A one-room cottage in Marblehead, Massachusetts, inspires lyrical devotion—just as it has for almost 100 years.

By Cathy Still Johnson
June 09, 2007
Jean Allsopp

A staunch little house setting
out to sea
But anchored securely just where
it should be
With big spacious windows which
when opened wide
Seem to bring the whole breadth
of the ocean inside.

This is the Pagoda where friends
one and all
Make haste in response to
Elizabeth’s call
For we all love to go to
luncheon or tea
But especially the Pagoda at the
edge of the sea.
G.G., September 4, 1916

In the early years of the 20th century, the great estates of the rocky Massachusetts coast set an unmatched standard for entertaining. Invitations for gracious lawn parties and lavish regatta soirees were happily accepted by guests delighted to stay for the weekend―or, for that matter, the summer.

They say the invitations to Rockbound, an estate near Marblehead, were especially sought-after. That may be because one of its charms is a seaside cottage named the Pagoda. Today, nobody really knows why the house was called that; perhaps its cinnabar-colored roof made someone think of the Far East. Nonetheless, the name stuck, and so has its aura of conviviality.

"The little house really evokes a romance of a time gone by," says Susan Shapiro, who owns it now. "We would all like to try to capture it, but none of us has the servants or the time to devote to maintaining that lifestyle."

When Susan and her husband, Alan, bought the estate, clues surrounding its past began to unfold. “The name "Rockbound" represents the protection it enjoys from the boulders before it at sea,” says Susan. “The rocks protect the little Pagoda in New England’s nor’easter storms. At one time there were many small houses like this one dotting the shore, but over time most have been destroyed.”

Time, however, has destroyed neither the Pagoda’s air of hospitality nor the tales of parties that one of its owners, Elizabeth Barker, hosted almost a century ago.

The locals say that Elizabeth lived alone. Yet, like F. Scott Fitzgerald's character Jay Gatsby, she always managed to keep her life full of interesting people. Proof of that is in the handwritten poems the Shapiros found framed on the Pagoda's walls. Yellowed with age, the guests' thank-you notes celebrate long-ago parties and a hostess' prowess.

Tales of Elizabeth's love of life persist as well. Local lore describes a woman who, toward the end of her days, had servants wheel her chair down to the surf so she could enjoy a soothing swim.

The house and the stories recall a time when dreams danced on a green lawn outside a little house bravely hugging the sea. For the Shapiros, its appeal is unchanged. They still treasure the qualities that moved so many of the Pagoda's early guests to poetry.

Even today, the little house continues to bring friends together. “When we entertain, we like to start the evening at the Pagoda,” Susan says. “It evokes intimate conversation and friendships evolve. It is a place to share on a level that day-to-day life does not often allow.”

And, as much as she enjoys her quiet moments in the Pagoda, Susan is wistful about one thing: “I would love to have gone to one of Elizabeth’s parties.”

This little house―so small―and yet it holds
The things we all most long for, things of worth
The peace and quiet that alone give birth
To nobler thoughts and higher aims in life.
We here can almost feel the warmth
The touch of God's own hand,
Almost can see and understand
The workings of His world.
The mighty waves that dash upon the shore.
The countless gulls that screech and flap and soar.
The ships that pass and then we see no more.
The quiet strength of rocks immovable.
All these denote the power beyond our ken
And make us strong to take up life again.
All these―the lingering thoughts that come to me
As I gaze from this little house beside the sea.