The Heirloom House is a humorous personal account of two interlocking obsessions: eBay and the quest to create a vacation house that looks and feels like a family heirloom.
Beginning with recollections of her childhood summers in Nantucket, author Sherry Lefevre narrates the development of her personal aesthetic: wanting everything people with old inherited houses have. When she receives a bequest that allows her to purchase her own ramshackle summerhouse, she clicks on eBay and emerges two months later with a house fully furnished with other people’s ancestral treasures, from toile curtains to taxidermy, at a more-than-affordable price.
Filled with photos and drawings, The Heirloom House invites readers to follow Lefevre’s eBay searches and imitate her heirloom-hunting strategies. Antique treasures are classified and eBay “search words” are suggested to assist the reader’s own treasure hunting. Anecdotes, both informative and entertaining, enliven descriptions of the antique objects acquired, and while the whole endeavor is relayed with humor, the underlying message is a serious one: with enough love, anyone can have an ancestral homean heirloom house.
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About the Author
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From 1963 to 1966 my parents managed to push open the gate to the world of Philadelphia's gentry, though only temporarily. They rented a vacation house called Rosemary, in the little village of 'Sconset on Nantucket Island. That was several decades before the "uber wealthy" would mistake the foggy, windy, briar patch of an island for the French Riviera. The ferry workers still spat chewing tobacco on the hood of your car as they directed it over the narrow ramp onto the Nobska (a real steamship) or the Uncatena (a real stinkpot). The Old Mill still had a miller and the Sankety Lighthouse still had Coast Guard lighthouse keepers.
For an eleven-year-old on a bike the island's vistas, its high bluffs, its rolling moors, its grey, shingled houses with widow's walks, confirmed my sense that fiction was more relevant than daily life. Everything around me was the setting for my summer reading list: Thomas Hardy, the Bronte sisters, Stevenson, Melville, Scott (the canon for prep schools having not yet moved beyond the nineteenth century). I had never been to a place where history was so easily imagined, and so I spent my summers happily imagining it, in a blissful solitude afforded by a sky blue Schwinn.
Except, it turns out, our love for Rosemary.
My two older brothers had crossed the great divide by the time we vacationed in Nantucket. They were teenagers, dating and drinking, preferring peer posses at more popular beaches to our family beach outings. We met up for meals where their frustration with everything familial expressed itself in verbal abuse, which in 1964 meant melodramatic mimicry of everything I said. We had nothing in common.
Rosemary was an early nineteenth-century white clapboard house to which a turret had been added in the late Victorian era. She sat on the Main Street of 'Sconset village, back from the road, on a lot large enough to accommodate a "secret garden" surrounded by a twenty-foot-high privet hedge whose entry arch was so overgrown it took us several weeks to discover it. Her interior was of a piece.
There was a long parlor on one side of the entry hall, with a huge horsehair sofa (a Sheraton) upholstered in deep rose-colored velvet. Next to it was a mahogany game table, which held a lamp with a frosted hurricane shade surrounded by large dangling crystals (probably American Brilliant). On the other side of the entry hall was a Damask-wallpapered study. Its pedestal desk (with olive-green tooled leather inset) offered a view of Main Street. The other three walls were lined in bookcases, each with glass doors and key locks. Every book I had ever been assigned was on those shelves or in the bookcases on the upstairs landing, or on shelves in the back "sewing" room.
Behind the study was a bedroom — my parents' — inconsequential in my memory except that it led to a back stair, a steep dark one that deposited you in an upstairs bedroom. Why? An insane wife, hidden away, her meals smuggled up the back stair? A crippled daughter (polio) who wanted the upper bedroom because of the view into the secret garden, where perhaps ... someday ... a suitor ...
The kitchen and back utility room were ramshackle places that cantilevered off the back of the house with marked nonchalance, especially in view of what shrines to marble and granite our kitchens have become. Thin, flowered curtains, not doors, hid the pipes under the sink and the brooms and dustpan in the closet. Dishes, cups, pots, pans — all were stacked on open shelves and the counter-top next to the sink was wood, creviced and stained by years of watery use, like limestone rock in a canyon. The laundry equipment in the utility room included a washboard and a clothes wringer, vice clamped to a huge porcelain basin.
On the second floor, my own room was under eaves in the roof, which made the flowered wallpaper drape down over my bed like a tent. It had twin iron beds, painted white, with modest finials and a sweet interior arch. Wood floors, painted a light blue, had pale blue-and-white rag rugs that skittered like an early form of roller blade. The bedspreads were white as well, with blue and pink cotton chenille "popcorn" patterns. There was a tall, dark chest of drawers centered between the beds and the room's two windows. On that chest were things I'd never seen before — a china perfume tray for bobby pins and hair ribbons and presumably perfume bottles. A monogrammed dresser set complete with button hook and a large silver handled mirror that allowed me to see the back of my head for the first time in my entire life.
A collar box!!!!!
By today's standards there was nothing really summery about Rosemary. Her Oriental rugs and velvet upholstery took no account of sandy feet and bathing suits. Her dark hues made no attempt to reflect light and create airiness. But in her essential other-worldliness, Rosemary was the perfect summer retreat. We were 390 miles and 150 years away from home. We were in a house where more than a century of living had left its marks, its hiding places, its scraps of play (marbles, drawings) ... enough evidence to urge our imaginations on. Accompanied by a mise-en-scène of tempest-like storms, pitch dark, edge-of-the world skies, moor-roaming ghost-like fog, our imaginations vacationed in lands of pirates, shipwrecks, and sea monsters — as far away from long-division and Latin case endings as we could be.
Rosemary wasn't unique in its anachronistic furnishings. Most of the island's summer home furnishings would rate the reject line at Antiques Roadshow — old but not pedigreed. In 'Sconset there were probably enough Blue Willow or Indian Tree plates to make a set, but not in any one house. Oriental rugs lacked pile and Hobnail bedspreads lacked Hobnails. Putting aside the fact that you could certainly find complete sets of Canton Rose Medallion in Newport-style houses, the consistency of the worn and mis-matched style, from the Adirondacks to Northeast Harbor to the Great Lakes to the Cape and Islands suggests that it is one of those cultural phenomena that is ideology disguised as pragmatism.
Couldn't beach house owners afford complete sets of china before the 1970s? Well, yes. But in terms of what many people budgeted as appropriate for summerhouse expenditures the answer was no. As a line item, it fell far below the year-round residence, the boarding school and college tuitions and the trust contributions.
In other words, couldn't afford was really shouldn't afford.
Thus it became a point of pride to flaunt the devaluation of summer home maintenance. During our first summer on the island in the 1960s, a club we belonged to put on a musical revue in which pretty much everyone let loose their Broadway fantasies. Included in these ranks were two of the grander "dames" of the village. They were homeowners, not renters like us, and they had the "never-mind" approach to rehearsals to prove it. But their aged, warbling voices so perfectly complemented their bird-like appearance that their duet "My House is Older Than Your House" became one of those theatrical moments when eternal truth and human history seem to elide as in an eclipse. "The house," whose wood floors and post-and-beam structure served the purpose well, thundered when they curtsied.
"My House is Older Than Your House" was a pastoral, of sorts. It was a singing contest in which the two women tried to best each other in proclaiming the virtues of their Nantucket houses. Only the brags were the opposite of what you expected.
Because consummate decrepitude was the apogee of perfection and holes in the roof, nesting bats, warped floors, leaky plumbing, were all scoring points. Here's how it went: Refrain: My house is older than yours,
my house is older than yours is.
My house has been through the wars
— has yours? Has yours? Has yours?
My house has beams that are old
— And when it rains, it's so cold here.
Do you have walls old with mold?
Behold Behold Behold
— My house has roses that reach to the sky Windows too small to see through.
Refrain: My house is older than yours,
my house is older than yours is.
It's just like living outdoors
— Is yours? Is yours? Is yours?
My house has shingles galore
— But the shingles don't mingle together Termites have eaten the door.
And are you keeping score?
My house was painted the day it was built And could you ever dispute?
Refrain: My house is older than yours,
My house is older than yours is.
The song's composers, Herb Sweet and Jack Gowen, were Broadway professionals brought in for the summer. I had visited New York for a day on my eighth birthday and had seen enough to know that their island bore little resemblance to ours. I liked to imagine what shocking encounters in Nantucket houses engendered the song's insights:
"Did you know that one of your 'ocean views' is under the sink in the bathroom?"
"Yes isn't it lovely?"
"There are baby mice nesting under the radiator in your hallway."
"Oh did Rosalind give birth already?"
It was always clear to me that there was much more delight than severity in the way Nantucket WASPS shunned material "improvements." These were no Puritans denouncing the vanity of lace collars. One has only to witness the twinkle in the eye of an old codger recalling the "storage" rafters, garden hose plumbing and ladder stairs of his childhood summer home to understand that there was a lot of joy in the pastoral simplicity these summerhouses epitomized. True to its name, a vacation house offered a blissful reprieve from the norms of year-round living — a vacation from entertaining that demanded formal china, furniture that imposed correct posture, and standards of maintenance that required vigilance.
While this pride in "roughing it" on vacation was widespread in America, from at least the end of the nineteenth century to the mid-century of my childhood, Nantucket could certainly claim one of the most charming expressions of it. By the end of the nineteenth century, as tourism began to replace whaling as Nantucket's chief economy, clusters of seventeenth-century fishing shacks, as small as garden sheds, as misshapen as the backs of old horses, became popular summer cottages.
A few of these huts dated back to the days when the Native Americans on this island taught white settlers how to set out from shore in tiny little boats and catch enormous whales offshore. They were one-room structures, built to accommodate a six-man boat crew, but not comfortably. Often a loft was constructed at the sleeping end of the house, accessible by cleats in the wall or a ladder. Loft ceilings were about 3 feet high. Men, not children, slept under the rafters, nestled tightly among spiders and — perhaps more chafing — each other. Being seamen, they were used to packing into berths and sleeping with the wind and rain pounding a few inches from their heads.
Indeed, much of the architecture of those houses was simply Ship Building 101. Like ships, many of the houses had migrated from other fishing areas on the island, or only pieces of houses had migrated when additions were needed — the advantage of wood frame structures. Sometimes the sea below the bluff coughed up pieces of decking for walls or hatch doors or ornamentation like quarter boards.
Because the hamlet's "founders" were practical men, they had seen the advantage of clustering together to shield each other from wind and rain and loneliness. Their hut lots were small and additions required ingenious departures from architectural conventions. Angling a wing on a diagonal or adding a second story to only one room of the house or putting a bedroom on the street in front of the living room all made the kind of sense anyone who's ever lived in a Manhattan apartment understands.
I had summer friends who vacationed in these real-life equivalents to Badger's house from The Wind in the Willows. Many had windows two feet off the ground and roofs that ended at your waist and yards four feet deep, surrounded by three-foot tall fences, which you could raise your leg and walk over, never mind the gate. My beloved Rosemary, dearest to me because she was mine, was unquestionably of the house species. She had a front stair with railing and normal finishes like plaster and doorknobs. These fishing cottages had wood plank walls, clanking iron thumb latches, and ladders that led up to sleeping lofts. Better yet, aloft you were still within leaping distance of the ground, should you happen to want a night's adventure, either by defenestration through the porthole at your pillow, or by invitation to friends on the ground who could scale the trellis if they didn't mind the rose thorns.
The ancient pedigree of these houses made them prime real estate. In the 1960s, lawyers, doctors, and bankers ducked their heads to enter their 12-foot square "Great Room," leading at one end to a 9-foot by 22-foot addition, which usually contained two bedrooms. If you walked down the rutted road that intermittently divided clusters of cottages, you were two feet away from a bed pillow nestling against a window. Curtains made out of embroidered linen napkins were all that was needed for 18-inch windows. Storage space being what it was — or wasn't — even windows sustained shelves on which you could spy a proud collection of Rockingham mugs, jelly jar glasses, milk glass vases, briar pipes, brass candlesticks stockpiled for outages. Almost one hundred years before my summers in 'Sconset, a US Circuit Court Commissioner named Ansel Judd Northrup wrote a jolly account of the summer in which his family of seven squeezed themselves into one of these cottages: "The cottage, a little one story house with low ceilings and queer little rooms, shingle-sided, and odd in every feature internal and external, was as full as a bee-hive and a vast deal noisier. It was a marvel how we all got into it, and turned around when once in it ..."
Later in life, I learned the origin of this cluster of houses by reading the work of a nineteenth-century real estate developer, journalist, lawyer, stenographer, and vineyard owner named Edward Underhill. He was so taken with their charm when he vacationed on the island in the early 1880s that he wrote a book about them. And then he built thirty-six copies of them. What I also discovered was that he was an early apostle in the cult of the tattered and threadbare. But you should really hear his whole story, from the beginning....CHAPTER 2
Edward Underhill and the Cult of the Tattered & Threadbare
As distinct movements in history are often a serendipitous encounter between social forces and a charismatic leader, at the end of the nineteenth century 'Sconset's little summer cottages found their leader, a man named Edward Underhill. Underhill was a person so constitutionally enthusiastic for projects that within months of his discovery of 'Sconset's "fishing shacks" they became a borderline cult. He had been a stenographer, a journalist, a lawyer, a teacher, a vineyard owner and then, under the spell of Nantucket, he became a developer ... of fishing shack knock-offs. To me, he also ranks as the founding father of the instant heirloom house.
In 1879 Underhill and his family spent their first summer on Nantucket, in one of 'Sconset's antique cottages. He responded symbiotically to their architectural eccentricities: their unscripted additions; their salvaged components; their playhouse proportions. Within the year he bought a tract of land in the village, carved a dirt road down the center of it and had a local builder, a seventy-something "living relic" named Asa P. Jones, build him a family cottage that looked like it had walked right out of 'Sconset's old fishing hamlet to get a little breathing room. It had taken a little over a fortnight to build and it was named "the China Closet" apparently for two reasons. One reason was that it housed his vast china collection. The other reason is yours to guess.
On the remainder of the plot, he drew plans for two rows of quixotic little cottage cousins to his favorite village shantytown.
Deciding now to commit himself wholeheartedly, not to say, obsessively, he sold a vineyard he owned in Upper New York State and purchased another plot of land adjacent to his first, carved out two more roads, which he named after his wife and daughter, Evelyn and Lily, and built what amounted to, when all was done and much said, thirty-six snug little fishing cottage spin-offs. His hunch was that these cottages would become popular and hence lucrative little vacation rentals. His hunch was correct but that suggests a level of passivity uncharacteristic of Underhill, who, though always espousing the somnolence-inducing virtues of Nantucket air, never seems to have rested, not even for a second. Case in point, his "hunch" that his cottages would be popular was reinforced by a one-man PR campaign that puts him neck to neck with Goodby Silverstein, of "Got Milk" fame, in being able to make anything sexy ... or at least very cool.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Heirloom House"
Copyright © 2015 Sherry Lefevre.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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.
Table of Contents
Edward Underhill and the Cult of the Tattered & Threadbare,
Finding the House,
Getting to Know My House,
Interior Decorating as the Power of Association,
Creating a Mind Map,
Treatise on the Borderline Ugly,
Creating a Budget and the Economics of eBay,
The Trustworthiness of eBay,
The Living Room,
Thumb latches/antique hardware,
Kitchens & Dining Rooms,
Dough Bowls and Trenchers,
Pots and Pans,
The Economy of Sets,
Placemats and Coasters,
Glass Jars and Storage Canisters,
American Brilliant Cake Stand,
Optic Glass Tumblers,
Door Bells and Dinner Bells,
The Road to Paradise,