Dilettante: Old house Show House

Posted Wednesday, July 20, 2011 in Culture

Dilettante: Old house Show House

The Emerson House in York.

by Jan Brennan

YORK — Even by Maine standards, the Emerson house is old

It was built on the site of a garrison house in the center of York Village, and might even incorporate parts of that building, which survived an Indian raid in 1692 that destroyed most of the town. While it’s not known when the present building was erected, documents show it was existing as early as 1719. It was well known as the Woodbridge Tavern during Revolutionary times; the local Sons of Liberty gathered there, and John Adams (years before he became president) stayed in its rooms during the 1770s.

In 1793 Edward Emerson, a wealthy merchant and ship owner, bought the old tavern and renovated it into his family homestead. The Emersons lived in it for the next 214 years.

It’s seen many changes. Emerson’s grandson enlarged it and gave it the elegant Georgian Colonial facade it has today. In 1900, a later descendant moved it back from the road, took down a wing, and added a rear addition for servants’ quarters. More recently, someone built a wall down its center and divided it into a two-family home. That wall has since been removed, but the house still has two full kitchens, several living rooms, three staircases, and plenty of baths.

Its biggest change may be happening now. For the first time in over two centuries, no Emerson is living there. The Viele family, Emerson descendants and current owners, have moved into the carriage house in back, and placed the house up for sale. Listed at a reasonable $699,000, it’s been on the market for three years – but that may soon change.

Museums of Old York has chosen it as this year’s Decorator Show House. Last year’s Show House sold, complete with all its furniture and decorations, while the show was still running.

From now through Aug. 13 the public can see how over two dozen decorators have turned the old place into a modern masterpiece. Wandering from room to room, visitors may feel like they’ve walked onto the cover of House Beautiful, yet the old pine paneling, foot-wide floorboards, low ceilings and five working fireplaces keep the building firmly rooted in its historic past.

Nowhere is that Colonial atmosphere more present than in the old tavern room, now transformed into a study. Interior designers Michaele Boehm and Kacey Graham of Bedford, N.H., were able to look past the room’s rose-painted woodwork and picture the Sons of Liberty hoisting their pewter mugs of beer before the fireplace. Imagining pints of dark stout, they painted the room in a black-and-tan color scheme that is both masculine and cozy. It once again looks and feels like a Revolutionary tavern.

In contrast, Marcye Philbrook of Kittery, the decorator of the other original tavern room, went with a completely modern theme. Since the tavern’s original cooking fireplace had long since been removed, she turned the space into a bright and airy living room, with colors and artworks inspired by the nearby beach.

Several of the other designers also went with a beach-cottage look. Others display a very modern sensibility, such as the stunning, decadently luxurious guest bathroom – all black and sea-foam green – by Elaine Jackson of Diane Hughes Interiors in Rye, N.H.

Some found inspiration in the home’s history. For example, Patricia Finn honors the Emerson family’s shipping business in the China trade by doing the front staircase, foyer and landing in an Asian theme, with Oriental artworks and a metallic grasscloth wall covering that blends surprisingly well with the staircase’s original Colonial dentil molding.

Laura Dehler, marketing director for Museums of Old York, says the designers don’t have to adhere to any set theme. In March, dozens of designers, after studying photos of the rooms, submit their proposals with sketches, fabric swatches, and explanations of their decorating ideas. A committee then chooses the winning designers based on whatever looks most appealing. By May, the decorators are at work, laboring six days a week as they strip old wallpaper, replace light fixtures, paint and decorate to get the house ready for its opening on July 16.  

Visitors will be delighted by the many surprising and clever touches. Jane Derby of North Hampton, N.H., decorated a boy’s bedroom in a dog theme. In addition to doggie artworks and knickknacks, the closet floor is painted with pawprints. The larger floor in this bedroom was wisely left untouched; it is an antique “feather floor,” with its design created by painting with feathers.

Another unusual room is the back bedroom, probably at one time servants’ quarters, which Frank Hodge of Boston turned into a library. A plethora of windows left little wall space for decorating, so Hodge covered up one window with a realistic fake fireplace and built-in bookshelves. Beautifully made by woodworkers Bob and Sue LeClair of York, the mantle-and-cabinetry looks like it’s always been part of the house. On an interior wall hangs an 18th-century portrait of a bewigged English gentleman – you can imagine him demanding to be served in the Woodbridge Tavern downstairs. Looking closer, you notice that the wall has been painted to exactly match the background of the painting, so only the gilded frame marks the boundary between art and reality.  

Vertical Garden

A "vertical garden" of succulent plants in mossy boxes hangs on the wall of York's Decorator Show House. The multi-level terrace with dining and lounging spaces and a small waterfall was decorated by Renee Carman and Bridget Bleckmann of Barrington, N.H.  

This is the 22nd year that Museums of Old York is doing a Show House as its major fund-raiser. Unlike some of the houses of past years that had limited parking and required a shuttle bus to access, the Emerson house at 31 Long Sands Road is centrally locatedin York Village and easy to get to. Visitors can leave their cars in the big parking lot of the York Library next door, or along the village streets.

Admission is $20, and entitles ticket holders to also tour the nine historic buildings run by Museums of Old York for a mere $5 (normally $12). All the sites are a few minutes’ walk from the Show House. For Show House hours and other information, call (207) 363-4974 or see the group’s website at www.oldyork.org.     

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