Coming home for the holidays in this 1950s era post means coming home to some of the finest examples of American architecture ever presented in the United States. Richard Platt, the architecture and garden editor of Ladies Home Journal from the 1930s- 1960s, spent his entire 30+ year career studying the anatomy of our country’s great homes from the modest barn beginnings of 1600’s New England to the Gatsby worthy mansions of late 19th century Rhode Island.
He and his wife Dorothy compiled the most noteworthy examples in their 1956 coffee table travel book A Guide to Early American Homes and invited readers to see for themselves, in person, the true majesty and ingenuity of American home design. Over 900 houses appeared in the guide in total, and while many were museums already open to the public, a great number were private residences in which Richard and Dorothy managed to secure appointments for readers to tour on their own schedule.
In today’s picture post, we are catching up with a few dozen of these old houses to see what has been going on with them since 1956. With our tricky economy, the recent trend towards downsizing and deep budget cuts slicing through the hearts of our cultural resources how have these century old houses fared over the past six decades? Let’s look…
(The black and white photos are Richard and Dorothy’s taken in the mid-1950’s, the color photographs are recent present day images).
1. 1704 House
Built in 1704. Located in West Chester, PA. In 1956, it was a house museum available to tour for $0.50. Today it is still a museum although admission prices have increased to $5.00.
2. Longfellow House
Longfellow House – Built in 1759. Located in Cambridge, MA. Previously managed by the Longfellow Memorial Trust, this house has recently been renamed from the simple Longfellow House to the more descriptive Longfellow House- Washington Headquarter’s and is now owned and operated by the National Park Service. It used cost $0.30 to tour the house in the 1950s. Today it is free!
3. Col. Jeremiah Lee Mansion
The Jeremiah Lee Mansion – Built in 1768. Located in Marblehead, MA. Continuously operated by the Marblehead Museum since the 1950s (then known as the Marblehead Historical Society) the mansion is still open for tours in warm weather months. Admission prices changed from $0.50 in the 1950s to $10.00 today.
4. Josiah Coffin House
The Josiah Coffin House – Built in 1723. Located in Nantucket, MA. In the 1950s it was a private residence. Still owned by the same family, today it is available for weekly vacation rentals priced between $5,500-$6,000/per week.
5. Sanford House
Sanford House – Built in 1847. Located in Grand Rapids, MI . In the 1950s it was a private residence most noted for its exterior Doric columns and fine Greek Revival craftsmanship. Today the house is helping people internally as a drug and alcohol treatment center for women.
6. Headley Inn
Headley Inn – Built in 1802. Located in Zanesville, OH. Originally this house served as a tavern and inn in the early 1800s. By the 1950s it operated as a seasonal 9-5 restaurant. Today, it is back in business, newly opened as a bed & breakfast.
7. Field House
Field House – Built in 1807. Located in Belfast, ME. Originally a private residence, this house contains over 7,000 sqf. Located on High Street in Belfast, the physical house number in its address has changed since the 1950s and for a time between then and now operated it as a hotel. Recently it was put on the market for $395,000.00
8. The Mansion of Eleazar Arnold
Now known as the Arnold House – Built in 1687. Located in Lincoln, RI. This rare example of early Rhode Island architecture features a massive wall fireplace and once served as a tavern. In the 1950s it was available to tour for $0.25. Now it is managed by Historic New England and is open year round with an $8.00 admission fee.
9. Dell House
Dell House – Built in 1800. Located in Nantucket, MA. This sea captain’s house was a private residence in the 1950s and was then painted yellow with white trim. In the 2000’s this house, still private, underwent extensive renovation and remodeling.
10. Harlow-Holmes House
Harlow-Holmes House – Built in 1649. Located in Plymouth, MA. In the 1950s, the ninth generation of the Holmes family lived here surrounded by antiques that dated back centuries in the family’s heirloom collection, including the original Captain’s table from the Mayflower. At some point between the 1950s and now the house was added onto in the back. See more photos here.
11. Callendar House
Callendar House – Built in 1794. Located in Tivoli, NY. A private residence in the 1950s, this grand house including 35 acres, outbuildings and river views, just sold recently, continuing the grand tradition of private ownership. For more pictures click here.
12. Moffatt-Ladd House
Moffatt-Ladd House – Built in 1763. Located in Portsmouth, NH. Since 1912, this Georgian – style house museum has been open to the public during seasonal hours. Once the home of William Whipple, a signer of the Declaration of Independence it used to be $0.50 to tour the house, now it is $7.00.
13. Ocean Born Mary House
Ocean Born Mary House – Built in 1760. Located in Henniker, NH. Part of pirate folklore this house has been associated with a colorful heritage that still captivates sea storytellers to this day. Always a private residence, it was open for tours by the owner for $0.25 a person in the 1950s. Today it remains private with no tour options, however people caught up in the legend of Ocean Born Mary still drive by the house. Read more about the legend here…
14. Lady Pepperrell Mansion
Lady Pepperrell – Built in 1760. Located in Kittery Point, ME. In the 1950s, this elegant Georgian house was open for tours by The Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities. Now it is a private home, still retaining all the original features (at least on the front facade!)
15. Dutton House
Dutton House – Built in 1782 . Located in Shelburne Village, VT. Throughout its colorful life, this house has been an inn, a tavern, a museum and mixed use office space. Since the 1950s it has been part of a museum collection of historic buildings comprising a typical Vermont village of the 19th century. In 1956 admission was $1.75, today it is $24.00.
16. General Nathanael Greene House
Nathanael Greene House – Built in 1770. Located in Coventry RI. In the hands of the Sons of the American Revolution and the Nathanael Greene Homestead Association since the 1920s, this house was built and designed by Nathanael – one of George Washington’s most trusted generals. Recently, the Association held a fundraiser to build a replica barn on the property that was torn down in the 19th century. The house is open for tours and special events.
17. Bonnet Hill Farm
Bonnet Hill Farm – Built in 1670. Located in Darien, CT. Originally built in Stamford, CT this stately farmhouse house was moved in the 1940s to Darien after private owners rescued it from its then shabby circumstance serving as a glue factory. In the 1950s it was painted a bright shade of pumpkin with white trim and was available for tour by appointment only. Today it has again undergone extensive renovation and remodeling including additions and expansions and is now a private residence. Also note, it is no longer pumpkin in color!
18. Webb House
Webb House – Built in 1752. Located in Wethersfield, CT. Operating as a museum since the 1950s, the Webb House recently got an exterior makeover in the form of a fresh coat of paint – in red – which brings the house back to it’s original color.
19. Thompson House
Thompson House – Built in 1709. Located in East Setauket, NY. By the 1950s, Thompson House had been faithfully restored by its owners and then passed on to the care of a Trust ensuring that everyone has the chance to see and appreciate the splendid salt box style architecture of this 300 year old structure.
20. Dey Mansion
Dey Mansion – Built in 1740. Located in Wayne, NJ. Property owner Dirck Dey worked alongside his slaves and various craftsmen in the mid-18th century to erect this eight room manor house. In the 1950s, it was renovated to serve as a house museum with utmost attention being paid to each historic detail to make it as authentic as possible. Tours were available then for $0.35, today they are $5.00.
21. Powel House
Powel House – Built in 1765. Located in Philadelphia, PA. Under the care of the Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks since the 1930s, this handsome city house museum welcomes visitors and special events. Other than the tourism plaque out front the exterior is virtually unchanged since the Pratt’s visited in the 1950s.
Upsala – Built in 1798. Located in Philadelphia, PA. in the 1950s you could tour this beauty as it evolved through renovation and restoration projects for just $0.10. Today you can buy the whole house for $499,000. That’s right, dear readers Upsala is for sale! Now is your chance to buy a 218 year old architectural gem. Find more info here.
23. Keith House
Keith House – Built in 1722. Located in Horsham, PA. Now a part of Graeme Park Historic Site, the Keith House in the 1950s was a private residence, but today it is owned and operated by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and open for tours throughout the year. As the last surviving residence of a Colonial Pennsylvania Governor, it’s historical importance is significant.
24. Thompson Neely
Thompson Neely – Built in 1701. Located in Washington Crossing, PA, this pre-revolutionary house was available for tours in the 1950s and continues to be offered today. Just before crossing the Delaware, George Washington held a meeting here, and reenactments of the event are held each year on Thompson-Neely grounds on Christmas Day.
25. Matthews House
Matthews House – Built in 1829. Located in Painseville, OH. Rescued and restored by Lake Erie College, this federal style Greek Revival house had just been moved to campus a few years before Richard and Dorothy Pratt visited in the 1950s. Today it stands proudly among the faculty and administration buildings serving as academic offices and a guest house for visiting alumni.
26. Mead Hall
Mead Hall – Built in 1833. Located in Madison, NJ. Also in the hands of academic caretakers, Mead Hall is located on the campus of Drew University. In the 1950s the brick was painted white and the building was used for social functions as well as offices. Tragedy struck in 1989 when a fire destroyed the roof, attic and second story of the house. Now fully renovated and rebuilt, Mead Hall once again stands at the heart of campus and serves as classroom space and faculty offices.
27. Octagon House
Octagon House – Built in 1854. Located in Watertown, WI. In the 1950s, this house was open daily for $0.40 cent tours given by the Watertown Historical Society. The narrow exterior balconies were removed in the 1920s for safety purposes but the Historical Society had always wanted to bring them back to secure the original design aesthetic of the building. In 2006 an anonymous donation made that possible and the balconies were added again. The house, one of only about 3,000 of its shape in the country is open seasonally for tours which now cost $9.00/per person.
28. Varnum House
Varnum House – Built in 1773. Located in East Greenwich, RI. In the late 1930s, the Varnum Continentals, a local non-profit, purchased the Varnum House and restored it as a museum open to the public. In the 1950s it was painted white but has since received a fresh colorful makeover of yellow and green hues. Inside, the museum is full of period appropriate furniture and antiques ranging from the 1700s to the 1900s and offers tours by appointment.
Woodside – Built in 1838. Located in Rochester, NY. Serving as headquarters for the Rochester Historical Society from 1941 to 2016, this house recently sold to private owners. Over the course of 70 years the Society outgrew the space of this three-story mansion and weren’t able to keep up with structural repairs. New owners are currently renovating and restoring it for use as a private family home.
You’ll notice that other than the fire at Mead Hall, tragedy has eluded these remarkable buildings from our nation’s history. None were torn down or abandoned, burnt to ashes or left to deconstruct on their own. It’s wonderful to know that despite changing economic times and shifting design aesthetics these beautiful old houses are still being cared for by understanding hands. Perhaps with this same level of care and commitment, passion and resourcefulness, fortitude and perseverance they’ll be able to survive another 100, 200 or 300 years. If luck remains on their side they’ll be able to ensure that the story of our country can continue on in a touchable, tangible way for generations to come.
It is said of people that buy old houses, that they are not owners, but instead, stewards. Not of ships or of planes or of trains as the original definition suggests, but stewards instead of houses and history and the humble human spirit who built the heart that beat our country. Cheers to old houses and to the humans who love them!
Do you have a favorite among this batch of houses? If so, share your likes in the comment section below. Ours include #2, #4, and #13!