VII. Cottage Industry: The Notebook of L. C. Peters

Fanny Kemble and Edith Wharton were international cultural icons who left significant traces of their time in the resort town of Lenox, Massachusetts. But, estates such as the "Perch" and "The Mount" could not have existed without a skilled and motivated workforce to maintain them. This is the story of one of those caretakers. He put down roots in 1872 and became something of a local institution by the time he passed from the scene in 1928. His name was L. C. Peters.[1]

1. L. C. Peters.






In 1918, L. C. Peters seemed to have it all. He was the 68-year-old owner of a custom furniture shop and president of the Lenox Savings Bank. Both were located on the ground floor of a half-timbered and stuccoed commercial block recently built for him by Harding and Seaver Architects.[2]




2. The L. C. Peters Shop, 36 Walker Street, Lenox.
Best of all, he and his family lived upstairs. But, these successes could not have been foreseen. Leonard Constance Peters was born the youngest of ten children in County Kent, England around 1850. A cottage-like home of his own came only after many years of looking after and improving the "cottages"—the large estates—of the Lenox colony. After his sea-crossing in 1870, Peters lived with relatives in Troy, New York. He arrived in Lenox in 1872 as part of a work crew that built a large wood-framed building called Ethelwyn on Yokun Avenue for Danish Consul Henri Braem. The house was owned in later years by Mrs. Robert Winthrop.[3]



3. Ethelwyn, side view.


By 1874 Peters had saved enough to send for his fiancĂ©e, Martha Barnes. In 1876 their first child was born. Over the next several decades Peters was a busy man in and about the village of Lenox. It is not known if he served a trade apprenticeship, but he earned a reputation around Lenox as a skilled carpenter. His activities around 1884 are documented by a unique survival of the Gilded Age—a leather-bound workbook. 



4. Notebook pages.


The L. C. Peters calendar/journal for the year 1884 is only three by five inches and fits easily into a small pocket. The book has deteriorated, but the information is intact. The pages are filled with notes, names, addresses, and sketches. 

Items are listed and checked off as if to mark the receipt of supplies or the completion of a project. The workbook contains many small designs which seem hastily sketched. They create the impression that speed was important. A variety of household needs were filled in the off-season. Some, like roof leaks, were urgent. But most were whims, wants, or modest improvements. Each repair was important, whether to mirror frames, porches, or stables.


5. Notebook page, detail.
Peters worked for longtime village families who were not wealthy, like the Washburns, the Platners, and the Pecks. Some of them rented out extra space in the summer and these spaces needed to be made ready for guests. But, the majority of the over fifty family names in the workbook were charter members of the Lenox colony. They included his first employer, Mrs. Henri Braem, her niece and next door neighbor Mrs. Greenleaf, Mrs. Kuhn, Miss Helen Parish, the Rathbones, the Devereux, and the Whitneys. This last family rented the Haggertys' house, Vent Fort. After Sarah Spencer Morgan purchased the property, the new mansion which rose on the site was styled Ventfort Hall. Most of Peters' work involved light carpentry: creating and maintaining desks, tables, sideboards, low boy chests, chairs, and bureaus. Some few pieces survive. He also worked on thresholds, gates, lattice, hinges, and screen doors. 



6. Detail for construction
 of "gloss white"
wardrobe for "Greenleaf".

His trades (or, trades carried out under his supervision) included painting, paperhanging, staining, glazing, whitewashing, and upholstery. On one occasion a paint for blackboards was concocted from emery powder, lampblack, and turpentine. Heavier work included tree cutting, roof shingling, and post digging. He would later reposition several houses around Lenox, including the present-day Rookwood Inn, which used to be the Williams Tavern at the intersection of Cliffwood Street and Main Street.


7. Detail, Lenox Club wardrobe.











8. Extant Greenleaf (?) wardrobe in Room 8 of the present-day Lenox Club, formerly known as Windyside.


At least six free-standing wardrobes are recorded in the notebook, foreshadowing Peters' later career as a custom furniture maker. The wardrobes averaged three to four feet in width and often contained shelving. 


9. Wardrobe at Ludlow Cottage tentatively attributed to Peters.


“Castors” often appear in the notebook alongside orders for pulleys, wire, and brass fittings. Thumb latches and double-jointed hinges are well-represented. His efforts at "hanging doors" appear almost as often as "repairing sash." Forgotten arts such as hanging lead weights for raising and lowering window sashes may not sound exciting, but they were essential for a well-functioning household. Even the distribution of straw, sawdust, and burlap around the grounds of the estates found a place in Peters' book.



10. Ethelwyn, front view.

We need to remember that many of these estates were enormous. A small family could require a large house staff. The out-buildings, too, needed maintenance. Even something as simple as an awning had to be kept up. These heavy striped canvases, often colored green and white, blocked the sun, wind, and rain. They were de rigueur for a proper cottage. At Elizabethan-revival Overlee, for example, they covered several front and side porches while more than a dozen smaller sets perched on the second and third-floor windows. Seasonal work included keeping the cranks and tubing in good order and the occasional sewing session, as recorded in Peters' notebook.


11. Ethelwyn porch.


On the evidence of the notebook, Peters appears to have played several roles. First, he may have been something of a "fixer" for the odd bits of work left by the large construction crews that came from the New York and Boston areas to build the cottages. He supplied goods, furniture, and services not related to house construction which were found wanting as time went on.

Second, he may have been a caretaker for the estates of a half-dozen or so of his clients. For example, an entry for November 7th indicates that the counting of chairs was an annual ritual at Mr. Crocker's home. Lastly, he seems to have been a bridge from local workers and suppliers to the cottagers; a person who could be relied on to facilitate almost any type of household work.



12. L. C. Peters Shop, detail.


Over many years Peters’ investments in local real estate paid off, and these successes led to his banking career. But all the while, whether he was making the rounds of the great estates or improving his own properties, he found time to work on his own furniture. After the shop on Walker Street was built, he fabricated desks and chairs designed by his daughter, Jane Peters Heathfield. Jane continued to run the shop in the half-timbered commercial building after L. C.’s death in 1928. The furniture shop space was taken by Talbot's Dress Shop in 1958. The Talbots Inc. bought the L. C. Peters Block for good in 1979, and one of their retail stores remains on the site.[4]



13. Present-day Talbots on Walker Street.




L. C. Peters was a respected member of the community. He raised three children to adulthood, and was a parishioner at Trinity Church. He and his wife are buried at the Church on the Hill. 







During the period immortalized in his workbook, Peters was a caretaker of renown within the Lenox colony. He was skilled at carpentry and a host of trades, and did not lack for ambition. Yet, his most important skill may have been his ability to get things done quickly in the necessary style. His workbook offers ample testimony that he succeeded.


14. L. C. Peters.


footnotes:

[1] This article is based on interviews with Margaret Layton and Stephen Peters, descendants of L. C. Peters, and Nini Gilder of Tyringham. The L. C. Peters notebook has been donated to the Lenox Library Association. 

[2] This image of 36 Walker Street was reproduced on contemporary postcards. The architects, Harding and Seaver, were also responsible for the Berkshire Museum and the YMCA in Pittsfield, the Lenox Town Hall, and many buildings at Williams College. L. C. Peters is recorded as president of the Lenox Savings Banks in 1918 on pg. 182 of the "Annual report of the Board of Commissioners of Savings Banks: part II... " (published in January of 1919), at:
[3] George B. Post has been tentatively identified as the architect for Ethelwyn, the building project which inspired L. C. Peters' move from Troy to Lenox. Post executed an important commission in Troy at around the same time (1870-75): the extant Troy Savings Bank Music Hall: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Troy_Savings_Bank_Music_Hall
Post also designed the New York Stock Exchange. His magnificent c. 1875 Williamsburgh Savings Bank in New York (not to be confused with the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower, another notable building) has recently been restored: http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/williamsburg-savings-bank-restoration

[4] The information about the L. C. Peters Block is from: MACRIS (Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System), entry for L. C. Peters Block (Len.29).

caption credits:

1. Photo courtesy of Stephen Peters, Lenox, Massachusetts.

2. © WallpaperScholar.Com.

3. “Ethelwyn: side with drive.”  Postcard, ca. 1893-1925.  Digital Commonwealth,  http://ark.digitalcommonwealth.org/ark:/50959/1c18f545m  Courtesy of the Lenox Library Association.

4. Private collection; recently donated to the Lenox Library Association. Photo by WallpaperScholar.Com.

5. As above.

6. Photo by Michael F. Lynch.

7. Photo by Michael F. Lynch. 

8. Photo by Michael F. Lynch. This room had no closets when it was constructed as part of a new wing in 1884. Apparently this room belonged to the Greenleaf’s young daughter, Marian.

9. Photo by Michael F. Lynch. Ludlow Cottage on Main Street in Lenox was enlarged in 1906. This oversized linen wardrobe in a small upstairs hall must have been assembled in place.

10. “Ethelwyn: front.”  Postcard,  ca. 1893-1925.  Digital Commonwealth,  http://ark.digitalcommonwealth.org/ark:/50959/1c18f524v  Courtesy of the Lenox Library Association.

11. As above, detail.

12. © WallpaperScholar.Com.

13. The former L. C. Peter’s Shop, Lenox, now Talbots. Credit: www.lenoxhistory.org

14. Photo courtesy of Stephen Peters, Lenox, Massachusetts.





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