Last week I began to describe a walk I recently took on the pedestrian sidewalk that runs the length of Route 6 in Eastham – the only Cape town that has such a continuous walkway. What struck me most, for the first couple of miles, was the prevalence of old houses on both sides of the highway. Most were Greek Revivals and old Capes, with one or two Federal era structures. I must have passed dozens of them, some hidden or screened by fences or vegetation, but most quite visible.
In any case, this stretch of Route 6 is a veritable architectural museum of 18th and 19th century homes, rivaling the main streets of such old communities as Brewster and Barnstable. I never noticed this before when driving, because it is too dangerous to stop your vehicle anywhere along Route 6, or even take your attention away for a moment from the continuous traffic.
The most interesting house I encountered was about two miles north of the Rotary. It was mostly obscured from view by a thick stand of cedars in front of it. I would probably have just passed it by, but my eye was caught by a small, hand-painted sign beside its driveway. It read, “SITE OF EDWARD HOPPER’S ‘ROUTE 6, EASTHAM.’” This made me curious, as I couldn’t recall ever having seen a Hopper painting by that name. I walked up the drive to get a better look at the house and encountered a woman sitting in the Adirondack chair in the front yard. At first she seemed very wary of me, and rightfully so: a stranger appearing on foot in her drive and scribbling notes on a pad. But I explained myself and we gradually established a relaxed friendliness.
She was a native of Queens, and had owned the house since about 2000. She was an artist from New York and had a studio in a huge three-story barn behind the house. She told me that the house had been built by a Captain Louis Lombard in 1870, which seemed about right. It was an unusual Victorian version of the classic Greek Revival farmhouse. The roof pitches on both the main house and the ell were extremely steep, and it was adorned with gingerbread trim and fancy decorative shingling.
After we talked for a while, she asked me if I’d like to see a print of the Hopper painting. She took me into the hallway and there it was, “Route 6 Eastham,” a large oil painting of the house done in 1941, just a few years before the current 4-lane highway was constructed. As with so many of Hopper’s paintings of houses and barns, he had taken a few artistic licenses, removing some smaller features and adding others, but it was unquestionably this house, with its distinctively steep gables and doghouse dormer on the ell.
In the painting everything was heightened by that inimitable Hopper intensity of light. The highway in front of it was paved, but only two lanes wide, and, of course, there was no sidewalk. There were no trees, either, giving the house that sense of isolation and exposure that is so characteristic of the artist’s sensibility. The work had been painted only a few years before the changes were made that gave the highway its current look and divided the town forever, but already the scene looked like it belonged to a time and a place we can no longer remember, and can hardly even imagine.