By Regina Cole | Photos by Jon Crispin
Not too long ago, an electrician arriving at the 1868 Gothic Revival house on South Maple Street was greeted at the door by Alan Dargis, significant other of the home’s owner, Harriet Paine. “You’d better watch out,” Alan warned as he guided the electrician to the breaker box. “I’m the last tradesman she hired, and that was in 1992. I came to paint the house, and never left. I’m still under contract!”
Since she’s owned this local landmark in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, Harriet has developed quite a reputation in this picturesque small town at the eastern edge of the Berkshire mountains. But she insists that not all of the stories can be believed: She doesn’t, in fact, lure unsuspecting tradesmen to an eternity of work. Nor is the house a wood- frame black widow spider that entices carpenters with its beauty before consuming them.
What Harriet is renowned for is her resourcefulness and spunk. She’s admired as the woman who not only held on to, but also improved a historic house in the face of obstacles that would daunt any lesser person. Her house greets passers-by from a crest above the street that leads into Shelburne Falls, its history is interwoven with that of the town’s.
When pressed, however, she admits that she did once hire a painter who admired the house, fell in love with its owner, and has been painting its polychromed exterior ever since. “He does one side per year,” says Harriet. “He says it’s his penance!” As she tells the story, Alan looks on like a man enjoying his penitential labor. He proudly points to new landscaping projects, as well as to the house’s freshly painted east side.
Harriet first fell for the house with twin gables, wall dormers, arched windows, and gingerbread verge boards in 1982. “My husband and I bought it together. He was teaching at a private secondary school and I had just graduated with a degree in photography. I was an art history major who couldn’t paint or draw,” she laughs. “But I was always drawn to photography. My father had dabbled in it, and had a Leica and a darkroom when I was a kid. My husband and I bought this house to have a space to start my business as well as a place to live,” she explains.
“We had stopped the roof leaks and made some other repairs, but then we split up. I thought I was going to have to sell the house,” says Harriet. To hold on to it, she took in boarders and turned a part-time career as a portrait photographer into full-time work. She took children’s portraits in area schools. “For years, I was sick all fall and winter, the result of close contact with so many kids.”
Still, maintaining the house was a struggle. “I certainly couldn’t afford the $10,000 fee a contractor quoted me in 1992, when the house desperately needed a new coat of paint.” A friend suggested she call Alan, who had retired from a career as a harness-racing jockey and was moonlighting as a house painter.
“When we first discussed the house-painting project,” says Harrriet, “I suddenly asked him, ‘Do you remember Ed Sullivan?’ I guess I wanted to know whether I was dealing with someone approximately in my age group.” Alan did remember, and soon the two learned they had more in common than memories of a 1960s television variety show.
It wasn’t long before Dargis moved in with Paine, and in the 13 years since she first hired him they’ve developed a cheerful, six-color scheme for the exterior. “I chose the colors, but Alan decided on their placement,” Harriet says. “When I bought the house, it was barn red. First I painted it two shades of terra cotta, but everyone described the house as pink.” The current color scheme has creamy yellow siding accented with cocoa, rusty red, periwinkle blue, mossy green and a lighter green trim. “The yellow comes from the fact that yellow cheers me up,” explains Harriet. “When I see a yellow house, I get happy.”
Paine and Dargis have also replaced pieces of rotten gingerbread, sections of the roof, porch floors and windows. They have installed new ceilings, rebuilt the barn and done extensive landscaping—including adding a pond, gazebo and a new stone patio. “The work never ends,” they say, smiling nonetheless.
The Early Years
Long before Alan Dargis came into her house and her life, Harriet Paine was already convinced that she and this Gothic Revival were meant for each other. As she researched its history she was at first intrigued, then fascinated by the parallels between herself and one of its past owners. Soon after she moved in, she found the letter ‘P’ on the front porch pediment. “I hadn’t known it was there until I started to scrape away at many coats of paint,” says Harriet. “My last name starts with P, so I saw it as an auspicious omen.” The front entry porch—along with its roof and triangular pediment, where the P resides—is part of a renovation undertaken around the turn of the 20th century that also produced the front window bays. The house was then in the hands of the Patch family, its third owners.
It’s likely that the home’s original architecture was modeled after one of Andrew Jackson Downing’s designs from his 1850 pattern book, The Architecture of Country Houses. Its builder—and original owner—Dr. Edwin Bissell lived in it for just six months, at which point his wife died and he sold the house to Linus Yale, the inventor of the tumbler lock, for $9,000. His daughter, Madeline Yale Wynne, became a leading light of the Arts & Crafts movement and one of the forces behind the establishment of nearby Historic Deerfield.
In 1888, Yale sold the house to Henry Severance Patch who was, like Paine, a portrait photographer. “Henry’s father, Jonas Patch, started the family photography business in 1856. It was in continuous operation until 1935,” Harriet says. “Henry’s daughter lived here with her husband; together they ran a Mobil gas station across the street. The house finally passed out of Patch family hands when her son Kendall, Henry’s grandson, sold it in 1979 to the family that owned the house before I came along. They had six sons. It’s a good thing they weren’t here for too long: they were hard on the house!” As she researched the house’s history, Harriet found parallels between her photography work and Henry’s. “I photograph all the usual things: proms, weddings, families. But what I really love is pet photography.”
Her love for animals is obvious: alongside bridal portraits and pictures of families posed by the pond or gazebo, her studio walls are lined with playful portraits of dogs, cats, and horses with their owners. Sometimes the pets are costumed: A clown pooch wears bloomers, a pointed hat, and a grave expression; children wheel bonneted cats in doll prams. In another photo, Old Glory forms a backdrop for a terrier draped with dog tags who chomps down on the wood handle of a small American flag. The caption reads, “IN DOG WE TRUST.”
And so it was with Henry Patch’s photography. His images—discovered, researched, and studied by Paine—display the same whimsy and love of animals. In a formal mid-19th century portrait, a young mother and her two small children are joined by the family dog. In another, a small girl in high-buttoned shoes clings to a large black lab-shepherd mix, or a muscular mutt sits posed on a rug-draped table with a beret atop his ears and a pipe clenched between his teeth. “He had a sense of humor similar to mine,” Harriet notes, “and artistic abilities beyond those of most studio photographers of his time.” She likes that he’s the one who put the P in the pediment.
One of Henry Patch’s archival photos depicts a man and a young boy feeding ducks on a pond with the house as a backdrop. Alan constructed the new pond on the same spot. “We found traces of the original, and used it as a starting point,” says Harriet.
The sign at the bottom of Paine’s curving driveway reads “H. H. R. Paine Photography.” It’s easy to imagine that a hundred years ago a similar sign hung in the same spot, advertising the same kind of business performed by someone with a similar name and sensibility. And, except for the colors, the house probably didn’t look much different then, either.Published in: Old-House Journal September/October 2005