Gladys Taber's Still Cove

By Elizabeth White

The houses of famous writers often become shrines and tourist attractions, both here on the Cape and around the world. But what happens when a writer's fame fades with time? The fate of a small house in Orleans is a case in point. The Orleans Historical Commission recently designated the former residence of writer Gladys Taber as a 'historically significant' building. The action came after Taber fans from around the country wrote dozens of letters to the Commission urging the small house be preserved But not everyone is convinced of the house's historical value, including the current owner.

Gladys Taber never won a Nobel prize for literature but she was for millions of Americans a household name. Taber died in 1980 at the age of 81, the author of over forty books, both fiction and non-fiction. She was perhaps best known for her monthly columns on country living published in Ladies Home Journal during the Great Depression. Taber spent the last decade of her life in a house overlooking Mill Pond in East Orleans, which she named Still Cove. From that house, she wrote hundreds of home-spun nature columns for the Cape Cod Oracle, now collected in two books. Carrol Haeberli of the Orleans Historical Commission explains why Taber fans are so passionate.

Carrol Haeberli: "She's not afraid to be sentimental and she's not afraid to really write with love. And I think that's why so many people loved her and loved her books. And why, even though Gladys has been gone for twenty-five years, they don't want to let go. I think that's why people want to save this house."

But the little house is in rough shape. And the recent designation of 'historically significant' doesn't gaurentee it won't be demolished. Taber fans are trying to put Still Cove on the National Registrar of Historic Places. But Jim Hadley, chairman of the Orleans Historical Commission, doubts they will succeed because the house was built in the 1950s.

Jim Hadley: "The house of an important person which itself is not a significant structure is the hardest case to make. Because again, the law is set up to preserve old things, almost like it were 'Antiques Roadshow' for houses."

Gladys Taber did much of her Still Cove writing seated in her living room in front of two floor length corner windows, one facing north and the other east. Those interested in preserving the property argue that Still Cove's historical significance lies in the relationship between the house and Taber's writing. Hadley agrees.

Jim Hadley: "There's no question that the things that Gladys Taber observed walking around her house and sitting in her living room and looking out the window and then writing about in her books is the thing that people care about. The truth is the view out of her window where she sat is probably more important that the house itself and the window, and the two are inseparable."

But the current owner of Still Cove, Robert Payne, disagrees the house is historically significant.

Robert Payne: "The thing is that there is, when one goes in, there's no historical value to the house. There are just the memories, the lingering memories of a writer who lived there for a while."

Payne has a financial interest in selling the house now. He owes over $200,000 in inheritance taxes and says he can't afford to maintain the house. The property has gone up substantially in value. Payne's mother bought the house for $230,000 in 1983. It's now on the market for $1.65 million. Payne says the historical designation has discouraged potential buyers, and believes preserving the house as the home of Gladys Taber doesn't make sense because his mother altered the property substantially. Several rooms have been added to the one-story cottage, and the interior redecorated with a Continental flare.

Robert Payne: "So this room um, became like. . ."

As Payne walks through the house, he points out the changes his mother made.

Robert Payne: "There was a breezeway to the little garage and my mother made this all into a bathroom"

But the room and corner windows where Taber wrote remain original. However, trees have since grown to obstruct the view she captured on the page. Ivy grows in through the heating vents and the wood's rotten in many places. It's clear Still Cove needs renovations. Taber's granddaughter, Anne Colby, says the family just hopes for a sensitive buyer who will not build anything out of keeping with the landscape. Gail Rainey, a long-time Orleans resident who knew Taber for over twenty years, is conflicted as to the importance of preserving Still Cove. Rainey thinks the land is more important than the house.

Gail Rainey: "The location was something that was very dear to her, and to those of us who loved her. I tell you I'm on the local board of health. I'm on the local board of health and one of the things that we've been dealing with are little, lovely little Cape Cod cottages being torn down and huge, huge trophy houses being built. Do I think that adds to the charm of Cape Cod? No I don't. And I would hate to see that kind of thing on the beautiful Mill Pond."

Rainey feels the house has no intrinsic value removed from its setting. And as her comments show, the effort to preserve Still Cove can?t be removed from its own context, the rapid and sometimes out-of-scale development of Cape real estate. For the Cape and Islands NPR Stations, I?m Elizabeth White in Orleans.

Broadcast September 15, 2005

Elizabeth White reports for the Cape and Islands NPR Stations