The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home

The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home

by George Howe Colt


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Faced with the sale of the century-old family summer house on Cape Cod where he had spent forty-two summers, George Howe Colt recounts returning for one last stay with his wife and children in this stunning memoir that was a National Book Award Finalist and a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.

This poignant tribute to the eleven-bedroom jumble of gables, bays, and dormers that watched over weddings, divorces, deaths, anniversaries, birthdays, breakdowns, and love affairs for five generations interweaves Colt’s final visit with memories of a lifetime of summers. Run-down yet romantic, The Big House stands not only as a cherished reminder of summer’s ephemeral pleasures but also as a powerful symbol of a vanishing way of life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780743249645
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: 06/01/2004
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 136,848
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

George Howe Colt is the bestselling author of The Big House, which was a National Book Award finalist and a New York Times Notable Book of the Year; Brothers; November of the Soul; and The Game. He lives in Western Massachusetts with his wife, the writer Anne Fadiman.


Whately, Massachusetts

Place of Birth:

El Paso, Texas


B.A., Harvard University, 1976; M.A., Johns Hopkins University, 1978

Read an Excerpt



The doors that are always open have been closed and locked. The windows are shut tight. The shades are drawn. No water runs from the faucets. The toaster -- which in the best of times works only if its handle is pinned under the weight of a second, even less functional toaster -- is unplugged. The kitchen cupboards are empty except for a stack of napkins, a box of sugar cubes, and eight cans of beer. The porch furniture -- six white plastic chairs, two green wooden tables -- has been stacked in the dining room. The croquet set, the badminton equipment, the tennis net, and the flag are behind closet doors. The dinghy is turtled on sawhorses in the barn, the oars angled against the wall. The roasted-salt scent of August has given way to the stale smell of mothballs, ashes, mildew.

Here and there are traces of last summer: a striped beach towel tossed on the washing machine, a half-empty shampoo bottle wedged in the wooden slats of the outdoor shower, a fishing lure on the living room mantel, a half-burned log in the fireplace, a sprinkling of sand behind the kitchen door. Dead hornets litter the windowsills. A drowned mouse floats in the lower-bedroom toilet. The most recent entry in the guest book was made five months ago. The top newspaper in the kindling pile is dated September 29. The ship's clock in the front hall has stopped at 2:45, but whether that was A.M. or P.M. no one can tell.

After gorging on summer for three months, the house has gone into hibernation. They call it the off-season, as if there were a switch in the cellar, next to the circuit breakers, that one flipped to plunge the house from brimming to empty, warm to cold, noisy to silent, light to dark. Outside, too, the world has changed color, from blues, yellows, and greens to grays and browns. The tangle of honeysuckle, Rosa rugosa, and poison ivy that lapped at the porch is a skein of bare branches and vines. The lawn is hard as tundra, brown as burlap. The Benedicts' house next door, hidden from view when I was last here, is visible through the leafless trees. The woods give up their secrets: old tennis balls, an errant Frisbee, a lost tube of sunblock, a badminton birdie. Out in the bay, the water is the color of steel and spattered with whitecaps; without the presence of boats to lend perspective, the waves look ominously large. On the stony beach, the boardwalk -- a set of narrow planks we use to enter the water without spraining our ankles on the algae-slicked rocks -- has been piled above the tide line, beyond the reach, we hope, of storms.

A summer house in winter is a forlorn thing. In its proper season, every door is unlocked, every window wide open. People, too, are more open in summer, moving through the house and each other's life as freely as the wind. Their schools and offices are distant, their guard is down, their feet are bare. Now as I walk from room to room, shivering in my parka, I have the feeling I'm trespassing, as if I've sneaked into a museum at night. Without people to fill it, the house takes on a life of its own. Family photographs seem to breathe, their subjects vivid and laughing and suspended at the most beautiful moments of their youths: my father in his army uniform, about to go off to World War II; my aunt in an evening gown, in a shot taken for a society benefit not long before her death at twenty-eight; my grandfather as a Harvard freshman, poised to win an ice hockey game; my cousins in the summer of 1963, gathered on the sunny lawn. I am older than all of them, even though many are now dead.

In this still house, where is the summer hiding? Perhaps in the mice whose droppings pepper the couch, the bats that brood in the attic eaves, the squirrels that nest in the stairwell walls. They are silent now, but we will hear and see them -- and the offspring to which they will soon give birth -- in a few months. For if the house is full of memory, it is equally full of anticipation. Dormant life lies everywhere, waiting to be picked up where it left off, like an old friendship after a long absence: that towel ready to be slung over a sweaty shoulder, that tennis ball to be thrown into the air, those chairs to be set out on the porch, that fishing lure to be cast into the bay, that guest book to be inscribed with a day in June. Even on the coldest winter morning, this house holds within it, like a voluptuous flower within a hard seed, the promise of summer.

Copyright © 2001 by Simon & Schuster

Table of Contents


Prologue: Winter


I Arriving

II The Family Tree

III 1963

IV The Discovery of Cape Cod

V Rooftree

VI Renovations

VII Fishing

VIII The North and South Faces

IX The Barn

X Plain Living

XI Money

XII Sailing

XIII Tennis



XIV Hidden House

XV The Big Cove

XVI Missing Cards


XVIII The White Elephant

XIX Full House

XX Florida

XXI Leaving

Epilogue: Indian Summer

Notes on Sources


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The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 29 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed reading the book. It brought back memories of driving to the Cape. I learned alot about the early Bostonian Families and how they built their houses and about all their neighbors. I liked seeing the house through the younger families thoughts and how they felt about their parents, grandparents and great grandparents. it is a good book club book, lots to talk about
newtogame More than 1 year ago
Great, touching story, wonderful writing, rich imagery. I enjoyed the book all the way through! The only [small] criticism I have is I wish the author had provided some photos, particularly of the house itself. Since the characters are real people, I can understand a reluctance to offer pictures of relatives [living or passed on], but to see the house, its surrounding property and even old photos of the Cape would have been a delightful addition... hence my 4 star rating overall.

A wonderful effort Mr. Colt!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I thoroughly enjoyed the book. As a Brahmin child who currently summers on Wings Neck, the book was very nostalgic. Everything that Colt writes about could not be any truer. The lifestyle is still very much the same. The Big House does exist! It is the same as pictured on the cover of the novel. A great summer read for anyone (especially someone who summers on Cape Cod!).
Guest More than 1 year ago
The first three chapters lure you into believeing the book is about the house, it is really about a way of life- the old money 'it is gone, only their good name remains', the pretense and facade of a life that many in his family could not relinquish, and those that moved forward with the times- welcoming 'outsiders' into their lives, were no longer welcome andor no longer chose to visit. The windows with no rooms attached, the stairs leading nowhere, things not being as they seem- that was his family. But, you have to get well into the book before the dark side is revealed, slowly, chapter by chapter. It is a way of life drowned in secrets and alcohol, and best read about as the past rather than lived.
Debra60 More than 1 year ago
The Big House A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home By George Howe Colt No, not everyone has Bostonian blue blood running through their veins or the ability to summer at a family estate on Cape Cod but Colt adopts us all with his engaging prose. The author whispers of family secrets and we slide in beside him into a reading nook on a rainy afternoon with the background of patter on the roof and the tinny drips into strategically placed buckets. We can hear that burr of the old fashioned phone Colt so loves. He describes a century's worth of cast off accumulated in the old barn causing us to trip back our own memory lane, "Hey, I remember that collection of jazz records in my grandma's attic." When fortunes dwindle, we root for the underdog.don't let that grand house built of blood, sweat, joy and tears be razed from the earth or worse.turned into condos. In the end it is our story. The story of those of us who have been here for generations or who have just arrived; those who persevere and believe in the American dream. "It's a great gift that in this house everyone can be alone, off doing things they want to, and yet all be together under one roof."
Anonymous 16 days ago
I was swept into the Big House immediately and loved every nook and cranny, but most especially the heart of the home that loved this family for so many years. Having grown up in a summer home on Lake Michigan, I could relive everything again, from the old games in the cupboard to the tennis ball trials! My home is not "still standing" but for 400 pages, I was home again. I am truly grateful.
Anonymous 4 months ago
Wonderfully written and rich in detail. So many childhood memories and sensations came back to me. I highly recommend this book, as well asban online image search of The Big House itself, to see how fortunate the author was growing up.
LeHack on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I loved this book! Colt's family is faced with the sale of a beach house where the family and extended family spent many summers. The house is very large, and very expensive to repair and maintain. He has included a history of Cape Cod. His descriptions were so good that I imagined I could smell the salt air, or the dusty close atmosphere of a house that is ready to be opened for the season. I could see in my mind, the hide and seek games the children played with all the nooks and crannies that provided wonderful hiding places. I would recommend this to anyone who spent summers at the beach -- and to those who didn't.
karriethelibrarian on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Having spent many summers in my in-laws run-down cottage in Northern Michigan, I grew to love it more than any place in the world. I enjoyed weeks of summer fun with my kids up there as they learned to swim and play tennis, we walked in the rain, picked and jammed raspberries and spent hours playing board games. We had lots of summers in Michigan but it was always the cottage that made me feel like I was home and had found my soul. When I say it was run-down, I really mean it. It was neglected for years due to a stalemate between my mother and father-in-law. It languished during the winters, and each summer there would be a new problem with the structure. As we slept at night, mice would run through and take up residence in the fireplace wood, in the rafters or a corner that hadn't been noticed in awhile. The smell of the place was so distinct that I could smell the musty order in my clothes long after we returned to suburbia and the hectic pace of our everyday lives. When storms would come rolling in off Lake Michigan, we would sit on the porch and watch as the trees would blow, the thunder would deafen us, and pools of water would gather at the end of the road. The sound of rain pounding on the roof was extraordinary because there was no ceiling of insulation to mute the sound. It was wonderful to lay in bed at night and listen to nature come down around us. And every couple of years a hoot owl would take up residence in a nearby 100 foot tree and call out in the dark of the night, "Who, Whoo, Who-Who." I hope my children have fond memories of their summer life in the family cottage. Certainly their memories of when we were up there as an intact family have to be more pleasant than when we would leave for weeks while my ex-husband stayed at home by himself. My kids are 5th generation in the cottage that had been named Tynneycoed by their great grandparents. Their grandmother grew up in it, and always maintained she hated the place, which was something we couldn't fathom. My ex-husband had only spent sporadic time in the cottage while he grew up, so my kids were very fortunate to be able to spend so much time having care-free fun summers. It was the love and kindness of my in-laws that gave us that gift each summer -- a sacrifice that was not lost on us. As the years have gone on, and the cottage was falling in around itself, my then-husband and I used to dream of fixing it up, enlarging it and creating a summer home where the whole family could come together to enjoy each other's company. He has four siblings, so the dreams were grandeous, but that was our dream, not necessarily the rest of the family's. Of course the question of what to do with a cottage that has been in the family for 5 generations when it's time to pass it is a sticky issue. As George Howe Colt so eloquently writes, it's a very complex issue because there is so much emotion and family history involved. What one member of the family wants, some other family member doesn't. Where one person has a terrible memory of the place, someone else has wonderful memories. So what to do with a family cottage when the current generation doesn't want it or can't afford to keep it? What to do when the family dynamics change, marriages end and children grow up? The family cottage I spent 19 years raising my children in, has become off limits to me because I divorced my husband. As a result, my kids haven't been to their family cottage in two years, and might not ever be back. How sad for them. My friends in Michigan tell me the cottage looks sad and forlorn because we are not it. Where the lights in the cottage at night brought the cottage to life, now it sits dark and empty most of the summer. When I read this book it was the summer of 2005; I was sitting on the screened-in porch of the cottage and I instinctively knew that I would never spend another summer there. In fact, I unexpectedly separated from my husba
FicusFan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A memoir that covers not only the house, but the family in it, and the times. An interesting history of how Cape Cod was settled, and how the house was designed, built, and changed. The story about the family went on too long and got confusing trying to keep all the names and relations straight.The writing was good, and he was able to evoke childhood memories, even though I didn't have the same type of childhood, or even spend time in a house on the coast. The theme running through the book is that in the current day the family has to sell the house. They have less money and less ability to pay for the upkeep and taxes on the place. So there is a sadness and a melancholy to the memories. The ending of the book is about how some of the family-members start working together to save the house. It was interesting, and I enjoyed it.The middle part of the book was where it got a bit boring, and probably could have been cut down.
7DogNight on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Colt's descriptions of The House fill the senses so much so that his house feels like my house. The history of Cape Cod - it's evolution from a natural setting to an exclusive enclave for New England's Old Money was interesting. That said, his need to estabish himself via family members and their peers reveals a way of thinking and living that I found shallow in the extreme. An interesting read giving a personal glimpse into one of America's social classes and their environment.
ShorelineStories on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Colt's memoir of his family's summer home on Cape Cod is intermingled with a family history of the families that lived and loved within its walls. Unlike many books of similar vein, Colt manages to tell his tale without the acidity of his peers.
NellieMc on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Intriguing idea, well written. The history of the summer house and the history of the family -- a Brahmin family from Boston -- is well-integrated. Half of the time you're jealous you weren't a part of it, half of the time relieved. But the passion for the house -- really for heritage is there and makes this an easy read.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
The story behind the text is wonderful: a nostalgic tale of a family's summer home being put up for sale. The first three chapters are nice, fairly easy to get through. But come the fourth chapter, so many names have been mentioned, let alone cities I'm assuming are on/near the Cape [I've never been there, but the back cover drew me in. I ended up, unsuccessfully, trying to read the book with a map of the Cape and surrounding towns next to me], that it just became impossible. If you're familiar with the area, be my guest and read on, but otherwise, it's a disappointment.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A superb read, for anyone who has ever experienced the joys of regular visits to a summer house. Memorable and poignant memoir of growing up by the sea in summer, family life and life's lessons . . . pure enjoyment.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The Big House is full of love and joy, and yes, even a little sadness, but it is a very satisfying read. George Colt is a generous human being that gives full credit to other members of his family and fully admits some of his past incorrect thinking. It really is an absolutely lovely book to read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A very lovely read that brought to mind memories of my family's (much less impressive) summer home in the northern Catskill Mountains. In some places, the genealogical details become a little tedious for the outsider, but it's easy to skim over those parts. I might have felt a greater connection to the author's family and the house if the book included some pictures of the house and surrounding areas, and reproductions of the photographs mentioned in the text. I'm not sure, for example, if the watercolor on the cover is actually the house in question or just an artist's conception. Still . . . much to savor here and very readable; I bought the book on a Tuesday and finished it that Saturday.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I like the fact that it gave a great historical account of the cape cod region, of which I am fascinated by, intertwined with a family history. The author painted a vivid picture of the ideal summer vacation for a child or even an adult. The archetectural items were of great interest to me as well. I could empathize with the author about how he felt about that house.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book offered great insight into a world in which I could only imagine living - who knew that 'summer' was a verb. Even though I might not be like all the characters, (or necessarily like them) I consider that a positive. I thought that made it a very good read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The author describes events from his childhood that seemed normal to him at the time, but now, reflecting back as an adult writer, he sees how odd and genuinely funny much of it was. I laughed all the way through this excellent book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
He waits.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I agree - the first few chapters were interesting. The author told about his immediate family and their quest for a last family vacation in the Big House. But from then on, it was ridiculous. If I had to read one more story about how rich his family was, or how many famous people they knew, or how they all had yachts and country club memberships, I was going to hurl. I had to put it down midway through, and it's been a very long time since I was unable to finish a book. If you're familiar with the Cape and/or this family, you're in for a delightful read. Otherwise, it might remind you of the society pages of your local newspaper.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago