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Amherst College > News & Events > Amherst Magazine > Archives > Winter 2003 > College Row
College Row

Evergreens house

Evergreens interior
Both outside and in, The Evergreens is a snapshot of an era, a moment in time.

Dickinson Homestead and Evergreens Merge

The Evergreens, the ivory-colored Italianate villa of Austin Dickinson (1829-95), a treasurer of Amherst College and brother of the poet Emily Dickinson, has long stood in the shadow of the solid Federal brick of the Dickinson Homestead (1813) next door. The trustees of the college, which has owned the Homestead since 1965 and keeps it open to the public, and the Martha Dickinson Bianchi Trust, the trustee of The Evergreens, recently agreed to a partnership. In January, the two boards asked the regional Probate Court for approval to transfer ownership of The Evergreens to the college. The Dickinson Homestead and The Evergreens will compose the new Emily Dickinson Museum.

The new museum, incorporating the homes of both the reclusive poet and her more gregarious brother and sister-in-law, may bring new light to the image of Emily Dickinson in her family and community. Polly Longsworth, Dickinson biographer and chair of the Trustees of the Martha Dickinson Bianchi Trust, says, “Throughout the poet’s creative life these homes were part of the same estate, the two families sharing love for Sue and Austin’s children, produce from the garden and personal secrets. There’s bound to be reinterpretation of how the Dickinsons interacted.”

Northampton architect William Fenno Pratt designed the Evergreens for the poet’s brother and sister-in-law, Austin and Susan Dickinson, at the time of their marriage in 1856. The lives of the Dickinsons at the Homestead and Evergreens were closely linked. Austin and Susan lived at the Evergreens until their deaths in 1895 and 1913. Austin Dickinson was an influential lawyer and politician and the treasurer of Amherst College from 1873 to 1895. The Evergreens was where the Dickinsons entertained contemporary celebrities such as Frederick Law Olmsted, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Harriet Beecher Stowe. The Dickinsons also amassed an eclectic collection of contemporary art, which remains on the walls.

Dallas Morning News architectural critic David Dillon has described the Homestead as “a palimpsest of changing architectural tastes and styles as revealed in a single house in a small New England town over nearly two centuries.” But The Evergreens evokes a moment. Grace Glueck, writing in The New York Timesafter the house was first opened to the public in 1999, marveled at the “peaceful decrepitude” of The Evergreens, which she described in its inviolate neglect as “a shrine to Victoriana . . . . The house, with its 10 main rooms and a number of smaller ones, is a trove of Victorian antiques and arrangements.”

Austin and Susan’s only surviving child, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, remained in the house and preserved it without change until her death in 1943. Her heirs—Alfred Leete Hampson and later his widow, Mary Landis Hampson—recognized the tremendous historical and literary significance of a site left intact. The Martha Dickinson Bianchi Trust was founded to preserve The Evergreens as a cultural resource. Dickinson family furniture, household accoutrements and decor selected and displayed by the family during the 19th century still furnish the house. The house and grounds—as a restoration in progress—provide a context for appreciating Emily Dickinson’s private world “within the hedge.”

For several years the Homestead and The Evergreens have worked collaboratively on tours, public programs and other projects. In 2002, the college and the Martha Dickinson Bianchi Trust completed an exploratory market study and business plan. Its conclusions support the long-term sustainability and success of a combined historic literary site.

Once the museums are legally joined, the operations of the two Dickinson houses will be merged. The current administrative staffs of the Homestead and The Evergreens will remain in place to manage the new museum. A new governing board is being formed to oversee the museum’s future development.

Next: From Bombs to Books >>

Photos: Frank Ward

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