Friday, January 6, 2012

Amos Tuck's Magnificent House

by Barbara Rimkunas
This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, January 6, 2012.

In 1838, young lawyer Amos Tuck moved to Exeter with his wife Sarah and three young children. There were numerous lawyers already in town, but Tuck, at his wife’s urging, decided there was room enough for another. The Tucks moved into a plain but roomy wooden house at 72 Front Street. In this house, Sarah and Amos would have five more children and would mourn the deaths of most of them. In a time when infant mortality was high, it was unusually high for the Tucks. Of their eight children, only three survived into adulthood. The most children they had at any one time was five – and that lasted only four years.

Sarah herself died at the age of 36 in 1847. Ever a practical man, Tuck was married again within six months to Catherine Shepherd. Marriage wasn’t the only change in his life that year; he was elected to the U.S. Congress and the family moved to Washington D.C. in November. It was at his first congressional meeting that he met another freshman congressman, Abraham Lincoln.

The two men were the same age and both were disillusioned with their respective political parties’ views on the expansion of slavery. He and Lincoln served together for two years, forming a strong friendship. Lincoln went back to Illinois to resume his legal career. Tuck continued to live in Exeter and Washington, D.C., serving two more terms in congress.

In 1853, after returning to Exeter, Tuck decided to build a new house on Front Street. Moving slightly away from the center of town, he purchased a piece of land on the opposite side of the street. His family, by this time, had shrunk to nearly an empty nest. Son Edward was off to Dartmouth and his eldest daughter, Abigail, married that year. This left Tuck, his wife and 14 year old daughter Ellen as the only permanent residents in the new house.

The Tucks decided not to make their new house similar to the other old colonial structures on Front Street. They chose, instead, to build an Italian villa, a trendy new style in architecture in 1853. Most of Exeter’s architecture up until that point, consisted of boxy symmetrical colonials with deeply pitched roofs and overlapping clapboarding. Tuck’s house, although constructed of native materials, was designed to look like it was dropped in New England from the outskirts of Tuscany. The clapboarding is smooth to mimic Italian stucco. The roof is designed with a low pitch with deeply overhanging eaves that are heavily bracketed. Italian villa homes, like the Tuck house, are usually asymmetrical and feature a prominent porch. It remained the unrivaled example the Italianate style until Alva Wood built his house across the way at 84 Front Street in 1864.

Tuck’s house oozed elegance. When Abraham Lincoln’s son, Robert, came to Exeter in the fall of 1859 to attend Phillips Exeter Academy, he often visited the Tucks at their fine home. When his father stopped by the following winter, he did not spend any time with the family, although it was long presumed that he had stayed at the house. Amos Tuck was in St.Louis when Abraham Lincoln was in town, and later berated him for not even stopping to visit his wife and daughter. For many years, however, the house bore a plaque that stated that Lincoln had stayed there. It seemed like the logical place for Lincoln to stay – he and Tuck were old friends from Congress. In later years, Tuck’s son, Edward, would state that he thought Lincoln had stayed at his father’s house – but he had been away at college at the time, so his statement, made in old age, is a bit suspect. In actuality, we have no idea where Lincoln slept during his brief visit.

Tuck lived in the house until his death in 1879. The house remained in family hands for decades after. Still a private residence, the house has undergone extensive renovations in this past year under the careful guidance of Exeter’s Historic District Committee. It remains a jewel on Front Street.

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