This week we are touring one of New Hampshire’s historic
estates, suffused with the magic of The Christmas season.
New Hampshire is home to many grand estates, often built initially
to serve as summer retreats, allowing the wealthy to escape the bustle and summer
heat of the cities along the east coast.
In the late 19th and early 20th century New
Hampshire farms were failing and the state developed a program to encourage the
purchase of these properties for the establishment of country retreats for the wealthy
inhabitants of the cities. I have
enjoyed exploring Aspet, Saint Gauden’s beautiful artist retreat, in Cornish
New Hampshire, and the Castle in the Clouds overlooking Lake Winnipesaukee. These homes are always much more than simple
cabins in the woods and reflect a surprising level of opulence. Most are now preserved through the efforts of
private foundations or the government. This
fall friends brought us to the Fells, another beautiful example of a New Hampshire
retreat, created by statesman and author John Hay.
|Aspet, Cornish NH|
John Milton Hay
|Nicolay, Lincoln, Hay (standing)|
John Milton Hay was born in 1838. His life-long career of public service
started during the Civil War when he was assistant private secretary to Abraham
Lincoln. He was at Lincoln’s deathbed
following his assignation. Hay was a
poet and author, having joined with fellow Lincoln secretary, John Nicolay, to
write a definitive biography of our 16th president.
|John Milton Hay|
an advisor to president James Garfield and served as Ambassador to Great
Britain, and Secretary of State to both William McKinley and Theodore
Roosevelt. He was instrumental in
the securing of the Panama Canal Zone and negotiated the Open-Door Policy, which
kept China open to trade with all nations.
In the late 1800s Hay secretly began buying up old farms in
New Hampshire for a summer retreat. The
Fells is located on nearly 1,000 acres along the eastern side of Lake Sunapee
in Newbury New Hampshire and is named for the Scottish word referring to highland
pastures. The property’s wildlife
preserve and an extensive tail system are now managed by the Society for the Protection
of New Hampshire Forests and the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
The Estate includes a house which was built 1891
by John Hay and later expanded and refurbished by Hay’s son Clarence, and his
wife Alice Appleton Hay. The house and 84
acres of surrounding gardens are now owned and lovingly managed by a private
John Hay died of a stroke at the Fells in 1905 and the
property passed to his only surviving son Clarence. From 1906 through the 1930s Clarence and
Alice expanded and remodeled the house.
|Rock Garden View to the Lak|
They developed the grounds, transforming rock
strewn sheep pastures into formal gardens.
In 1929 Clarence oversaw the construction of large rock garden facing
the open corridor to the lake. This
corridor allows the only view to Lake Sunapee.
Clarence and Alice disliked the disruptive motor boats on the lake and
allowed the forest to grow in, obstructing all but this narrow window on the
Christmas at the Fells
Susan and I first visited the Fells in November 2016 on the
occasion of their “Annual Christmas at
the Fells”. We couldn’t have picked a
better time to see the house in its best light.
During Christmas at the Fells, each room of the estate was decorated for
the season by a different designer. Each
room displayed a different flavor of the holiday, but they were all beautifully
dressed. For me, the best part was that
photography was allowed throughout the house.
I ran around like a child in a candy shop. I didn’t feel comfortable dragging a tripod
through the house, so I did the best I could with my monopod/cane. It has been six months since my hip
replacement and I no long needed the cane but occasionally it is a useful prop.
In the close quarters, I shot mostly with my 16-35 wide angle
lens. There was bright sun shining
through the windows, but I often managed hand-held multiple exposure captures
to assemble into HDR images showing the full range of brightness.
Even with the elaborate decorations, it was clear that the
Hay family maintained the Fells as a quiet haven to rest and recharge from
lives filled with action, duty and struggle. I was entranced as I wandered through this
historic home, and felt transported back to the early 20th
Most of the furnishings and
decorations were far from the originals, but I could still feel a
presence. This sense of history was
enhanced by the personal items that remained, including a captivating portrait
of Alice Appleton Hay in the library. Clarence
died in 1967, but Alice continued to summer at the Fells until her death at the
age of 92 in 1987.
|Alice Appleton Hay|
|Our Fells Tree at Home|
Every room in the house seemed to have its own Christmas
tree and the volunteers at the Fells elaborately decorated their own tree offering
it as a prize for a raffle. This never
happens, but we actually won the tree, and it is now proudly in our
Since this is an article about Christmas at the Fells, I
felt compelled to return to Sunapee to capture the house in the snow. It was a lovely clear winter day. The house is closed during the winter, but
the grounds are always open. I strolled
the ¼ mile road and then circled the house shooting from all angles as I
trudged through the knee-deep snow. On
my way back, I stopped at the Gate House office for chat with the staff. They were extremely helpful and gave me more
information about the estate and the family that created this special
retreat. I look forward to returning to
the Fells in the spring and summer to see its gardens and walk the trails
through the John Hay Wildlife Refuge.
|The Fells Gate House|
For more information about the Fells, check out their website:
Jeff Newcomer, NEPG