One hundred ten is a ripe old age, filled with a long history of family, community, joy, sadness, difficult times as well as prosperous; it is an age that my family home has reached this year. The “blue-haired lady” as I like to call her, is really a diamond in the rough, a house that is ready for rebirth and to welcome a new family. The Grande dame I refer to is the Howard A. Cook homestead located on the main street in the village of Southfield. It is with sadness that I now write about the ending of an era, the cleaning out and closing down of my childhood home. The house has seen five generations of the Cook and Stiles families celebrate births, weddings, holidays, and deaths for over a century. Sadly we have to let her go, and she is for sale for the first time in her history.
c: late 1800's
Howard Cook and his siblings grew up in Southfield, in a lovely Federal style house (photo above) built in the early 1800’s by his father, James Monroe Cook. This house, which burned down in the 1960’s, was located on the empty lot between the church and my family home. Southfield was the only place Howard had ever wanted to live, even after all of his travels around the country. He was stepping into the family business of rawhide manufacturing at Turner and Cook, and knew he wanted to stay in his hometown. He married a local girl that grew up in the “Palmer house” (now the home of Joby Baker and Dory Previn) and settled down to raise a family and run the company as its President and Treasurer.
It was in 1898 that H.A. Cook decided to build his own large country house, in an age of splendor and opulence: it was the late Victorian period. He purchased land next door to his father’s house, and set about designing his own home. The place has some of the influence from the Victorian period throughout the interior, but its exterior is not as ornate as early Victorian houses were; it may be considered Folk Victorian or Colonial Revival. Reflecting American patriotism and a desire for simplicity, the Colonial Revival house style remained popular until the mid 1950's and between World War I and II it was the most popular historic revival house style in the United States.
Our house has twelve rooms, not counting the sleeping porch and the one (and only) bathroom on the second floor. Kitchens and bathrooms were small and not a focus for houses built at that time. The lady of our house would not have concerned herself with the kitchen, since she wasn’t going to be spending much time in there – the Cook’s, considered to be wealthy, had servants. The kitchen is very plain and simple; there is an old dumb waiter, as well as a boarded-up china cupboard that once opened from both sides into the dining room from the kitchen. This would be were the maid would pass trays through to the dining room without having to disturb the family. We discovered a button on the floor under the dining table that was used by Mrs. Cook to summons the maid, and her guests would think that the maid just magically appeared exactly when needed. A very long and large pantry connects the kitchen and dining room, another way that servants could come and go with the least amount of intrusion on the family and guests. There is a very steep and narrow back staircase in the kitchen that the family in the early 1900’s would not have used, as this was the staircase the maids would climb to their quarters over the kitchen.
This house was built for entertaining, and that is exactly what they used it for. Howard was a socialite, entrepreneur and industrialist, and had houseguests on a regular basis. Over the years, many fancy parties, weddings and funerals took place. Howard and his wife raised five children in the house, with one daughter having a grand wedding ceremony and reception. Another, who was an accomplished pianist and music teacher, held many recitals at the house. Originally it was only a summer home for the Cooks, who would ‘winter’ in Great Barrington so that all their children could easily attend school at Searle’s Castle. (The drive to Great Barrington was not a simple thing to do at the turn of the century). It also was only used in the summer because when it was first built, there was no electricity in town - a few old gas jets from the pre-electricity days are still visible. My parents, who moved into the house in 1952, also raised five children at the old homestead. We are fortunate to have a pictorial history throughout the one hundred ten years it has been in our family.
All the rooms on the first floor are very large, with high ceilings and windows that still retain the original wavy glass. The formal parlor at the front of the house was always “the music room”: we had a lovely grand Steinway piano where I spent many hours practicing. The Victorian era was noted for heavy dark paneling and moldings; in our dining room, the wainscoting is elegant, and the built-in cupboards with leaded glass panes are impressive. The greatest feature of our home is the wraparound porch; there was always a family member or two to be found sitting on the old porch swing on summer afternoons and evenings. My mom would have buckets of flowers and hanging pots of fuchsias on all three porches of our house. In the front hallway, where a beautiful staircase of carved cherry wood curves up to the second floor, there is a stained glass window – a typical ornamentation in this period – as well as many decorative brass and glass doorknobs. (photos above, c: early 1940's).
The upstairs has five bedrooms, several being very large, which gives the whole house an open and airy feeling, with great light from its many windows. My favorite spot, however, was the sleeping porch. In the Victorian era sleeping porches on the second floor were very common, and were used as a form of air conditioning against the summer heat. I would move out to the sleeping porch every spring, and with its position at the back of the house away from the afternoon sun, it would remain very cool. Three walls of the room were fitted with large screens to let in plenty of fresh air. It was so wonderful to awaken to the morning sun peaking over the mountain and shining into the porch; the air was clean and fresh, and the sounds of the birds and animals of the woods could be heard clearly. I’ll never forget lying in bed watching the stars at night, or the peaceful stillness of those early mornings.
c:1969, shows several of the Elm trees that lined Main Street, which eventually were taken down due to Dutch Elm Disease.
Now the old house is tired and worn out, and in need of tender loving care. We have emptied all the rooms and the realtor’s sign has gone up in the front yard. The first holiday, seeing it dark and empty was quite heart-wrenching, as there have always been family gatherings at this house for over one hundred years. Wandering through the rooms on Christmas Eve with the full moon light shining in every window, I felt very nostalgic for all the past holidays. These memories are my lifetime and the house is part of my heritage, and even when I no longer own it, all the happy times are forever in my heart. When the old blue-haired lady is gone from our family the loss will be felt by all of us, but she will not be lost: someone will bring her back, revive and restore her, so that they can begin their own history and memories of life in the H.A. Cook homestead.
Used as a Christmas Card by Henry Raymond "Bud" Stiles,
the last one to live at the old homestead.
And, the big old wraparound porch hosted many a party throughout the years.
The above photos being the 80th birthday party for my father, Henry Raymond "Bud" Stiles.