I often get asked if I am related to the family in “The Big House” which is a memoir of life on Cape Cod written by George Colt. The short answer is yes. Mary Forbes Atkinson Colt was my grandmother, and George is my first cousin. The central tension of the wonderful book is what will happen to the house, and (spoiler alert!) the great news is that it remained in my family, purchased from my grandmother’s estate by one of my first cousins.
The house was is a state of advanced disrepair when that transition happened, more than ten years ago now. My cousin Forbes and her husband David totally renovated the place. There are many parallels to their process and my purchase of the Woods Hole Inn, not the least of which is the vast amount of work that was needed to bring the structure up to modern building code. Packed with family and friends all summer, I’m sure they sometimes feel like they are running a B&B.
The house is sited in the most wonderful spot on Wings Neck with incredible views of Buzzards Bay. The porch looks over Bassett’s Island; my grandmother called it the verandah. She also pronounced Miami “Mee-ahhmee” and made mayonnaise three syllables (“my-on-aisse”) in a vaguely french manner with a dramatic sss at the end. She and my grandfather dressed in black tie every night for dinner, although by the time I came along this garb from another era was rather tattered, and I had a childish hunch that they were actors in a play I didn’t quite understand. Think Arthur Miller and you have insights that you will learn more about in George’s excellent memoir.
One of the best things about moving to Cape Cod last year was that my father’s older sister Ellen was living at the Big House. I would drive out on Sundays to visit her, and she would fill me with stories about her parents, her life, her childhood on Wings Neck. She remembered my father as a toddler, all blonde curls and little boy giggles, lolling like a puppy in her mother’s bed.
Aunt Ellen was more bookish, she told me, and sometimes felt as if she did not fit in with the other four athletic siblings. She loved playing the harp, and came of age as a teenager in the middle of World War II. Her nineteen-year-old brother Harry was missing in action for over six weeks, during which time they all thought he was dead, but he miraculously returned from the war unscathed. I can only imagine her life as a young person in such tumultuous times.
Ellen battled cancer for 20+ years, and the rumors of her demise had been unfounded for so long, I came to feel she would be with me forever. Even her wonderful nurses seemed prepared to be with her out on the Neck for the rest of time.
Sadly, my Aunt Ellen died in the spring of 2011. How lucky I decided to come to the Cape when I did! I was so blessed to get a winter’s worth of visits before she wandered up to join my Dad. At her service, the most poignant moment was her son’s description of the nurses bathing her in ocean water so she could fall asleep with the tight feeling of salt on her skin as she had done in childhood.
So that is the short answer, and in classic Colt fashion, it’s a decent story but it’s not very short:) If you want more about the Big House, you can see my previous post on this subject here.
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This week, construction began on the new rooms at the Woods Hole Inn. With a crew of five demolition experts, the walls came down on the top floor revealing the majesty of a high-ceilinged space with amazing light and great views…when you can see through the construction dust that is.
Franko and the boys arrived Tuesday with crowbars and mallets to pound it out. Electricians stripped back the wires and a plumber came in to unhook the old claw foot tub. We pulled as much moulding as we could so we can re-use it as we put the place back together again.
I snuck in the day before they arrived and took some “before” photos. Inn guests happily ensconced in the lap of luxury two stories below would be shocked by the state of affairs up here. The windows were blown out and boarded up after various storms years ago. There was a rabbit warren of tiny rooms, accessed by a barn-like stairway. One bath for maybe 10 cubby-sized spaces, some only big enough for a bed roll.
I have met a few people who lived up here summers in the 70s and earlier, but I don’t think it has been habitable for maybe thirty years now. One former waitress at the Landfall told me she paid $25 per week. Another former resident bragged that a lot of pot was smoked up here, back in the sixties when Woods Hole was a real hippie hang out.
The Woods Hole Inn was more flophouse than eco-destination at that point. Summer college kids slummed it with the former chauffeurs of Penzance Point estates and other retired alcoholics. One man told me his mother advised he run past the building, as there were often “unsavory characters” on the front stoop.
Here are a few photos of what it looked like just before the demo crew showed up:
It’s was really hard to photograph because the rooms were small and dark. We had already done some minor demo three years ago while renovating other parts of the building. On top of that, it appears that the piles of old air conditioners were mating with the dusty artificial Christmas trees, or something like that. That the debris was replicating in the dark is the only explanation I can come up for why the junk seemed to grow larger each time I ventured up.
But after three days with a sledgehammer, you could see the old lathe and look through walls to the windows beyond, Cape light streaming in and promising a better future. Franko told me they had found some really old work boots (see above) and other debris — fell down from the ceilings he said. A couple of really vintage brandy bottles, a pair of cotton spats with little hooks for covering the calves when riding (?), a tiny wooden sailboat-toy painted a matte blue, a dusty old stuffed kitty long forgotten by it’s childish master.
I am working on an exhibit of artifacts to trace the history of the inn. Any input from people who know more than I do would be greatly appreciated. The final will be on display in the lobby next summer so come take a look. And come back to this blog for more posts about our progress. The expected completion is spring 2012 when the Inn will re-open with 14 new rooms and suites. See you then!
One of the most unique things about Woods Hole is it’s collection of houseboats. See, most of Woods Hole is right on the water. Look at a map and you will see that we are on a peninsula of a peninsula of a peninsula, literally the last little strip of land on the southwestern edge of Cape Cod.
Just like Provincetown, only on the other end of the Cape and a lot less campy.
Anyway, the summer months are so precious here (rents go up by a factor of 10x) that it’s tempting to rent your regular house for a few weeks and earn enough to pay the mortgage all winter. But then where do you go? For generations, people moved out to their boats for a few months but, back in the 1970s, locals got clever and started building cabins on rafts and the Woods Hole houseboat phenomena was born.
People take day trips from the Vineyard, Chatham and Nantucket to tour the harbor and look at the charming house boats (it helps that some of the best fishing on the east coast is right here as well).
Every spring, the drawbridge in Woods Hole is occupied with the migration of the houses from their winter gam in Eel Pond, a slow march out to their spectacular perches looking out over all of Woods Hole. Perilously close to the multi-million dollar houses of Penzance Point, these tiny house boats have some of the most spectacular views in town…plus no need for air conditioning as out on the water, it’s breezy and cool most days. The tides that rip through Woods Hole keep the water super clean (but don’t fall overboard after dark as the current could whisk you away). I think there are about 25 of them; new ones have been banned but the existing versions are grandfathered.
At the Woods Hole Inn, guests like to watch the house boats at sunset from our front deck. A pitcher of Cape Cod beer and a comfortable chair with this view? Add a lobster taco and now you are smiling. Pretty special.
We have even considered owning one and offering it as a watery room option. It’s a short row back to dinner at the Landfall or ahi-tuna burritos at Quicks Hole. In the morning, get your New York Times, hot coffee and a popover at Pie in the Sky? Would you like to stay out in water world? Can you handle the rush of the current and the wind swinging your oversized hammock over the bay? Can you live without wifi for a night or two?
Glamorous camping is called “glamping.” Are you up for it? Comments please…
If you live here you come to dread the relentless question — “How do I get to Martha’s Vineyard”? I’m told that a favorite Falmouth joke is to give directions to the bridge. You know, the bridge to Martha’s Vineyard? It’s right down there, near the house boats. You’ll find it, just keep looking:)
This little town is completely surrounded by water.
Woods Hole is one of the few good harbors on Cape Cod — it was a whaling port like Nantucket back in Melville’s time. In the 1860s, the peninsula was developed as a fertilizer factory. Shipping merchants from Boston were looking for a commodity to fill empty ships on the journey back from China. They settled on bird dung from a South Pacific island. When mixed with fish scraps, I guess the lime was an effective agricultural aid (is that organic?). This fine brew was shipped by railroad out of Woods Hole. I bet that smelled great on hot days.
Anyway, eventually the company literally emptied all the bird guano from their island, and the Woods Hole site was abandoned in 1889. So what happens to old factory land in America? Build a resort, of course! The thin strip was renamed “Penzance Point” (that sounds better than, say, Former Guano Factory:) Smack in the middle of the Gilded Age, (think “Gatsby”), up went Newport-style mansions. Most of these shingle-style cottages are still here, behemoths perched on the edge of the sea with spectacular water views with the great grandkids of their builders still racing to Hadley Harbor in 12-footers.
Around this time, a strong-minded local decided to improve the sound of things by renaming the town, “Woods Holl.” This had “a sylvan and romantic flavor…suggest(ing) moonlit glades and flowery dells” according to the New York Times in 1899 — and was better than the somewhat crass “Hole,” I guess. Perhaps the locals were hoping to disassociate themselves with the memory of a factory town that smelled like bird *@#%. But whatever the reason, the affectation did not stick for long. People couldn’t spell it or say it, letters to the post office were lost and with little fanfare, the name was changed back.
So here we are now, living in this little slice of heaven that I call WoHo. It’s like SoHo, only cooler (literally — there is always a breeze). I wonder what it would take to get that name on the post office door…