It was the home of Chatham’s wealthiest family in the late 1700s. Joseph Atwood was a sea captain; and back then, that profession was the true elite in a community comprised almost exclusively of famers, fisherman and trades people.
When Atwood built his home, it was the first residence with a second floor. That was status!
As you are guided through the family’s home, it is truly fascinating to relate opulence more than two centuries ago to today’s McMansions. That perspective alone makes a visit to the Atwood House an experience that challenges your value system as much as your intellect and senses.
Captain Atwood’s home was built about 1752 and is the oldest existing structure in town, and your guided tour will take you into newer rooms that graphically document the evolution of luxury over about 100 years. Yet, such elite status still required lighting by whale oil and the frequent trips to the outhouse, even in the middle of winter.
Fortunately for us, the building is handicapped accessible and air conditioned
The Atwood House actually is many worlds contained within a surprisingly expansive building that belies both its location and outside, rather humble and weather-beaten appearance.
It’s the original homestead, which you can tour – always accompanied by a volunteer docent who can almost take you back 250 years ago, as they delight in sharing the most intimate and detailed descriptions and depictions of life when King George would behead a colonist if a single tree was cut down without permission.
It’s also a modern gallery, nourished by many generous contemporary donations, with multiple and rather unique exhibits that have evolved over time and, in some cases, just visit only for a tantalizingly short season.
You will go from one gallery that celebrates commercial fishing in Chatham to another chamber flush with paintings and interpretations of Monomoy to two rooms filled with miraculous embroidery that challenges your eyes and sensibilities. Those “paintings” can’t really be embroidery, can they?
The coup de grace for this Luxx Concierge is a room that was attached to the original building and contains a literal barn full of murals that can take your breath away. How can this art be in Chatham? It could be in any museum across the world. In fact, it once was before it returned home to Chatham where the artist Alice Stallknecht, who moved to Chatham in the early 1900s along with her husband, a brilliant scholar who suffered a nervous breakdown and was compelled to find a very quiet place to recover.
This large rectangular gallery is dominated by three giant murals that are heavily influenced by German impressionism and bring to dramatic light the life of Chatham a hundred years ago, from its industry and professions to its religion and mores. Within the three murals are more than 80 individual depictions of Chatham’s residents.
You can devote several hours to Stallknecht’s works and want to learn as much as you can about her own history and how this world-class art traveled the world before returning home through the commitment of her artist son and Chatham donors.
Chances are your experience here will be superbly enhanced by Sharon Kunz, who resides in the Skallknecht gallery not so much as a docent than as an intimate friend and confidant of all those Chatham past residents. A retiree and volunteer, Sharon exudes delight when you ask her to about that little girl among all those stern-looking congregants. Or why there is an empty seat next to the elderly couple at what might be a church supper.
She will tell you what happened to Stallknecht’s husband, who did recover among Chatham’s soothing Stage Harbor, or how the community gathered around the new couple when they arrived almost penniless. Back then, there wasn’t welfare as we know it, so the selectmen often took on the responsibility of dispensing funds to help Chatham citizens weather a far harsher world than we know today.
How to get there
It’s not easy to find. It is truly off the beaten path, although it is tantalizingly close to downtown Chatham. Just drive down Stage Harbor Road which connects with the Chatham Rotary and look for the museum sign to your left, situated in a residential neighborhood that shares much of Chatham’s history as it wends toward one end of Stage Harbor.
It is open now through Columbus Day, Tuesday through Saturday from 1 to 4 pm. Admission is $6 for adults, $3 for children under 7 and free for children 6 and under.
You can call 508-945-2493 for guidance planning your visit or go to chathamhistoricalsociety.org
For directions, click here