There’s some time-worn saying about the fact that most New Yorkers have never visited the Empire State Building, and in some manner, this holds true for many of us who reside near an architectural treasure. I live in the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts, which frames the Connecticut River as it flows southward to Hartford. It’s a place steeped in history and home to one of the most impressive collections of 18th- and early 19th-century houses: Historic Deerfield.
You’d think I would have noticed.
Perhaps it’s due to being a New Englander – we’re sort of accustomed to seeing houses that are 200-250 years old dotting the landscape; yep, Ye Olde Federal Tavern in Sturbridge now serves espresso with a side of free Wi-Fi. We take post-and-beam construction for granted, just like those bright red sugar maple leaves that draw the rest of you up here every autumn.
Historic Deerfield is no more than 20 minutes from my home. I’ve traveled farther for beer, and yet in the 23 years I’ve lived here, I’ve roamed its streets no more than half a dozen times. Typically, my trips were initiated by the arrival of out-of-town guests who were eagerly anticipating a visit, and I would dutifully escort them up US-5 until we turned left at the small brown and white sign.
Earlier this week, errands took me by the entrance of Historic Deerfield, so I diverted and spent some time just cruising about. It’s really an amazing place: rarely do you get to compare and contrast so many subtle nuances of early American architecture (and interiors, if you’re so inclined, as the museum complex includes several houses whose interiors are available for viewing). There are gambrel-roofed Georgians, Saltboxes and Federals all lined up on an original road. Brick façades reside next to hand-split clapboards; the latter are painted in historically accurate hues or left to weather. The variation in porticos alone could fill a textbook for historic preservation majors.
Once you get past the smorgasbord of styles, closer study reveals an abundance of architectural details seldom seen in such number. Striking in its simplicity is a broad, two-plank front door with exposed nail-heads driven into cleats, and the crude split-rail fence at another dwelling reveals the evolution of fencing. This is to say nothing of fanlights, door and window casings or even drop finials on a garrison. It’s all there; you could walk a novice around and point out almost every variation of New England architecture.
I don’t mean to sound gushy or promotional; it’s more that instead of my usually blasé acknowledgement of our indigenous antique houses, I was able to regard Historic Deerfield with fresh eyes and appreciate it for the remarkable architectural resource that it is. I suppose this is true with many museums: after a three- or four-year absence, a return visit, coupled with one’s accumulated knowledge from visiting other sites, exposes yet more information and insight.