Give Me a Site With Quirks ...

Personal mementos keep me coming back

There's a lot to like about the 29 National Trust Historic Sites. There's history aplenty, stories about all the people who lived and worked in these places through decades of boom and bust, wars and natural disasters, splendor and shabbiness. There's great architecture, too, offering something to gladden every building-watcher's heart, whether it's fanlights and porticos or carports and glass walls. And sometimes there's something else, a piece of furniture or architectural detail or landscape feature that literally jumps out and rings you like a bell. Those are the discoveries that stick in your mind and claim a spot on your Favorite Things list.

Every time I go to Drayton Hall, I'm blown away by the contrast between the house, all elegant and symmetrical and right-angled, and the surrounding landscape of slow-moving streams, placid marshes, and live oaks hung with languid banners of Spanish moss—a scene so beautiful it would make a great screen saver for God's laptop. But my favorite thing at Drayton Hall isn't the setting; it's a column of penciled notations on the wall of one of the rooms—a growth chart, recording the names and heights of assorted Draytons (including a couple of dogs) at various points in their lives. Among all the wonders of this place, from a stunning plaster ceiling to a cartouche of a fox head peering out from a chimney piece, this bit of graffiti is the thing I'm always most eager to see, the thing that always makes me smile.

I get that same feeling at Lyndhurst. I could write an oratorio about the dining room, one of the grandest Gothic Revival domestic interiors in the country, but what I really like is an outbuilding called Rose Cottage. It has green shingled walls, a white-painted porch, and diamond-paned windows and would be a charming place to live if it weren't so tiny. The cottage was a playhouse for Jay Gould's grandchildren (robber barons had grandkids? Who knew?) and confirms what F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote: The very rich are different from you and me—even when they're very young.

And then there's that lamp in the drawing room of the Woodrow Wilson House. The room is filled with interesting things—a gorgeous tapestry that takes up an entire wall, for instance, and a mosaic portrait of a saint that was a gift from the pope—but the little lamp is what speaks to me. It looks like a one-foot-tall brass cobra poised to strike, but instead of venom-dripping fangs, its mouth has a fringed lampshade hanging from it. The object is both vaguely menacing and totally silly, and as an avid fan of exotic tchotchkes, I'm crazy about it. Edith Wilson bought it in Cairo, and it's a good thing she wasn't shopping with me, because I would've grabbed that lamp long before the former First Lady got her white-gloved hands on it. 

What's so special about a faint roster of names and dates, a diminutive shingled cottage, and an Egyptian souvenir? Here's what: They humanize their settings. The Drayton Hall growth chart is a link to the real flesh-and-blood Draytons who lived in the mansion's now-echoing rooms. Lyndhurst's Rose Cottage translates the hush of high finance into the laughter of kids playing house. At the Wilson House, the cobra lamp offers engaging evidence that while she was turning her home into a shrine to her late husband, Edith Wilson was careful to put pieces of herself on display, too. 

I've never lived in a nationally significant landmark, but in my decidedly non-monumental homes, I've documented my children's growth on the walls and helped them create places where they could have fun in the yard. And I've never been married to a president of the United States, but I've accumulated plenty of what-was-I-thinking travel mementos. That's why these things—growth chart, playhouse, cobra lamp—are favorites: They bring the past alive because they encourage me to recognize something of myself in them. Isn't that what a historic site is supposed to do?     

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