Celebrating the Past
New Hampshire history buffs revel in decking their 1763 home in authentic Colonial fashion for their annual holiday open house.
After moving cross-country to find the Early American home of their dreams, New Hampshire residents welcome guests with a lavish annual open house.
LINDA AND JOE HARRIS
took a big leap four years ago when they sold their home and shop in Albany, Oregon (featured in the September 2009 issue), and moved cross-country in search of a historic New England home. While renting a house in Connecticut, the couple spotted a 1763 Nottingham, New Hampshire, residence for sale online. The structure, known as the Major John Gile House, had all the right attributes. “The minute we saw its fireplaces, I knew we were going to buy it,” Linda recalls.
The history buffs had previously rehabbed two old homes and built a new one in the Pacific Northwest styled after an 18th-century saltbox. Over the years, however, they had traveled extensively throughout New England and decided that was where they’d eventually like to settle. “We knew we wanted a historic home and we’d need to go where we could find the real deal,” Joe says.
After packing up all their belongings and making the long trek eastward, the Harrises got to work unboxing their furnishings and collected treasures as they moved into their newly acquired residence during a Thanksgiving snowstorm. The home was in good shape thanks to the extensive restoration work done by previous owners, but, since taking up residence, the Harrises have found unique ways to enhance its authenticity. “We put our mark on some rooms that hadn’t yet been restored,” Joe recalls.
For example, upon learning that Major Gile, a veteran of the French and Indian Wars and the Revolutionary War, originally built the house as a tavern, the couple hired a local craftsman to build a caged bar alongside what would have been the tavern entrance. Ever mindful of the details, the couple specified that the cage be operational, so it can be pulled down to close off the bar just as it would
have been during the 18th century. The couple also removed a horsehair plaster ceiling in the tavern room to expose the original shimmed and pegged beams.
As a backdrop for the myriad period antiques they have collected over the years, Linda and Joe carefully selected historical paint colors in muted tones when repainting the rooms. In the library, for example, a mushroom hue brings out the paneled fireplace wall. The fireplace in that room once served as a cooking hearth and oven. A previous owner reopened the home’s many fireplaces, which were plastered over during the 19th century after being deemed inefficient.
Not long after moving in, the couple opened a new shop, Pumpkin Hollow Primitives, in an old Maine saltbox on their property. Floral designer Michael Maskery, of The Frugal Flower in nearby Sudbury, Massachusetts, stumbled upon the shop, and he and Linda struck up a friendship, which led to her enlisting his help in decorating her home in a style reminiscent of Colonial Williamsburg for a holiday open house, which they have been hosting since 2015.
In preparation for the annual event, Linda walks Michael through the house to describe what she envisions. “I want the decor to be as authentic as possible, given today’s world,” Linda explains. Some rooms have a simple, elegant holiday aesthetic, such as the front parlor, where the handmade sconces are trimmed with silk ribbon and oversize pinecones, while others get a more lavish treatment, like the garden room’s huge pediment studded with fruits and magnolia leaves. Smaller decor is assembled at the house, but Michael’s team constructs larger pieces off-site before they are transported and secured in place.
Although some spaces feature the same tried-and-true elements from year to year, such as the clove-studded oranges and cinnamon sticks that always grace the butt’ry, most of the time Linda and Michael aim to mix things up when it comes to the holiday trimmings. One thing you’ll never see, however, is a Christmas tree—that holiday icon did not become popular until the 19th century and would not suit the period of the home.
In 2017, the entire two-story house was decorated and opened for viewing, including Major Gile’s bedroom, which Linda and Joe rent as a bed-and-breakfast suite through several online services. The couple has hosted history aficionados from around the world, and they relish the opportunity to share an 18th-century living experience with 21st-century amenities. “Like everyone else who has lived here before us, we are really just caretakers,” Joe explains, noting that the couple feels privileged to be part of the historic home’s story and recognizes that they will one day pass the honor to future generations.
In the butt’ry (more commonly referred to as a buttery today)— a room typically used to store dried foods, herbs and foodstuffs— hydrangea blossoms from Linda’s garden dangle from overhead beams. Assorted utensils, canisters and crocks line the shelves and cabinets, while a whimsical deer figure looks right at home nestled in a bed of greenery.
Linda and Joe add a finishing touch to their outdoor decorations as they prepare for their annual holiday soiree.
Right: Major John Gile’s will guided the Harrises when they worked with a muralist to create an accurate depiction of the property in its early years. The mural includes the dwellings, barn, gristmill, blacksmith shop, cider mill and livestock listed in the inventory of Major Gile’s possessions at the time of his death in 1800.
Below: The Harrises’ new split-rail fence encloses their historic home, a center-chimney 18th-century Colonial. A simple wreath of greens adorned with berries and pinecones dresses up the home’s Nor’easter door (designed to protect the entrance during a storm).