JACK CORAGGIO – March 24, 2012
WASHINGTON — At every corner, beneath you and above you and to all sides, the inscrutably familiar symbolism of the Freemason organization is hidden in plain sight. This historic home is like a dollar bill—if a dollar bill was priceless.
Think of that pyramid and unblinking illuminated eye on the back of a dollar; these kinds of symbols are methodically carved or built into the walls of a house that has been revitalized in Washington, and so are the squares and the suns that denote the historic and quietly influential fraternity.
These icons are found in the most cleverly apt places. A ceiling lamp hangs from a depiction of a glowing sun, suns are found in fireplace mantles, and, in fact, in any place the image could illuminate. Consider the circular window on the due solar west end of the home.
“That’s supposed to be a sun,” said live-in enthusiast Louise van Tartwijk, who owns the house with her husband, Hans van Tartwijk, who works for an international realty firm.
As she was finishing this thought recently, the setting sun blasted a blinding beam of light through the glass.
Parquet floors, still of the original fir (thanks to the current owners, the original intent has been painstakingly preserved), serve to ground the countless number of triangles and squares. On an upper floor, Ms. van Tartwijk pointed out a window with the appearance of a peering eye, brow and all.
There are a remarkable number of architectural installations purposely found in denominations of seven, a rather significant number for the Freemasons.
In one modest side room, Ms. van Tartwijk pointed out seven walls where four would have sufficed. Maybe some of the amenities could be chalked up to coincidence, but if there is one feature that will make the cynical visitor a believer, it’s in a ground floor gable.
Seven evenly framed windows make up the convex shape; on the outside a porch has seven equally spaced beams supporting the overhang and when the inside lights or the fireplace (and in a 9,650 square foot home, there is no shortage of fireplaces) blazes, seven beams of light emanate from within, bathing the south side of the property overlooking the Shepaug Valley.
It’s like a sun, and it’s amazing.
“You learn how to appreciate and respect a house when you find something this special,” offered Mr. van Tartwijk.
The historic structure on Ferry Bridge Road was built by famed architect Ehrick Rossiter, and may be the largest of his homes still standing. Behind The Gunnery school, it was created as summer accommodations for Lucious A. Barbour, a spool cotton baron who lived in Hartford and ran the Willimantic Linen Company.
Yes, he was a Freemason.
The van Tartwijks note the heavy hand Mr. Barbour had in the design, but make no mistake, Mr. Rossiter orchestrated this masterpiece, a home named Rock Gate. The name is nothing Masonic; the driveway splits two jutting boulders for a natural stone conduit.
The house is of such import in conception that it was highlighted in an Arnold Lewis 1982 collection called “American Country Houses of the Gilded Age.”
“Such eclecticism could be risky, but Rossiter could afford to experiment because he was a fine composer,” noted Mr. Lewis. “In the Barbour house he added his accents—clean and light circles and rectangular panels—gently. He was able to indulge his antiquarian bent without marring the contemporary appearance of the house because he knew how to use such elements unpretentiously.”
Apparently, according to the author, Rossiter knew how to use “light circles and rectangular panels,” or secret society imagery, with great effect.
Sometime in the early 20th century, there were some major revisions made to the home, and its brilliance was compromised. As the most glaring example, the wood siding was stripped and replaced with heavy shot stucco. Over time the house went from being a private residence to becoming part of the boarding school to abandonment and then to becoming a private residence again.
At that point, the van Tartwijks, visiting from Holland in 2006, noticed it and had one of those love-at-first-sight moments. Ms. van Tartwijk, an American who lived for 23 years overseas, thought this would be a great place to introduce her four daughters to education in the states. Two of the daughters attend Westover School in Middlebury, and two attend Rumsey Hall in Washington. By 2009 it belonged to the Dutch family, but it took a year of renovations before Rock Gate was open.
“We didn’t want to destroy the integrity of this home,” said Mr. van Tartwijk.
“So we needed an extremely unique group of people,” continued his wife, “who understood we’re trying to preserve this home.”
Several general managers were interviewed before the family hired Laschever Building Company, LLC,of West Simsbury. The efforts were not futile.
In an effort led by Jonathan Laschever, original molding profiles were custom reproduced for all exterior architectural trim. Interior molding profiles were also reproduced and the existing hardware was removed, repaired and reinstalled.
Heart pine flooring, removed from the third level bedrooms, was reinstalled in the new kitchen and breakfast room and used for repairs on the first and second floors.
Historical documents were consulted to ensure the house stayed as true as possible to the original intent. The roof was replaced with cedar shingles, the siding with red cedar shingles.
The list goes on, but in 2010 the family moved happily into this picturesque home. Save for the electricity and indoor plumbing and updated insulation, there is little reason to think one is not living in the Victorian age. Even the furniture harkens back.
But the van Tartwijk family has a different perspective on the idea of homeownership. This house, one that they worked so diligently to ensure was authentically conserved, is not really theirs to own. They live in it for now, probably until well into retirement, and then it will become someone else’s place to love and maintain and not reinvent.
“This wasn’t going to be a weekend home. I feel like I’m a custodian here,” said Ms. van Tartwijk, who would like to see placement on the National Register of Historic Places.
If the van Tartwijks could, they would interview the next occupiers before handing over the keys to Rock Gate, this Masonic manse.
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