After a three year renovation, the home of famous authors Louisa May Alcott, Nathanial Hawthorne and Margaret Sidney is finally open! I recently toured the house and was allowed to take pictures of each room, some of which I will share in this post.
The force behind the preservation of the home
Sidney (aka Harriet Lothrop of The Five Peppers series) is the mother of Margaret Lothrop, author of The Wayside: Home of Authors (which you can read online) originally published in 1940. After her mother passed away in 1924, Lothrop sought to preserve The Wayside which had housed such luminary authors. She opened the home to visitors and eventually sold the property to the National Park Service in 1965 after succeeding in 1963 in having the home declared a National Historic Landmark.
Voices of the Alcotts
The portion of The Wayside devoted to the Alcotts contains many passages from previously unpublished journal entries by Bronson and daughter Elizabeth; Lizzie had kept a detailed record, mentioning games, names of neighborhood children, duties performed and different little trips taken by the family to Walden and surrounding areas.
Bronson as artist
Lothrop describes Bronson as a philosopher who loved the defenseless and believed that education “should fit the individual for the joy of independent thought.” She recalled Alcott’s failed attempt at Utopia with Charles Lane at Fruitlands and how the family came to acquire the old Cogswell house, dubbing it “Hillside.”
She went on to describe how Alcott beautified Hillside first through his vegetable and flower gardens, stone walls and terraces, and then through various structures such as the arbor or summer house, built on one of the terraces. Alcott loved creating beauty and function in and around his home (including shower/bathing system in one of the additions to the house that even young Elizabeth could use on her own, and the creation of a small reservoir in the field across the street complete with a “rustic structure, for Bathing, and an alcove for retreating from the summer heat and rains” – Bronson in his journal). His appreciation of beauty and his way of approaching these projects as future works of art demonstrate a link between him and his youngest daughter May’s artistic talent.
Emerson was so taken with Alcott’s rustic structure that he commissioned Bronson to build a similar retreat for him on his property for a stipend of $50. Needless to say it was the subject of town gossip for months to come.
Father and daughter gardening together
Bronson took great pains with his gardening and wrote extensively on it in his journals. All of the children helped out with Elizabeth enjoying it the most. Recently I came across a journal passage from Bronson dated June 1, 1846 where he describes his pleasure in working side by side with Lizzie in the garden. Her love of gardening is expressed in her own journal. I have often thought that the communication between Bronson and Elizabeth was more non-verbal, expressing their affection for each other through their actions. Bronson’s warm pleasure in gardening with his daughter is evident in the short journal entry.
The beloved room of her own
Bronson, with help from neighbors, expanded the size of the house by cutting a separate structure (the wheelwright’s shop) in half and adding it to either end of the house. The eastern end became the aforementioned bathhouse (with storage for wood) while the western end housed Bronson’s study where he did his reading and study, and educated his children. There were also two small rooms in the back providing Louisa and Anna with their cherished private rooms. Louisa’s room unfortunately no longer exists due to the addition of the tower by the Hawthorne’s but the window delineates the location of the room (where evidence of the door to the garden which Louisa wrote about, exists).
The Pilgrim’s Progress staircase
One of the biggest thrills was seeing the actual staircase where the Alcott girls played Pilgrim’s Progress, carrying their burdens on their backs up and down the narrow stairs, as mentioned in Little Women. Across from the stairs is a bay window which used to be the front door to the home. Lothrop writes,
“One of their diversions was to listen to a story, and then to enact what they had heard. Christian, in Pilgrim’s Progress, was a favorite character whose adventures they imitated. Louisa has described in Little Women the girls’ journeys on the terraces, through the house, and up to the flat roof – the ‘Celestial City,’ – where they ‘sang for joy in the sunshine.’”
Lothrop’s write-up in The Wayside is sanitized, barely mentioning the financial trouble of the family, Abba’s anxieties and Bronson’s struggle back from the profound failure of Fruitlands. But it does paint a lovely portrait of the happiest times in Louisa’s life and that of her sisters. The presence of the family is palpable in the rambling old house – it is a pilgrimage to visit there.
p.s. Have you listened to the latest episode of Louisa May Alcott is My Passion: The Podcast! yet? Hear interviews from some of the leading Alcott scholars including Pulitzer prize-winning author John Matteson at the recent Summer Conversational Series on iTunes and also here.
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