Peep These Historic Love Nests

In honor of Valentine’s Day, we rounded up a trio of homes where famous romances unfolded (or imploded).

By Sarah Stebbins
From our February 2022 issue
Hamilton House, South Berwick, Maine
Courtesy of Historic New England

Hamilton House, South Berwick

Early in the Revolutionary War, patriot Mary Hamilton was looking out an arched drawing-room window in her family’s grand Georgian home when she saw her loyalist paramour, Roger Wallingford, step out from behind a grove of lilacs. She rushed out to meet him by the bank of the Salmon Falls River, where he declared, “I am here to show you how much I love you, though you think that I have been putting you to shame” — and he vowed to join the American cause the next day. The fictional drama in Sarah Orne Jewett’s 1901 The Tory Lover unfolds at Hamilton House, in South Berwick, built around 1785 for shipping merchant Jonathan Hamilton. Jewett, who lived in a 1774 Georgian nearby, had long been enamored of the home. When it deteriorated in the 1890s, she convinced a wealthy friend to restore it. Her drawing-room scene describes the place as imbued with “the salt scent of the tide and the fragrance of the upland pasture and pine woods.”

Shurtleff House, Kittery, Maine
Courtesy of Portsmouth Athenaeum

Shurtleff House, Kittery

Impressionist painter Russell Cheney was bound for Venice and scholar and literary critic F.O. Matthiessen for Oxford when they met on an ocean liner, in 1924. Over the next 20 years, they exchanged more than 3,000 letters, using the nicknames “Rat” and “Devil.” “Marriage! What a strange word to be applied to two men!” Matthiessen/Devil exclaimed in an early note. “Can’t you hear the hell-hounds of society baying full pursuit behind us?” So the two maintained a romantic partnership “beyond society,” spending summers with their more than half a dozen cats at Kittery’s 1790 Shurtleff House, which they purchased in 1930. Cheney became a local fixture, painting houses, people, and seascapes en plein air, and eventually lived year-round in the cottage, where he died in 1945. Devastated, Matthiessen committed suicide five years later. “I am fortunate in having found the right place for me to paint,” Cheney wrote, “and to forget the urge to be somewhere else.”

Briarcliffe, Bar Harbor, Maine
Courtesy of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission

Briarcliffe, Bar Harbor

When socialites Evalyn and Ned McLean wed in 1908, their parents gave them $200,000 for a three-month honeymoon in Europe and the Middle East — also, Briarcliffe, an 1881 Shingle-style mansion on Bar Harbor’s Shore Path. Designed by architect William Ralph Emerson for real-estate investor J. Montgomery Sears, the home had been rented by John D. Rockefeller Jr. The McLeans added a bowling alley, a ballroom with murals of the Bay of Naples, and a nursery suite, and they hosted lavish parties. Their lives and marriage deteriorated after they purchased the supposedly cursed Hope Diamond in 1911. In 1918, their 9-year-old son was killed by a car; in 1929, Ned left Evalyn for another woman. Evalyn had him committed to an insane asylum in 1933, where he purportedly danced the hokey-pokey with Zelda Fitzgerald and later died. Their daughter succumbed to a drug overdose in 1946, and Evalyn died the following year — reportedly while wearing the Hope Diamond. The house was torn down in 1968.

May 2024, Down East Magazine

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