Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Highland Farm: The sound of music….and happiness

All the sounds of the earth are like music,
The breeze is so busy it don't miss a tree,
And an ol' Weepin' Willer is laughin' at me.
- Oscar Hammerstein II

Recently, a blogger for the New York Review listed the reasons she hates visiting the former homes of writers, primarily because they only reinforce the belief: “That real estate, including our own envious attachments to houses that are better, or cuter, or more inspiring than our own, is a worthy preoccupation. That writers can or should be sanctified. That private life, even of the dead, is ours to plunder.”

I’m therefore pretty sure she should not visit Highland Farm Bed and Breakfast in Doylestown, PA, which just happens to have once been the home of lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II.   Not only can you snoop around his house, but you can even sleep in his bedroom.  And that’s exactly why my family and I wanted to stay there.   

From the Highland Farm website: 

The Hammerstein family lived at Highland Farm for 20 years. During their residence, the home was constantly alive with many guests and children. Mr. Hammerstein was known to fly different colored flags as a message to the local children. One said, “Come and swim.” Another meant, “Let’s play tennis.” And still another said, “Stay away today.” 

In addition to their own children, the Hammerstein’s were also known to take in other children in need of a home. As a young boy, Stephen Sondheim spent considerable time at Highland Farm and received his secondary education from The George School in Newtown. Mr. Hammerstein became a mentor to young Stephen and encouraged him to hone his talents as a songwriter. 

Other guests include Mr. Hammerstein’s good friend, James Michener, and his long-time collaborator, Richard Rodgers. Rodgers once said of Hammerstein, “He’s a meticulously hard worker, and yet he’ll roam the grass of his farm for hours and sometimes for days before he can bring himself to put a word on paper.” 

Built in 1840, the house feels like the sort of place that’s infused with a long history of happy experiences. Perhaps we plundered a bit of Hammerstein’s private life, perhaps we even hoped to steal inspiration from the home where he created some of his most famous works. We sang tunes from South Pacific, played a little Oklahoma on the piano, and enjoyed every moment of it.  

I hope Hammerstein would be glad we found a temporary refuge in his old home, just like the many friends, family, and guests before us whose memories are now as much a part of the place as his own.

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