There's more to Miriam's Tea House than meets the eye

Amos Seavey House filled with fascinating history dating back to 1730

Ellen Hamil

Fall strikes a strong note of nostalgia for me. I'm reminded of the many summers that would come to a close with me driving my aged mother back to her retirement home in Concord. It also meant that I would be leaving Rye soon to go back West and wouldn't be seeing her until May the next year, eight months later. I don't know if she noticed it, but I would take a circuitous route back, stretching out the trip to make it last longer. It was on these meanderings through the southeast New Hampshire countryside that she would point out places and buildings that were part of her memories, thus making them part of mine. One fall we hadn't even left Rye when we came across a stately old house we had passed hundreds of times. Leaving Concord Point we turned right onto Rte. 1A and headed north following the coast until it reaches Odiorne Point and veers west taking an inland tack to Foye's Corner. On our right, just before the intersection of Brackett Road sits a house way too close to the busy road of this day and age, but considering its history it was not an exception then. "This used to be a tea house," my mother said.

The Amos Seavey House. Photo courtesy of Brandon Harris.

It was news to me but didn't pique my curiosity until years later when as part of a group of citizen journalists putting together a monthly edition of Rye Reflections, a few articles appeared that featured interesting and historical buildings in our area. How could I find out more about the tea house? The opportunity arose when I joined Curves and met the woman who lives in the tea house. Andrea and her husband Hugh bought the house in 1996. Could I possibly visit and see the house? Come Tuesday afternoon, Andrea told me. Now I would get to see what had once been Miriam's Tea House. But there's more to a tea house than meets the eye.

Andrea Lee in her kitchen.

Hugh Lee with a bottle of Seavey Estate wine.

The era of Miriam's Tea House is just a drop in the bucket of history of the house at 220 Pioneer Road. I was told the house was built in 1730 and is referred to as the Amos Seavey House, one of the oldest houses in Rye. Because of its good condition and the massive center chimney, the house had architectural appeal and was documented in 1936 in the Library of Congress American Memory - Built in America.  Its architectural drawings also appear in "Architectural Heritage of the Piscataqua."   Well, this certainly adds interest to the story, I thought. Next I discovered Mr. Seavey owned slaves. To add to this is a charming story about the couple who bought the house and are passionate about its restoration and the extended family of former owners and  Seavey descendents  whose interest in the house  has never waned.  This story could be told in volumes, I thought.  But it was the teahouse I was interested in.

My husband, David (a restorer of old houses himself and a devotee of "This Old House") and I visited the Lees on a warm July afternoon. We were greeted outside the kitchen door, and this is how we entered the house. What a palpable and exciting change to step inside and instantly be transported back in time a couple of centuries. The kitchen had all the attributes of a colonial kitchen, including the baking area beside the chimney that was heated by coals, which, after being removed, would be used to cook foods tolerant of high temperatures. As the oven temperature decreased, other foods that didn't require high temperatures were added, and this continued until everything was cooked, baked, roasted, whatever, for the week. What delicious aromas must have filled this room. And, how cozy it must have been on a winter's day to knead dough and prepare custards to feed the hearty appetites of colonial settlers homesteading a hundred acres of an original King's land grant. The Lees have modern conveniences, such as electric range and refrigerator, but the cupboards and walls, fireplace hearth and floor take on a veneer of time and continued use that is lovely and comforting.

The kitchen fireplace has a crane to hang pots at various levels to the fire and an adjacent brick oven with lower compartment for the use of storing ashes.

Digging further into the tea house story brought me in contact with Brandon Harris. Brandon's father, Oscar E. Harris, had met and married Miriam Hayden Conklin sometime in the 1920s. We know Miriam was born in 1897 in Essex, Conn., and that she went to school to become a nurse. She worked for the Red Cross in the Canal Zone in Panama during WWI, and this is where she met her husband, O. E. Harris. They came to Portsmouth, and she took a job as a Navy nurse at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.

I do not know for certain when business started at Miriam's Tea House at 220 Pioneer Road. Brandon Harris told me Miriam and O.E. leased a tea room called Mary Lamb's that he described as being at the back door of the Portsmouth Public Library. Two ladies from Boston owned it and had tired of maintaining a business in Portsmouth and a house in Boston. After a few years of operating the tea room in Portsmouth, Miriam and O.E. leased the Amos Seavey House in Rye from Arthur Locke, eventually buying it from his widow Mabel after he had died, as a home for the tea house.  It was a tea house during the summer months until 1939 when the Harrises sold it to a William Smith who operated it for the next two years.

O.E. Harris and Miriam (front row center) with the tea house staff. Photo courtesy of Brandon Harris.

Some tea history, first from the other side of the Atlantic:

The English started a habit of afternoon tea in the mid-1800's (actually it was Anna, 7th Duchess of Bedford, according to Helen Simpson in "The London Book of Ritz Afternoon Tea",  who decided on a little something to eat in the late afternoon because she was bored - hello Weight Watchers), and it continued to grow in popularity for a hundred years. The teas consumed came from British colonies in Asia and were primarily black teas with popular names like Ceylon and Darjeeling from India and  Jasmine and Formosa Oolong  from China. According to Simpson, rituals for brewing (not stewing) tea evolved that dictated the length of time to boil the water and the type of pot to use.  Spode china, named for Josiah Spode, offered reasonable and attractive tea sets that kept tea hot and fulfilled the hostess's desire of pouring from an enviable teapot. Even ladies' fashions adjusted to the ritual by offering loose-fitting afternoon dresses. This tradition came to a screeching halt after World War II when the mantra  "you can't be too rich or too thin" became popular. But this wasn't what happened in this country.

Tea houses, or tea rooms, both terms were used interchangeably, had their onset in the early 1900's and are a product of both women suffrage and the advent of the automobile that was used for touring in those days (instead of commuting to work, school, etc. today). Taverns and road houses, usually owned and operated by men, served a purpose of providing food as well as beds for travelers on horseback before the automobile. Tea rooms were usually owned and operated by women and were the equivalent of restaurants today before the term became popular. They were popular in the 1920s in cities and small towns and especially in Seacoast towns and resorts. As a young girl spending summers in Rye, I remember going with my mother and aunt to Ogunquit to the Dancing Fan and to Perkins Cove to the Whistling Oyster. A friend told me recently that the Dancing Fan was owned by a Mr. Coolidge whose adopted son, Oswaldo, later ran it. She remembers the delicious cinnamon toast, a harem cake (possibly a spice cake) and a checkerboard cake as among the desserts. And she could recall a cold apricot soup - the recipe for which was never shared - at the Whistling Oyster. Another tea room in Rye that comes to mind in later years was the Salty Breeze, located on the corner of Washington Road and Ocean Boulevard that later became known as Joseph's Rye on the Rocks.

A wall dividing the living room was removed to expand the dining area.

Gift shops went hand-in-hand with tea rooms.  Women from the cities and suburbs loved the thrill of discovering a tea room with a quaint surrounding - an old mill, a lovely colonial house, an old warehouse, etc., (notice the use of the word "old") that was tastefully decorated and offered handcrafted decorations and antiques for sale. This stately old country farmhouse offered the perfect seaside setting for their tea house that would attract city women who were getting behind the wheel of a car and venturing further and further from home (due to state and local highway departments that were improving roads). An excellent history of tea rooms:  "Tea at the Blue Lantern Inn - A Social History of Tea Rooms" by Jan Whitaker was helpful to me in researching this article.

One of four downstairs fireplaces.

Cupboard with Andrea's collection of invalid feeders.

My mother wrote about her experience of going to Boston with a friend to shop and pausing mid-afternoon before driving back to Concord to have tea at the Ritz.  "There was more shopping until about 3 p.m. when Emily said "time for tea" and led the way back to the Ritz. We took an elevator to the second floor to the Ladies Lounge. A small man, very erect and dressed in a uniform like a toy soldier ran the elevator. I wondered if I gave him a salute would he return it? The lounge was for ladies only as the coffee shop off the lobby was for men only. The room was in a word, restful. Middle-aged waitresses moved about taking orders. From 3-5 p.m. the menu was tea and sandwiches, English muffins with tart marmalade or cocktails. Emily lighted a cigarette and ordered a daiquiri. I ordered tea and sandwiches. A round, squat, silver-plated tea pot and similar pitcher with hot water appeared.  Then a plate of thinly sliced lemon studded with two cloves each. Arriving last was a plate of crustless bread with fillings of sliced cucumber, watercress or chicken salad."

Miriam's Tea House served tea (and coffee) as well as lunch and dinner. I found a recipe for Miriam's Baked Stuffed Lobster online. The Lees own a framed copy of the dessert menu that features brownies, a variety of cakes, Indian pudding and ice cream with a choice of sauces.

Miriam died young at the age of 48. O.E. remarried and in 1944 fathered a child, Brandon L. Harris, who has been helpful in providing pictures and information, but O.E. and Miriam are together again for eternity in a corner at the Rye Cemetery on Central Road. O.E. Harris described it best:

    Where drones the surf its deep-toned bass against a rocky shore,
There stands an ancient dwelling with its flint-lock o'er the door.
    A distant buoy moans mournfully, a gull wheels through the sky,
Where "staid New England" meets for tea; at Miriam's in Rye.

Fall is again in the air. Time to take my mother back to Concord. Only this time will be her final trip as she died in May and will be buried beside my father in the cemetery in Concord. We will drive by Miriam's Tea House on our way. Unfortunately she'll never know about my visit to Miriam's Tea House and my new friends at 220 Pioneer Road, on Pine Street and in Huntington, New York.   

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