Visiting The Fells: John Hay's Home And Gardens

Submitted 2 years ago
Created by
Susan B. Apel

He loved this area in which we live. John Hay, friend and secretary to Abraham Lincoln, Secretary of State to Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, purchased 1,000 acres in Newbury NH and named it The Fells. He died at home there in 1905 at the tender age of 66.

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As it happens, my husband's family once gave us a rocking chair that had belonged to John Hay, in which my husband sits each evening to watch the news. That was among the reasons we finally, after making many promises to do so, headed our pickup truck south to visit this historic property. It's a mere half hour's drive from the center of the Upper Valley. 

Sited directly across from the home's entrance

A five minute walk through the woods leads you to the Colonial Revival house, which is beautiful but not grand, a little reminiscent of Hildene, the summer home of Robert Lincoln in Manchester VT. A docent told us how the property, after it was orphaned by the death of the last family member, fell into disrepair as it passed through several hands, including those of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. An army of local volunteers took up the task of saving and restoring it. They succeeded; 200 of them keep the place impeccably groomed and open for business. As of 2008, the nonprofit, The Fells, became the owner of the home and 675 acres of surrounding land. 

Dining room at The Fells

A short introductory video will give you a thumbnail sketch of the estate's history. You are then free to tour the two-storied home, with some original wallpaper and carpets, period furnishings. There is a small art gallery and a room for display of historical artifacts, including some of John Hay's letters. The most beguiling part of every room is the window, from which you can catch glimpses of the extensive and varied gardens. Sooner rather than later you will succumb to the itch to get outside. 

Lily pond in the rock garden

Some art notes of particular interest to those who live in this extended New England region: Hay's portrait was painted by the famous and sought-after John Singer Sargent. There are also connections to Augustus Saint-Gaudens. The sculptor fashioned a bust of Hay that stands in the library of Hay's alma mater, Brown University. Better known is the magnificent sculpture Grief, or the Adams Memorial, commissioned upon the death of Clover Adams, close friend of John Hay. It stands in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington DC and at the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish NH. And sculpture abounds throughout the grounds and walking trails.

Dip Pen, Inkwell, and Ink Blotter by Paul Angiolillo, one of more than a dozen sculptures in The Fells "Art in Nature 2016: Outdoor Sculpture Exhibit"

The timing of this visit was perfect in one sense, less so in another. We learned that the house is open only through October  10. You will need to move quickly if you want to see it this season, but don't despair if time runs out. There are some Christmas celebrations at the Fells (although they occur in early to mid-November). I am tucking the glimpses of the rose and other past-their-prime-in-October gardens into my memory to keep for the winter. I plan to return next summer when the acres of rhododendrons are in bloom. 


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