Amherst Historical Society’s historic home tour a great way to enjoy an autumn day Reply

The Simeon Strong House, home of the Amherst Historical Society and Museum.

The Simeon Strong House, home of the Amherst Historical Society and Museum.

Over the weekend I went on an historic house tour put together by the Amherst Historical Society and sponsored by my office, which was how I was able to obtain a couple of free tickets.   The tour consisted of 6 homes that included several of Victorian era, an 18th century home that was later “married” to a newer home in the early 19th century, a mid-20th century home that is the residence of a college president, and one that was described in the brochure as a “saltbox” that was neither a saltbox nor historic, but was a nice contemporary nevertheless. 

The tour started on Montague Road in North Amherst.  So after enjoying breakfast at Cushman Market, which is also an historic building where there has been a market in one form or another since the 1800’s, we headed over to the first house.  It was a 125-year-old Queen Anne that, “was built in 1888 for Eugene Oliver Puffer by his father Stephen Puffer…on a stone foundation that had originally been in the Cowls family.”

We then drove through the UMass campus to Chestnut Street where we visited a spacious contemporary with a passive solar design.  It was set well back from the road.  As we approached the house, what looked like an ideal spot to park read, “Don’t even think of parking here.”   Fortunately, we didn’t have to as we parked on the road as a sign at the end of the street instructed us to do.   The house was nice, but the access was limited.  It was nice of the owner to open her home, regardless.  The Amherst Historical Society’s brochure stated that the house was built in 1981, which begged an obvious question that I didn’t care to ask.  I was tempted to educate them about saltbox style homes as well.

The Lessey-Stockbridge house.

The Lessey-Stockbridge house.

A grand Italianate-style home on Lessey Street was the third house of our Saturday tour. The brochure didn’t describe this homes architecture as Italianate, but the brackets under the eaves were a tell-tale indicator.  It boasted towering ceilings on the first floor with two more stories of living space above it.  The adjacent carriage house had been converted to a garage.  The brochure referred to this home as the Lessey-Stockbridge House, which was named as such because Charles Lessey built it in 1870 and Levi Stockbridge bought it 1886.  Both names are significant to the history of Amherst and the brochure offered a brief history of both men.

“Charles Lessey came to Amherst in 1865,” the brochure reads. “He was active in the civic life of the community and worked as a building contractor for the First Church, Grace Church, Walker Hall, Palmer’s Block and many homes.”

Interestingly, I spoke with one of the owners of this home who was kind enough to bring me down to the basement. As a former archaeologist, the basements are most interesting part of historic homes.  Especially if they still have a dirt floor.  This one didn’t, but it was the only basement that I was allowed to check out on the tour.  Anyway, he told me that he was involved with a couple of town committees.  He was involved in civic life just as the original owner was.

“The house was purchased from Lessey’s widow in 1886 by Levi Stockbridge.  Stockbridge was a farmer and agricultural scientist from Hadley who was instrumental in the early history of the University of Massachusetts and became its fifth President.”

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Mabel Loomis Todd’s house and book about her affair with Emily Dickinson’s brother. Mabel was the founder of the Amherst Historical Association.

Another Queen Anne style home from the late 1880’s was the fourth house on the tour.  This house was probably the most interesting because of the story behind it.  It was the home of Mabel Loomis Todd, who was the founder of the Amherst Historical Society and published Emily Dickinson’s poems after her death.  But that isn’t what many find about Mabel Loomis Todd so interesting.  She also carried on a scandalous affair with the brother of Emily.  Austin Dickinson was Mabel’s father’s age.  The book about their affair was described by one of the house sitters on the tour as a real “corset buster”.

I enjoyed this house the most.  Not because of the scandalous story, but for the wood details.  It was the kind of house that could be used as the setting for a tv show.

The current location of this home is not the original location.  According to the brochure, the Todd’s sold the house in 1898. “That same year, Senator George B. Churchill came to teach rhetoric at Amherst College, “the brochure stated. “He moved the Todd House from its original location to its current site on the other side of Spring Street and in 1907 built his house, called ‘The Dell’…on the site.”  The Dell is currently the offices of the Five Colleges, Inc.

The tour concluded in South Amherst, where the oldest house on the tour is located.  The Nathanial Colman House is a Georgian style colonial with Federal style updates that sits across the street from the South Amherst town common and the original portion of the home dates back to 1742.  The stairs upstairs are narrow and steep and the floor boards are wide planks.

“Coleman (1709-1792) was from Hatfield and settled in Amherst for the opportunity the community offered,” the brochure offered. “In addition to being the family home, it may have been used as a tavern as Nathanial Coleman was licensed to sell liquor in 1761 and 1762. ‘Cider Brandy‘ was his specialty.”

The house sitter said that the back part of the house, where the kitchen is located, was relocated from an unknown location in the 1820’s.  However, she didn’t know when that home was built before it was “married” to the Nathanial Coleman House.  When I left, she told me that she would have an answer for me regarding the provenance of the addition.

Another interesting story about this South Amherst home was that the stepping stone at the entrance is “rumored” to have originally been from Conkey Tavern in Pelham, which was a gathering place of those who participated in Shays’ Rebellion.

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Looking out the window from the Hampshire College president’s house, a Colonial Revival that has been mistaken for a Victorian.

The final house on the tour was across the street.  It is the residence of the president of Hampshire College, which is currently Jonathan Lash.   The house was built in 1939 and is owned by the college, according to the Multiple Listing Service public records tool, which also mistakenly describes it as a Victorian-style house, as does the town’s official record of the property.  Victorian-style houses are a general term for the design of houses built during the reign of Queen Victoria, who died in 1901.  I would characterize this home as more closely associated with the Colonial Revival tradition.

Regardless, this brick house sits on just over 5 acres of land and boasts a magnificent pastoral view that includes the Mount Holyoke Range.   In addition to serving as the residence of the Hampshire College president, it is also used to host visiting dignitaries and other VIPs.  Hanging in the dining room was a quilt that one of the historical association’s house sitters told me was made from old ties and smoking jackets owned by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  She said that Lash’s father was one of his biographers.

At the conclusion of our tour, we headed over to the Amherst Historical Association’s building next to the Jones Library in the Georgian-style building known as the Simeon Strong House.  Our tour included a raffle ticket drawing and we bought a few more as there was an old framed map of Amherst that I was interested in winning.

The woman that was house sitting at the Nathanial Coleman House arrived as I was talking to the woman selling raffle tickets.  She told her that I asked a lot of questions.  However, she didn’t have the answer about the addition of the old South Amherst home that she said she would have the next time she saw me.

All things considered, it was a nice way to spend a couple of hours on a beautiful autumn day.

 If you are planning on buying or selling a home in the Pioneer Valley, make your first call to Michael Seward at 413-531-7129. Michael Seward is a Certified Residential Specialist, a Certified Buyers Agent, a Certified Loss Mitigation Specialist, a Certified New Homes Specialist, and Green designee of the National Association of REALTORS®.

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