Books — Red House
Red House

By Amy Diaz

This old, old, old house...The story of the most-lived-in home in New England


Red House: Being a Mostly Accurate Account of New England’s Oldest Continuously Lived-In House, by Sarah Messer, Penguin Group, 2004, 390 pages.

Home ownership, like parenthood, can make you a bit crazy.

There’s the heating costs, the constant repairs, the seemingly endless battle to keep it clean. After a while this, plus your ties to one particular plot of land, can focus your thinking to such a level of obsession that it seems far more likely that the house owns you than that you own the house.

Now consider if your house was built in 1647 and was, until the day you moved in, owned and occupied by only one family. With that much history on its foundation, the house truly has the upper hand.

Such is the story of the Messers and the Hatches — Sarah Messer, author of Red House, is a member of only the second family ever to call her childhood house their home. Messer’s parents bought the house — a colonial in Marshfield, Mass. — from Richard Warren Hatch, the distant heir of Walter Hatch, the house’s builder and first owner. Unlike the cutesy or grand versions of a colonial-style house made in more recent years, the 1647 version is less a set, pre-designed structure and more a living, growing organism. From only a few rooms, a sprawling house of rooms squeezed in between rooms and ancient cellars surrounded by an odd collection of outbuildings is slowly created. As the sons of Walter Hatch and their children and assorted relatives move into the house, it expands — with necessity, not grace or architectural beauty in mind—and goes through periods of both decay and repair. The house catches fire several times in its history — including at least twice while the Messers live there — and seems far more prone to discord than it does to tranquility.

Red House is a tale of three entities: the Hatch family, the Messers and the house itself. The Hatch family came to Massachusetts from Kent, England. They were farmers on the large plot of land originally purchased by Walter Hatch but as that land was whittled away through inheritances to different sons the Hatches looked for other forms of occupation; some of them wrote, some went to war, some ended up leaving the house and Marshfield for good. But enough Hatches stuck around, perhaps because of the house more than the surrounding town, to see the house through the 1960s.

The Messers are almost as sprawling and disorganized as the house that came to possess them as much as they possessed it. Sarah’s father had been married before he met her mother and he had four children by his first wife and then another four with Sarah’s mother. The resulting family of eight would swell to include boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, wives and grandchildren — all who would live in, visit and occasionally help fix up the Red House.

And the Red House, the true star of this tale, seems forever to need fixing yet never completely falls apart. The house, like so many things in this part of the world, witnesses a variety of changes but seems solid and determined to exist, though not always thrive, forever.

Like legends about your own family, Red House is an entertaining yarn that is at its best when describing adventures of either the immediate nuclear family (Messers) or the very first Hatches. The historical tales offer an entertaining window into life in early New England while the stories from Messer’s own childhood are interesting like the memories of an old friend.

—Amy Diaz

2005 HippoPress LLC | Manchester, NH