The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home by George Howe Colt
The book is 15 years old now but I recently heard about it from Erin Napier, of HGTV fame, when she tweeted that she was reading it. It was a National Book Award Finalist in 2003. Since I love all things historical, architectural, and generational it seemed right up my alley.
First of all, the cover of the book really grabbed me mainly because I’m a big fan of watercolor art. The soft and gentle colors and just the peek of the edge of the house suggest to me a gentle story of lives lived in a beach home. That is exactly what you get.
There is no major drama or suspenseful action going on here. But you do get pulled into the lives of generations of the same extended family that occupied this home for over a century during both the happiest and saddest times of their lives.
The book includes a lot of information you wouldn’t think to find in a memoir. Personal memories, architectural history, travel stories, learnings of how the upper crust of Boston lived and thought, and text that makes you feel like you too are there living in this home for the summer.
What I wished the book had was family photos, a picture of the home, and even a map of the area where the home is. There is so much detail into the way the home looks and the area surrounding it that a map and photos would have been even better to impress upon my mind where the stories were happening and how they connected. But, the fact that these options aren’t available doesn’t really detract from the book. I just like putting faces to names and locations to places.
It made me wish I had a home like this in my family history. That place we all congregate too during the summer and just become one with each other and nature. A place to wash the city off and gaze upon the ocean and let it all go. To be free of expectations. To breathe the salty air. To eat the fresh seafood. One week at the beach isn’t enough. I want a lifetime. Especially after reading this.
In case you are interested there are other reviews, summaries, and tidbits about the book/author linked below:
The New York Times Review
Harvard Magazine: A Family Affair
The Big House’s Oyster House
“The Big House” by MulberryShoots
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.
From 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 an 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.