The Incredible Journey

by Charlie Rafkin | 7/10/14 8:49pm

The selection of a traveling companion is the essential step in preparing your trip to Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site. You could bring someone with a vast reservoir of knowledge about American art in the late 1800s to help you appreciate the beauty in Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s impressive sculptures. An Upper Valley buff would be a wise choice, bringing along insight gleaned from years of tramping around the region’s hills and valleys. Maybe the site is best seen with a romantic interest or a quiet, introverted friend, the sort of person who will allow you to enjoy your thoughts as you survey the cozy historical center tucked into this hamlet in Cornish.

Austin Boral ’16 is none of those, but I don’t have a car and he’s too nice to ask me to chip in for gas, so I ask him to tag along.

I regret my decision to bring Austin before we even arrive in West Lebanon, when he announces his plans to scrapbook our journey. We finish our brunch at Four Aces as he carefully pockets a crumpled receipt for $21 and insists that I snag some of the jam on the side of the table for the scrapbook.

“Not apple cinnamon flavored,” he emphasizes.

One half-hour car ride spent listening to acoustic covers of rap songs later, we pull into the parking lot, pay our entrance fees and enter the site.

A white mansion overlooks a rolling, lush meadow, and picture-book white trees border the path. It’s not hard to imagine why the family decided to settle here. I visited the site with my father a year ago, but the beauty of the grounds truly comes to life in the summer. While I wouldn’t have designed the two miniature golden turtle fountains spitting water into opposite ends of the reflecting pool, overall I give the world-renowned sculptor the benefit of the doubt.

During our tour of the mansion, we learn about Saint-Gaudens’s life and work. His most famous sculptures include the Diana that graces the top of Madison Square Garden and the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial in the Boston Common. The rooms of the mansion are decorated in the style of Saint-Gaudens’s era, and the site preserves a number of his sculptures and bas-reliefs.

His was the perfect 19th-century family, our guide informs us, with a wife, a child, a mistress and another child by the mistress rounding out the bunch.

The family anchored its social circle, dubbed the Cornish Colony. For the twentieth anniversary of buying their Cornish home, members of the Colony collaborated to write a play celebrating the alpha couple. It culminated with Augustus assuming his rightful place atop Mount Olympus — a celebration that might strike those used to frequenting the parties in any basement on Webster Avenue as at least a little unusual. The stage built for the performance remains on the property. Saint-Gaudens was buried there after he died of cancer in 1907.

The splendorous tree out front — a “thornless honey locust” — was planted the year after the couple arrived in Cornish.

As we walk along the house’s ground floor, our guide tells us that she was originally a teacher who started working as a Park Ranger through the National Park Service’s Teacher-Ranger-Teacher program. Now, she gives several tours of Saint-Gaudens’s home each day.

She tells us that each tour she gives is different — she’ll give every group the basics, of course, but she picks different objects to highlight in every tour.

We tour the grounds, stopping once at the mesmerizing memorial to Marian Hooper Adams, who committed suicide in 1885. We end back at the visitor’s center. A gaggle of Park Rangers and tour guides chat with us there.

Ranger Kerstin Burlingame informs us that a visitor recently made a trip to Cornish solely to visit the thornless honey locust.

“There was a guy that came a couple weeks ago,” she said. “He said he was just going to go up and hug the tree.”

Another ranger, Judi Tatem, tells us that an elderly lady touring the site said it was her first time in the gardens since high school, when she had danced with friends among the moonlit statues at night. She wanted to visit again to see if the site was still just as beautiful, Tatem said.

As we bid our ranger friends goodbye -- a phrase I cannot believe I just put down on paper -- they encourage us to check the site’s social media accounts. I’ll spare you the details, but during my extraordinarily extensive historical preparation for this piece, I found the following excerpt from a post on their Facebook page:

“It’s fall and guess what: Honey Locust don’t care!”

This, gentle reader, is what keeps one coming back to the National Park Saint-Gaudens Site.

We set off back to Hanover with a veritable surfeit of memories for Austin’s scrapbook. While I decided to save myself the embarrassment of detailing exactly where Austin and I took a selfie I can safely say that although the details of our voyage to Saint-Gaudens may fade, the dried jam and a crumpled receipt from Four Aces will remain.