweaves glimpses of that elegiac final visit with memories of earlier summers spent at the house and of the equally idiosyncratic people who lived there over the course of five generations.

Built by Colt's great-grandfather one hundred years ago on a deserted Cape Cod peninsula, the house is a local landmark (neighboring children know it as the Ghost House): a four-story, eleven-bedroom jumble of gables, bays, sloped roofs, and dormers. The emotional home of the Colt family, the Big House has watched over five weddings, four divorces, and three deaths, along with countless anniversaries, birthday parties, nervous breakdowns, and love affairs. Beaten by wind and rain, insulated by seaweed, it is both romantic and run-down, a symbol of the faded glory of the Boston Brahmin aristocracy.

With a mixture of amusement and affection, Colt traces the rise and fall of this tragicomic social class while memorably capturing the essence of summer's ephemeral pleasures: sailing, tennis, fishing, rainy-day reading. Time seems to stand still in a summer house, and for the Colts the Big House always seemed an unchanging place in a changing world. But summer draws to a close, and the family must eventually say good-bye.

Elegant and evocative, The Big House is both magical and sad, a gift to anyone who holds cherished memories of summer.

Finalist for the 2003 National Book Award, Nonfiction.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
… the wonder of this book is that the reader comes slowly, deeply, to comprehend the allure of a family world set staunchly against time, and the pathos of the author's struggle to let go of that world. — Le Anne Schreiber
The Washington Post
The Big House brings engagingly and memorably to life the house and the people who inhabited it, and it pays quiet tribute to the bygone WASP upper class and "the values it held dear -- charity, loyalty, modesty, self-reliance, sportsmanship, a stiff upper lip." Colt says that these qualities "now seemed at best naive and at worst irrelevant," which says a lot more about now than it does about those vanished people. — Jonathan Yardley
The New Yorker
In 1903, the author's great-grandfather, a Boston Brahmin named Edward W. Atkinson, built his family a house on Cape Cod, at Wings Neck, the last undeveloped peninsula overlooking Buzzards Bay. The Big House, as this multi-storied conglomeration of gables, dormers, and bays came to be called, included "eleven bedrooms, seven fireplaces, and a warren of closets, cupboards, and crannies that four generations of Wings Neck children have used for games of Sardines." It was also an expensive firetrap with sixty-seven windows in need of attention, leaking roofs, wildlife procreating in its walls, and no indoor shower. In 1992, after agonized debate, the family decided to put it on the market. Colt's account, like the house that lies at its center, is full of surprises and contains more than seems humanly possible: a family memoir, a brief history of the Cape, an investigation of nostalgia, a catalogue of local fauna, a study of class, and a meditation on the privileges and burdens of the past.
Publishers Weekly
The epicenter of the Colt family is the Big House, built in 1903 on Wings Neck, a deserted strip of Cape Cod. It's not only an architectural gem but a device to chronicle family, local history and the culture of Boston Brahmins-and it accomplishes that task with charm, style and solid research. For 42 summers, Colt traveled from winter homes across the U.S. to partake in this magical place. It's where he learned to swim and play tennis, and where he kissed his first girl. Indeed, the Big House has seen five weddings, four divorces, parties, anniversaries and love affairs. The Colts, a once venerable tribe, had lost their money-"it is not wealth so much as former wealth that defines Old Money families"-but were determined to keep their ancestral home. Time may have marched on, but the Big House refused to cooperate: "Everything in this house breathes of the past." Gilbert & Sullivan sheet music, rotary telephones and ancient globes grace its interiors. Yet all is not perfect in this palace by the sea. Colt, like playwright A.J. Gurney, is adept at exposing the dark underbelly of WASP restraint, recording the mental illness, alcoholism and despair that have plagued his family. His one comfort? The Big House. This love letter to the past is a quiet delight. Agent, Amanda Urban. (June 3) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Colt (The Enigma of Suicide) here offers a wonderfully tender yet frank history of his Boston Brahmin family and the 19-room Cape Cod summer house that brought them together-and in some cases, divided them-for five generations. With its lack of heating, faulty wiring, inadequate plumbing, and walls inhabited by squirrels and mice, the Big House, as it is known, is too costly to maintain. After spending 42 summers there, Colt brings his wife and children for a final stay before the house is sold. In a place where everything "breathes of the past," Colt reminisces over summers spent swimming in the bay, fishing with his aunt, and playing billiards in the evenings with his grandfather. Along the way, he also recounts the darker side of his past, including his family's battles with mental illness, alcoholism, cancer, and one another. Well researched and written with a meditative grace, Colt's book is obviously a labor of love. The only complaint is that, like a warm, breezy summer on the Cape, it ends far too quickly. Public and academic libraries will want this.-William D. Walsh, Georgia State Univ. Lib., Atlanta Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher
David Halberstam What a wonderful book. George Howe Colt has taken an original idea -- over four generations a house is a family and a family is a house -- and turned it into an uncommon success, becoming in the process the writer as family archaeologist. It's a book that stands in a line with The Late George Apley and The Proper Bostonians.

Adam Hochschild From the beautiful opening pages onward, you know you are in the hands of a masterful writer -- observant, subtle, eloquent at evoking the memories and feelings that rise up when our adult selves and childhood memories meet. But The Big House is more than that; George Howe Colt brings to life several generations of an entire extended family, and the reader, like someone growing from childhood to adulthood and like the reader of a fine novel, gradually learns that this book's charmed, alluring world is far more complex than it first appears.

Alec Wilkinson The Big House is about the long, slow separation from the beautiful past -- in this case a shingled house by the ocean, which Colt's ancestors built and his family occupied in the summer for generations. He writes gracefully, with restraint and deep feeling, and his book is a rare accomplishment.

Adrian Nicole LeBlanc This book is a true thing -- a careful opening into the rooms of origin, a meditation on loss and loving, a tender exploration of the mysteries of family. That George Howe Colt is a poet makes us especially lucky to be privy to his keen and generous company. In the fullness of a narrative fantastic with stories of his extraordinary ancestry, he honors what is precious without sentimentality, expresses intimacy without self-absorption, his wisdom rooted in humor and humility. I read it by my father's bedside as he lay dying, and felt safe inside this special book. Even more, I felt the steadying wonder of life.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780594171287
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 6/8/2004
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

George Howe Colt
George Howe Colt is the bestselling author of The Big House, which was a National Book Award finalist and a New York Times notable book of the year, and November of the Soul: The Enigma of Suicide. He lives in Western Massachusetts with his wife, Anne Fadiman, and their two children.

Biography

George Howe Colt is a former staff writer at Life magazine whose articles have been published in The New York Times, Civilization, and Mother Jones, among other publications. The author of The Enigma of Suicide, a critically acclaimed work of nonfiction, he lives with his family in rural western Massachusetts.

Author biography courtesy of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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    1. Hometown:
      Whately, Massachusetts
    1. Education:
      B.A., Harvard University, 1976; M.A., Johns Hopkins University, 1978

Read an Excerpt

The Big House

A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home
By George Howe Colt

Scribner

Copyright © 2001 Simon & Schuster
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-7432-4964-X


Prologue

WINTER

The doors that are always open have been closed and locked. The windows are shut tight. The shades are drawn. No water runs from the faucets. The toaster - which in the best of times works only if its handle is pinned under the weight of a second, even less functional toaster - is unplugged. The kitchen cupboards are empty except for a stack of napkins, a box of sugar cubes, and eight cans of beer. The porch furniture - six white plastic chairs, two green wooden tables - has been stacked in the dining room. The croquet set, the badminton equipment, the tennis net, and the flag are behind closet doors. The dinghy is turtled on sawhorses in the barn, the oars angled against the wall. The roasted-salt scent of August has given way to the stale smell of mothballs, ashes, mildew.

Here and there are traces of last summer: a striped beach towel tossed on the washing machine, a half-empty shampoo bottle wedged in the wooden slats of the outdoor shower, a fishing lure on the living room mantel, a half-burned log in the fireplace, a sprinkling of sand behind the kitchen door. Dead hornets litter the windowsills. A drowned mouse floats in the lower-bedroom toilet. The most recent entry in the guest book was made five months ago. The top newspaper in the kindling pile is dated September 29. The ship's clock in the front hall has stopped at 2:45, but whether that was A.M. or P.M. no one can tell.

After gorging on summer for three months, the house has gone into hibernation. They call it the off-season, as if there were a switch in the cellar, next to the circuit breakers, that one flipped to plunge the house from brimming to empty, warm to cold, noisy to silent, light to dark. Outside, too, the world has changed color, from blues, yellows, and greens to grays and browns. The tangle of honeysuckle, Rosa rugosa, and poison ivy that lapped at the porch is a skein of bare branches and vines. The lawn is hard as tundra, brown as burlap. The Benedicts' house next door, hidden from view when I was last here, is visible through the leafless trees. The woods give up their secrets: old tennis balls, an errant Frisbee, a lost tube of sunblock, a badminton birdie. Out in the bay, the water is the color of steel and spattered with whitecaps; without the presence of boats to lend perspective, the waves look ominously large. On the stony beach, the boardwalk - a set of narrow planks we use to enter the water without spraining our ankles on the algae-slicked rocks - has been piled above the tide line, beyond the reach, we hope, of storms.

A summer house in winter is a forlorn thing. In its proper season, every door is unlocked, every window wide open. People, too, are more open in summer, moving through the house and each other's life as freely as the wind. Their schools and offices are distant, their guard is down, their feet are bare. Now as I walk from room to room, shivering in my parka, I have the feeling I'm trespassing, as if I've sneaked into a museum at night. Without people to fill it, the house takes on a life of its own. Family photographs seem to breathe, their subjects vivid and laughing and suspended at the most beautiful moments of their youths: my father in his army uniform, about to go off to World War II; my aunt in an evening gown, in a shot taken for a society benefit not long before her death at twenty-eight; my grandfather as a Harvard freshman, poised to win an ice hockey game; my cousins in the summer of 1963, gathered on the sunny lawn. I am older than all of them, even though many are now dead.

In this still house, where is the summer hiding? Perhaps in the mice whose droppings pepper the couch, the bats that brood in the attic eaves, the squirrels that nest in the stairwell walls. They are silent now, but we will hear and see them - and the offspring to which they will soon give birth - in a few months. For if the house is full of memory, it is equally full of anticipation. Dormant life lies everywhere, waiting to be picked up where it left off, like an old friendship after a long absence: that towel ready to be slung over a sweaty shoulder, that tennis ball to be thrown into the air, those chairs to be set out on the porch, that fishing lure to be cast into the bay, that guest book to be inscribed with a day in June. Even on the coldest winter morning, this house holds within it, like a voluptuous flower within a hard seed, the promise of summer.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from The Big House by George Howe Colt Copyright © 2001 by Simon & Schuster. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Contents

Prologue: Winter

PART ONE

I Arriving

II The Family Tree

III 1963

IV The Discovery of Cape Cod

V Rooftree

VI Renovations

VII Fishing

VIII The North and South Faces

IX The Barn

X Plain Living

XI Money

XII Sailing

XIII Tennis

Midsummer

PART TWO

XIV Hidden House

XV The Big Cove

XVI Missing Cards

XVII Rain

XVIII The White Elephant

XIX Full House

XX Florida

XXI Leaving

Epilogue: Indian Summer

Notes on Sources

Acknowledgments

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