Thursday, September 16, 2010

Ralph Waldo Emerson House and the new resident caretakers

Andrea Lieberg and Taylor Bemis

"Keeping Mr. Emerson’s House"


Paige Williams

September 15th, 2010

The New York Times

FOR a museum with a deep history, the Ralph Waldo Emerson House has had a short line of caretakers. Apart from a few fill-in housekeepers, couples tend to move into the servants’ wing and stay not for years but for decades.

From the 1940s to the 1970s, there were the Dempseys, Vicky and Johnny. He was a postman, and she spent her entire housekeeping career in the two-story Federal-style home 24 miles west of Boston where Emerson lived from 1835 until his death there in 1882. More recently there were the Comptons, Margaret and Bill. He worked for the state highway department and “set a standard” for groundskeeping, said Bay Emerson Bancroft, an Emerson great-great-granddaughter whose family still owns and manages the national historic landmark. But after nearly 20 years, the Comptons have left, for health reasons.

Now, in a rare changing of the guard, come Taylor Bemis and Andrea Lieberg. Like their predecessors, the new caretakers play an important role. For while the paid tour guides provide the public face of the museum, the less visible caretakers are equally responsible for sustaining a lived-in atmosphere, suggesting that, say, Emerson just took up his walking stick to stride off to Walden Pond.

Mr. Bemis and Ms. Lieberg are both 27. They met while working on a dude ranch in Montana, and are to be married in January in an octagonal dairy barn near Ms. Lieberg’s hometown, Portland, Ore. Their relationship is based on many things, including a free-spirited appetite for new ZIP codes and temporary living arrangements: in Aspen, Colo., they lived in a garage apartment and worked as a bellhop (Mr. Bemis) and spa aesthetician (Ms. Lieberg), and spent their free time skiing. They had a similar lifestyle in Bend, Ore.

A year ago, in Bend, they were thinking seriously about their lives. “I was, like, we’re getting older, I want to do something important,” Ms. Lieberg said. They decided to move to Concord, Mr. Bemis’s hometown, to work for his father, who is a co-owner of Hutchins Farm, a large organic grower that is a longtime family business.

While searching for a place to live, they came across the Emerson job and were immediately interested because of the chief perk: free rent. So, as many of their contemporaries fled west to Oregon, to a life of drizzle and fleece, Mr. Bemis and Ms. Lieberg headed in the opposite direction, to help preserve the spirit of Emerson, who wrote, “The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks.”

They knew little about the writer. Mr. Bemis grew up near the Emerson House but had never stepped inside. To connect with their long-gone host and his philosophy of individualism, freedom and self-reliance, the couple tried to read his essays and to listen to his work on audiotape, but it was only after watching a DVD about Emerson that they began to understand him.

“I feel like he was the first person, or one of the first people, to start thinking outside the box with his whole Transcendentalism and, like, God and nature and all that,” Ms. Lieberg said. “So we were like, O.K., he’s cool, nonconformist. And we like that.”

They got the caretaking position, and took up residence in April. Mr. Bemis had grown up around historic buildings, and so was at ease in the Emerson House, but Ms. Lieberg had never lived amid the quirk and slope of severe vintage. “I’m from the West,” she explained. “This was the oldest-looking apartment I’d ever seen.”

Neither of them looked the caretaker part. With a deep tan and residual ski hair, Mr. Bemis perpetually seems as if he just took his final run of the day. And Ms. Lieberg, fresh faced and petite, could have walked out of a granola commercial.

Ms. Lieberg also had trouble picturing herself as a housekeeper. Mr. Bemis, who took on the gardening chores, had been a landscaper out West, and so mowing and trimming two and a half acres of lawn, hedges and grapevines suited his résumé. But Ms. Lieberg, a beauty school graduate, had been giving Aveda facials for a living, and wearing dresses and heels to work. Also, she is a “last minute” person, the kind who thinks of the clothes dryer as a satellite closet.

“Me, with a vacuum and a duster?” she said. “But I talked to my parents and they were like, ‘It’s the Emerson House.’ ”

Emerson and his second wife, Lidian, moved into the home in 1835. Over the next 47 years, they hosted a stream of distinguished guests at the house, fulfilling Emerson’s hope to “crowd so many books and papers and, if possible, wise friends, into it that it shall have as much wit as it can carry.” Margaret Fuller, a pioneering feminist, spent hours talking with Emerson in his study. Louisa May Alcott practiced painting by copying the pictures that still hang on the Emersons’ walls. Henry David Thoreau lived with the family off and on for years and is believed to have stayed in what is now Ms. Lieberg and Mr. Bemis’s guest bedroom.

“The ornament of a house is the friends who frequent it,” Emerson wrote. Lidian Emerson herself was an aspiring writer and a respected conversationalist. But she was also a strikingly meticulous homemaker.

“I have a carpenter’s eye — I know when anything is a hair’s breadth off the right line,” she often said, according to her eldest daughter, Ellen Tucker Emerson, in a biography of her mother published posthumously in 2002. “How often has she cried out desperately, ‘Put that vase in the middle of the table! It ceases to be an ornament, and becomes mere litter when it stands an inch or two out of position.’ ”

Now Ms. Lieberg maintains this precision, with a feather duster and a cordless vacuum. The nightly dusting alone poses a challenge. The house contains eight large rooms plus anterooms, landings and corridors. Victorian custom, and Emerson predilection, called for tabletops and mantels filled with plaster statuettes, bisque candlesticks, conch shells, clocks, thermometers, busts, painted clamshells, pin cushions and oil lamps.

As Ms. Lieberg flicks her duster around the objects and the bookshelves, which contain some 3,500 volumes, she hopes she won’t “be the person to knock something over that’s really ancient.”

For deep cleans, she lugs an electric vacuum upstairs and down. She uses Old English polish on the dozens of desks, nightstands, hutches and beds, including the four-poster where Emerson drew his last breath. After spending the first few weeks relocating the bric-a-brac to positions that might have prompted one of Lidian Emerson’s infamous shrieks (“She loves a good delivering scream,” Emerson once said), Ms. Lieberg adopted a piecemeal cleaning strategy that better preserved the authentic air the Emerson descendants wanted: Move an object, dust; move an object, dust. With the china and metal plates on the dining room sideboard, she sets out the pieces in identical order so she’ll know how to put them all back.

The Emersons owned no fewer than 127 hanging mirrors, daguerreotypes, paintings, photographs and prints, all also requiring cleaning. And while Mrs. Emerson, an early advocate for animals, hated to sweep out spider webs, especially ones with eggs, Ms. Lieberg will raise her broom at even the slightest wisp.

Bay Emerson Bancroft, the Emerson descendant, called Ms. Lieberg’s duties an education. “With women’s lib, the whole domain of domestic work has been relegated to the back of women’s minds," Ms. Bancroft said. “How do you clean a house well? It’s a mundane task, but there’s a total art to it.”

It isn’t lost on Ms. Lieberg that the Emerson caretaking falls along stereotypical gender lines. Mr. Bemis mows the lawn, trims the hedges and tends Emerson’s prolific grapevines and the roses that his wife brought from her native Plymouth — all work that takes place in warmer weather and as needed. Ms. Lieberg’s duties run year-round except when the house is closed between late October and late April, a hiatus that overlaps with the slow season for their day jobs at Hutchins Farm.

Ms. Lieberg documents their experiences in a blog,, where she posts recipes for meals she has cooked in the Emerson House’s original kitchen. The Castle Crawford cast-iron stove no longer works, but it makes a homey sight, along with the original brick oven, where she and Mr. Bemis store wine. They often invite friends over to eat outside, beneath the particularly fragrant grapevine draping their porch, or to drink at the bar Mr. Bemis built of farm-stand wood.

“We’re pretty sure this is the first bar that’s ever been in the Emerson House,” Ms. Lieberg said. “We call it Ralph’s Place.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson [Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy]

Ralph Waldo Emerson [Wikipedia]

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