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How If This House Could Talk...Came to Be
The voice was eerily familiar, but I wasn't sure when I wrote her about my idea that I'd ever get an answer, let alone in three days. But it really was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis on the line, and her first words were "It's thrilling...inspiring." Then her letter came. "I can't remember when I've had such a surge of excitement for the idea of a project," she wrote. Now I was sure I was on the right track.
This book must have been brewing since my childhood, for I grew up in southern New England, where houses on every street had stories to tell that made the past seem as present as today, and as stirring as current world events. I shared the terror children must have felt in their dark hiding place under the stairs of a Pilgrim's house in Plymouth as danger stalked outside. I could almost hear Longfellow reading "A Children's Hour" to his own girls in elegant Craigie House in Cambridge. When I saw the widow's walks on the roofs of captains' houses in Nantucket, I wondered how many wives, as they looked out on an empty sea, came to realize they were now widows themselves.
This book began to take shape years later during a sensational exhibition, "Treasure Houses of Britain," in Washington, D. C. I wondered what I'd list as America's treasure houses if given the chance. Happily, I was, and you are reading the result. I was sure of one thing when I began looking. I wanted houses that gave a deeper meaning to the word "treasure" than gold or glitter. My career as a researcher, writer, and producer of television public affairs programs and cultural documentaries, working with Edward R. Murrow's "boys," Eric Sevareid, historian David McCullough, and other distinguished journalists, compelled me to choose houses that could serve as metaphors, if you will, for larger events and personalities in our political and cultural history. If Abraham Lincoln was right when he reportedly said, "The strength of a nation lies in the homes of its people," which ones would tell us best? Could these houses hold any answers to today's concerns?
Finding them turned out to be a glorious adventure that took me more than once across the country, from Alaska to Florida, from Hawai'i to New Hampshire. I drove across great plains and deserts, paddled through swamps, tramped through dusty attics and ghost towns, crawled into secret compartments, and climbed staircases in everything from a shining palace to the darkest tenement. I hope some of my choices will surprise you; what I've found out may, too. Why is it so few of us have heard of a unique plantation complex designed by the greatest American architect? What is a royal palace doing in the same chapter as a condemned tenement? What is a royal palace doing among American houses anyway? What does a house that hasn't even been built yet tell you?
There are stories of great passion, courage, and brilliance in these pages, and enough cruelty, greed, and ignorance to go around. Finally, I think, the underlying message from all these houses must be what Robert Frost proposed in his poem "America Is Hard to See" about Christopher Columbus's discovery of America.
But all he did was spread the room
Of our enacting out the doom
Of being in each other's way,
And so put off the weary day
When we would have to put our mind
On how to crowd but still be kind...
Whatever your reasons for opening this book, I don't think you will soon forget these houses, the people and the times that gave them their stories. You may even come to think of your own house as a rich and worthy part of the same grand American drama.
Elizabeth Smith Brownstein