Kitchen Tour: Edna St. Vincent Millay's Poetic Farmhouse

Austerlitz, NY

“How hard to think of the couplet to close the sonnet when there wasn’t a place to put clean dishes!” - Gladys Taber, Ladies’ Home Journal, February 1949

Just over sixty years ago, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Edna St. Vincent Millay’s farmhouse kitchen was completely made-over and modernized by the editors of Ladies' Home Journal. Its wood-burning stove and old icebox were replaced with sleek Mid-Century appliances, and its walls were painted a fashionable sky blue to complement the new salmon Naugahyde.

Today, the room readies itself for another work crew - this time a team of restorers. Although the late poet’s house is currently closed to the public, Peter Bergman, Executive Director of The Edna St. Vincent Millay Society was generous enough to give us a glimpse into the past - and future - of this storied farmhouse kitchen.
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Heating Things Up in the Roaring Twenties

“Steepletop” was the name Edna (or “Vincent” as she was known to friends and family) gave to this Berkshires-area property when she and her husband Eugen Boissevain bought it in 1925. A former dairy farm, the hilltop estate was yet to be electrified, so depended instead on a small gasoline-fueled generator for power. This generator usually produced enough juice to keep the lights on and the radio playing, but was in no way up to the task of keeping modern kitchen appliances purring along. And so, the couple continued to make do with an icebox and wood-burning stove years after technology was to seemingly render both obsolete.

But none of this could stop Steepletop from gaining notoriety as a hotspot for entertaining. The couple shipped in a mahogany bar from an Albany speakeasy (complete with bullet holes!) and installed it in their garden. The two spent many summer afternoons and evenings with friends mixing up cocktails, poolside. Gin - and sometimes local applejack - was always a favorite pour.

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The Ladies’ Home Journal Makeover

In the late 1940s, after much petitioning to the authorities on the couple's part, the farmhouse finally became connected to the local power grid. But the kitchen’s major appliances were still running on cords of wood and blocks of ice. The editors of Ladies’ Home Journal got wind of the story and came up with a proposal: The magazine would completely remodel the celebrity poet's kitchen in return for full photo coverage and a feature profile. It was an offer too good to refuse.

And so the old kitchen got a brand-new electric stove, electrified refrigerator, double porcelain sink, and generous chest freezer. The bones of the room were altered too. A wide picture window went in above the sink, opening up the room to sunlight and a view of the garden. An awkwardly-placed interior door was moved to make room for a breakfast nook. The old-timey, labor-intensive kitchen had been made-over to become a Mid-Century, electrified dream.

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The Later Years

After Edna St. Vincent Millay’s death, her sister Norma inherited the estate. As the years passed, the made-over kitchen regained some of its original country feel. Seashells, feathers, and other natural objects Edna and Norma both collected found their way onto the streamlined shelves. The massive chest freezer was moved to an adjacent room, and a china hutch was re-installed in its place, restoring some of the room’s original layout. Comfortable old wooden chairs were pulled up to the sleek Modernist table. The Mid-Century refrigerator and stove eventually wore out and were replaced with "harvest gold" Late-Century models. Norma Millay Ellis eventually founded an artists’ colony on the property and would often invite groups of residents over to the house for meals.

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Future Plans for the Kitchen

Today Steepletop is a National Historic Landmark. The Edna St. Vincent Millay Society is currently fundraising to restore the house, with the aim of opening it up to the public as a museum. Projects for the kitchen include finding appropriate vintage replacements for the long-departed Ladies' Home Journal appliances, replacing hazardous old plumbing and wiring, removing lead paint and repairing crumbling plaster, installing a reliable system for climate control - and replanting the kitchen garden with all the herbs, vegetables, and fruits that once thrived in its rich soil.

Further Reading:

Related: Ragdale House Travels Through Time

(Images: black & white before & after photos courtesy of The Edna St. Vincent Millay Society; photos for "Poet's Kitchen" article, Stuart-Stephenson, Ladies' Home Journal, February 1949; portrait of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Carl Van Vechten via Wikimedia Commons; all other images, Nora Maynard)

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Kitchens, Cook's Kitchen, History, Kitchen

Nora Maynard is a freelance writer based in New York City. Her recent work has appeared in Salon, Drunken Boat, and The Millions. She recently completed her ninth marathon and her first novel, Burnt Hill Road. Nora wrote for The Kitchn from 2006 to 2011.

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