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

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

4.5 22
by George Howe Colt

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Faced with the sale of the century-old family summer house on Cape Cod where he had spent forty-two summers, George Howe Colt returned for one last stay with his wife and children. This poignant tribute to the eleven-bedroom jumble of gables, bays, and dormers that watched over weddings, divorces, deaths, anniversaries, birthdays, breakdowns, and love affairs for five


Faced with the sale of the century-old family summer house on Cape Cod where he had spent forty-two summers, George Howe Colt returned for one last stay with his wife and children. This poignant tribute to the eleven-bedroom jumble of gables, bays, and dormers that watched over weddings, divorces, deaths, anniversaries, birthdays, breakdowns, and love affairs for five generations interweaves Colt's final visit with memories of a lifetime of summers.

Run-down yet romantic, The Big House stands not only as a cherished reminder of summer's ephemeral pleasures but also as a powerful symbol of a vanishing way of life.

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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The Big House

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


Copyright © 2001 Simon & Schuster
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-7432-4964-X



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.


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.

Meet the Author

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.

Brief Biography

Whately, Massachusetts
Place of Birth:
El Paso, Texas
B.A., Harvard University, 1976; M.A., Johns Hopkins University, 1978

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The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 21 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed reading the book. It brought back memories of driving to the Cape. I learned alot about the early Bostonian Families and how they built their houses and about all their neighbors. I liked seeing the house through the younger families thoughts and how they felt about their parents, grandparents and great grandparents. it is a good book club book, lots to talk about
newtogame More than 1 year ago
Great, touching story, wonderful writing, rich imagery. I enjoyed the book all the way through! The only [small] criticism I have is I wish the author had provided some photos, particularly of the house itself. Since the characters are real people, I can understand a reluctance to offer pictures of relatives [living or passed on], but to see the house, its surrounding property and even old photos of the Cape would have been a delightful addition... hence my 4 star rating overall.

A wonderful effort Mr. Colt!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I thoroughly enjoyed the book. As a Brahmin child who currently summers on Wings Neck, the book was very nostalgic. Everything that Colt writes about could not be any truer. The lifestyle is still very much the same. The Big House does exist! It is the same as pictured on the cover of the novel. A great summer read for anyone (especially someone who summers on Cape Cod!).
Guest More than 1 year ago
The first three chapters lure you into believeing the book is about the house, it is really about a way of life- the old money 'it is gone, only their good name remains', the pretense and facade of a life that many in his family could not relinquish, and those that moved forward with the times- welcoming 'outsiders' into their lives, were no longer welcome andor no longer chose to visit. The windows with no rooms attached, the stairs leading nowhere, things not being as they seem- that was his family. But, you have to get well into the book before the dark side is revealed, slowly, chapter by chapter. It is a way of life drowned in secrets and alcohol, and best read about as the past rather than lived.
Debra60 More than 1 year ago
The Big House A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home By George Howe Colt No, not everyone has Bostonian blue blood running through their veins or the ability to summer at a family estate on Cape Cod but Colt adopts us all with his engaging prose. The author whispers of family secrets and we slide in beside him into a reading nook on a rainy afternoon with the background of patter on the roof and the tinny drips into strategically placed buckets. We can hear that burr of the old fashioned phone Colt so loves. He describes a century's worth of cast off accumulated in the old barn causing us to trip back our own memory lane, "Hey, I remember that collection of jazz records in my grandma's attic." When fortunes dwindle, we root for the underdog.don't let that grand house built of blood, sweat, joy and tears be razed from the earth or worse.turned into condos. In the end it is our story. The story of those of us who have been here for generations or who have just arrived; those who persevere and believe in the American dream. "It's a great gift that in this house everyone can be alone, off doing things they want to, and yet all be together under one roof."
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
The story behind the text is wonderful: a nostalgic tale of a family's summer home being put up for sale. The first three chapters are nice, fairly easy to get through. But come the fourth chapter, so many names have been mentioned, let alone cities I'm assuming are on/near the Cape [I've never been there, but the back cover drew me in. I ended up, unsuccessfully, trying to read the book with a map of the Cape and surrounding towns next to me], that it just became impossible. If you're familiar with the area, be my guest and read on, but otherwise, it's a disappointment.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A superb read, for anyone who has ever experienced the joys of regular visits to a summer house. Memorable and poignant memoir of growing up by the sea in summer, family life and life's lessons . . . pure enjoyment.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The Big House is full of love and joy, and yes, even a little sadness, but it is a very satisfying read. George Colt is a generous human being that gives full credit to other members of his family and fully admits some of his past incorrect thinking. It really is an absolutely lovely book to read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A very lovely read that brought to mind memories of my family's (much less impressive) summer home in the northern Catskill Mountains. In some places, the genealogical details become a little tedious for the outsider, but it's easy to skim over those parts. I might have felt a greater connection to the author's family and the house if the book included some pictures of the house and surrounding areas, and reproductions of the photographs mentioned in the text. I'm not sure, for example, if the watercolor on the cover is actually the house in question or just an artist's conception. Still . . . much to savor here and very readable; I bought the book on a Tuesday and finished it that Saturday.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I like the fact that it gave a great historical account of the cape cod region, of which I am fascinated by, intertwined with a family history. The author painted a vivid picture of the ideal summer vacation for a child or even an adult. The archetectural items were of great interest to me as well. I could empathize with the author about how he felt about that house.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book offered great insight into a world in which I could only imagine living - who knew that 'summer' was a verb. Even though I might not be like all the characters, (or necessarily like them) I consider that a positive. I thought that made it a very good read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The author describes events from his childhood that seemed normal to him at the time, but now, reflecting back as an adult writer, he sees how odd and genuinely funny much of it was. I laughed all the way through this excellent book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
He waits.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I agree - the first few chapters were interesting. The author told about his immediate family and their quest for a last family vacation in the Big House. But from then on, it was ridiculous. If I had to read one more story about how rich his family was, or how many famous people they knew, or how they all had yachts and country club memberships, I was going to hurl. I had to put it down midway through, and it's been a very long time since I was unable to finish a book. If you're familiar with the Cape and/or this family, you're in for a delightful read. Otherwise, it might remind you of the society pages of your local newspaper.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Big house is at blue result 4
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Cool =] I've gotta go to bed now. Can't stay up late on THIS NOOK. Bye! Night XP
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Canon ball! Weee!