Artful Escape

Take a tour of the fabled Cornish Colony, home to some of New England’s finest treasures, and a magnet for painters, sculptors, and architects

Cornish
?The mountain was a popular subject for artists, including Edith Prellwitz, who depicted it in this ?triptych in 1898.

Credit: ?Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site

Twenty years ago, when my husband, three children, and I moved to Cornish, N.H., from New York City, I knew our new home was a place of stunning natural beauty. My in-laws lived nearby, and we'd visited often—especially in the autumn, when the upper valley was ablaze with sugar maples and red oaks. What I didn't anticipate was the impact that this region's historic and artistic heritage would have on me as a full-time resident.

In the 1870s my husband's great grandfather, William M. Evarts, and great-uncle, Charles Beaman, bought farmland in Cornish and across the Connecticut River in Windsor, Vt., hoping to spend quiet summers and unwind from their hectic urban lives.

At their invitation, some of the nation's finest artists visited: friends like sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, illustrator Maxfield Parrish, poet Emma Lazarus ("Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free ..."), and architect and graphic artist Charles Platt. All came to Cornish to experience the extraordinary natural beauty Evarts and Beaman extolled. By the 1890s, they'd returned often and established households here, making up what is now known as the Cornish Colony—a rare confluence of talent, privilege, and taste in a remote corner of New England.

The visitors forged powerful bonds with the full-time residents of this valley and embraced the traditions prized in this part of the world. Townspeople became the models for many of the artists. They performed together in original plays on what New York society writers called "the most beautiful stage north of Boston." Mothers and daughters worked together in one of the first "women's clubs" in the country, producing handcrafted rugs and bedspreads that were sold nationwide.

Those of us who live here today, more than 120 years later, know the importance of the artwork, architecture, and history they left behind—and we preserve them. You can experience this legacy on any autumn weekend. To drive these roads and visit the area's notable sites is to savor some of the best-preserved regional delicacies in the country. It's a weekend trip through another time.

One of the most delightful ways to begin this journey is to travel on Rte. 12A through Plainfield, N.H., just south of the junction of I-91 and I-89.

(Before you get too comfortable, make a quick stop at Edgewater Farm and MacNamara Dairy. You'll find the most succulent fresh fruits and vegetables in the area, plus local cheese, bread, milk, eggs, and maple syrup.)

Drive toward the village of Plainfield along Puckerpod Swamp and the forests of tall pines until, rather suddenly, you emerge at the top of a hill with a sweeping view of Vermont's Mount Ascutney. You'll instantly appreciate how surprising the landscape can be here (and why those who come to visit often decide to stay).

As you enter the village of Plainfield, look for the Mothers' and Daughters' Club on your left, designed and built in 1901 by Charles Platt, who was also prominent as a landscape planner. This building, like the other architectural gems in these towns, has been carefully preserved.

Now drive two buildings down to the Plainfield town hall, another preservation success story. Built in 1798, it was moved to its current location in 1846. When the town mounted a production of The Woodland Princess in 1916, Maxfield Parrish (whose paintings illustrated such magazines as Collier's, Scribner's, and Century) designed an extraordinary set for the stage, and his backdrop, panels, overhead drapes, and complete lighting design have survived intact.

Both the stage set and town hall exist thanks to the support of the local community and the leadership of town librarian Nancy Norwalk and preservationist Beverly Widger. Due in part to their commitment, experts tested paint layers in the main hall, and determined the actual colors used in 1916. These now appear on wainscoting and plaster walls, where they enhance the experience of the stage set as Parrish intended.

When you leave the town hall, turn left and drive about three miles to the Cornish town line. Take the hairpin left-hand turn up the hill and follow signs to the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, operated by the National Park Service.

Now take a deep breath and look around at one of the most impeccably maintained national historic sites in the country. You'll want to spend plenty of time learning about the accomplishments of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, whose masterworks in public parks and museums around the country are likely to seem familiar.

His estate includes an imposing house (check out the quirky chimneys), two studios, the visitors center, and spectacular lawns with views of Mount Ascutney. In the fall, the incredible gardens are full of New England asters. Wander through the groves and old hedges to find several Saint-Gaudens masterpieces. Sit with these magnificent sculptures for any length of time (my favorite may be the Shaw Memorial, depicting the soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment following Col. Robert Gould Shaw to war) and your view of the world will change. Saint-Gaudens' ability to capture what is most noble and most vulnerable about his subjects is deeply moving. Appreciating his works here, in his private retreat, always leaves me conscious of how fleeting life is, and how lasting art can make it seem.

Inside the studio buildings, look for more masterpieces, from the gold coins Saint-Gaudens designed for the U.S. Treasury to his beautiful Diana, sculpted for the tower atop Stanford White's Madison Square Garden in New York City.

You can view films about the sculptor and his work in the visitors center, tour the house (renovated by Saint-Gaudens' friend George Babb), enjoy the startling panorama of the mountains captured from the west porch, walk the meadow bordered by an allee of birch trees, or take a sculpting class with an artist-in-residence on selected Saturdays. The Saint-Gaudens site epitomizes the heritage of the Cornish Colony and the region: The vistas and setting are just as inspirational as the art.

Say goodbye to New Hampshire by heading south and west over the Cornish-Windsor Covered Bridge, the longest in the United States and the longest two-span wooden covered bridge in the world. The bridge was designed in 1866, then repaired painstakingly (according to the original methods) beginning in 1989, after its century-old timbers began to show signs of wear.

On the far side, in Windsor, Vt., the Cornish Colony Museum displays a fine collection of art from prominent Cornish Colony artists. Painters Maxfield Parrish, Willard Metcalf, William Henry Hyde, Edith Prellwitz, Henry Prellwitz, Stephen Parrish, William Zorach, Bessie Potter Vonnoh, and Robert Vonnoh are represented in the current exhibition, and you'll also find works by Frederic Remington and Albert Bierstadt. The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., has works by Cornish Colony artists on permanent display, but the museum in Windsor provides a rare chance to view works from private collections.

There is more to see: the mural of Pilgrim women, designed for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, that now hangs in Plainfield's Grange; and the handsome Blow-Me-Down Mill designed by Joseph Wells of McKim, Mead and White, on Route 12A—to name just two. Both are within 15 minutes of Windsor and easily visited over a weekend.

If you yearn for color this fall, follow the example of the Cornish Colony artists who returned to this valley year after year in search of history and inspiration. Like them, you'll find a distinctly American crossroads of artistic and historic heritage within a region of unchanging natural beauty. 

If you go ... a few tips from our editors

For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.