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History for sale

Last modified: 6/7/2013 4:03:22 PM
Wanted: An artistic soul, preferably an artist or writer with a sense of history, a devotion to culture, a commitment to community and a large family of frolicking children. Should have the wherewithal to maintain a large property in the manner to which it was once accustomed.

That’s not quite the text of the ebay advertisement for “The Oaks,” the 12-acre, former Plainfield estate of noted artist, Maxfield Parrish. No, the 3,000 or so folks who checked out the site last month read about an “affordably priced” ($475,000), 7,200-square-foot modern home with two large ballrooms, two kitchens, a paneled library, four fireplaces and six bedrooms with accompanying baths.

They also learned that Parrish is known for his illustrative depictions of magical landscapes, several of which could be found in the dozen photographs accompanying the text. A century after the gardens were first established, the backyard of The Oaks – boasting stone walls, terraces, a fountain, urns, unobstructed views of Mount Ascutney and several majestic oaks – might still inspire the envy of a Medici. Better yet, the attentions of someone looking for the New Hampshire equivalent of an Italian villa. George Clooney, perhaps.

Since 2011, the house has been for sale with LindaMac Real Estate in Hanover. In February, Alma Gilbert, the present owner, considered the world’s leading expert on Parrish and his work, decided to go viral, posting the property on ebay. While there’s been a lot of interest, almost more than LindaMac knows what to do with, it’s hard to find a serious buyer.

The view, which prompted Parrish’s friend, Edith Wharton, to call it “divine . . . the most beautiful I have ever seen in America,” remains (other than the ski slopes) much as it was in 1905. But the home that Parrish designed and built, then embellished over the years until his death in 1966, burnt to the ground just 13 years later. That small detail is not entirely clear in the ebay ad.

Nor would a prospective buyer expect an acoustical tile ceiling and recessed lighting in the ballroom, or dated linoleum and 1980s fixtures in the baths. The house shares a well and septic field with nearby neighbors living in a former outbuilding. Still, for someone who’d like to live amidst the legacy of an artist whose prints once hung in one out of every four homes in America, the property could be considered priceless. And under the oak tree by the entrance to the garden is an added bonus . . . Parrish’s ashes, scattered there by his daughter.

Gilbert originally bought the long, low white-clapboard house with symmetrical gabled ends in 1979. Now in her mid-70s, Gilbert has been enthralled by Parrish since she was 10 and first saw his illustrations for the Arabian Nights. Years later, as an art dealer in California, she was approached by someone looking for his work. After making inquiries, she received a call one day from Sotheby’s and learned the Vose Gallery in Boston had 23 originals for sale. Gilbert took a redeye flight to be there the next day. By the time she left, she had bought 19.

“They went like wildfire,” she said. “So I started buying everything I could.”

Soon, an enterprising realtor contacted Gilbert and told her Parrish’s house was on the market. Gilbert said she might take a look someday. Not long after, en route from a trip to New York, she stopped by.

“I made the huge mistake of coming to see it in October,” Gilbert said. “Oh, I was bowled over.”

Gilbert bought the property, which then included 50 acres plus Parrish’s studio and several outbuildings. When it burned the following year, Gilbert was devastated. An architect neighbor, who had extensive blueprints from Parrish’s remodeling projects, was also in tears. He agreed to come out of retirement to help rebuild the home on its original footprint. Gilbert sold her house in California and relocated her family, which eventually included nine adopted children, to New Hampshire.

After a divorce in 1985, Gilbert found herself back in California, the house foreclosed. The eventual buyer, a Boston architect, had plans to turn it into condominiums. He divided the home’s interior into two living spaces, with two entrances, two staircases and two kitchens. When the condominium idea didn’t receive town approval, the owner contacted Gilbert. In 1993, remarried to Peter Smith, Gilbert bought back 12 acres and the main house.

Over the years, Gilbert has written 14 books about Parrish and his life in New Hampshire. Two weeks ago, she took her latest, and possibly last, to the publisher. It’s based on 223 letters written by Parrish and given to Gilbert by the family of a young woman Parrish fell in love with when he was in his 60s. Gilbert considers the poetic beauty of Parrish’s prose nearly equal to his paintings.

During the 1990s, Gilbert also bought another house down the road where she opened a museum to honor Parrish and members of the Cornish Colony, a group of artists, writers, architects and designers who moved to New Hampshire in the late 1800s and became friends. “Mastlands,” where Gilbert had her museum, is one of more than a dozen Colony properties in the area. The best-known, “Aspet” in nearby Cornish, the former home of sculptor Augustus St. Gaudens, is now a National Park.

Gilbert’s museum featured several Parrish classics, ranging from ethereal landscapes with nymphs posed against Grecian columns, the view from his loggia and a “Parrish blue” sky in the background, to more playful, graphic designs. For a time, a triptych of multi-million-dollar murals from Gloria Vanderbilt Whitney’s New York mansion, resided at “Mastlands.”

“People came from all parts of the country, even from other countries to see his work,” said Gilbert.

One day she found a mother and daughter sitting in the viewing room, so moved they were in tears.

“I may not have much in coins of the realm; I spent it maintaining my family, maintaining the nonprofits,” said Gilbert. “But knowing how (Parrish) creates such a wellspring of passion, that’s my payoff. There’s a tranquility in my soul.”

Gilbert, once again living in California, this time for family and health reasons, is ready to part with the property or, as she says, “to pass it on.”

Are there other artistic souls, like Parrish and Gilbert, who will succumb to what she found “the siren beauty of New Hampshire?” As touted on the ebay ad: “The property is a wonderful year-round retreat for an artist, writer, or nature lover.”


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