‘My friends are my estate’

  • The Emily Dickinson Homestead in autumn. COURTESY of EMILY DICKINSON MUSEUM

  • A DaGuerreotype portrait of Emily Dickinson, one of Amherst’s great poets. COURTESY of EMILY DICKINSON MUSEUM

  • Flowering trees dot the grounds outside the Homestead. COURTESY of EMILY DICKINSON MUSEUM

  • The Emily Dickinson Homestead, looking toward the Conservatory.

For the Gazette
Wednesday, May 17, 2017

In a letter to a friend, Emily Dickinson once wrote “my friends are my estate.” But while her friends have long since passed, Dickinson’s estate lives on — and now, visitors are enjoying it again.

From the bright ochre-painted brick, to the dark green openings of the family home, the Emily Dickinson Homestead has reopened its doors to visitors for the 2017 season, immersing people in what was once the everyday life of one of America’s greatest poets.

Upon entering the Dickinson family home, the ingress leads into what used to be the kitchen, now remodeled from its original state to serve as a gift shop. The kitchen windows let in warm sunlight, welcoming visitors to tour the Homestead and experience the place where Emily spent much of her formative and adult years.

Although the landmarks and furnishings of the original kitchen are long gone, the room still casts a spell: It was once central to the Dickinson family’s home life.

“I feel great that I get to be in a room where she spent a lot of time,” said Starr Florio, the house manager for the estate. “Emily, as the baker of the family, passed many hours here. She could also gaze out and see her gardens or check if anyone was coming up the drive.”

From the family’s parlor room to Emily’s bedroom, the museum is filled with authentic memorabilia and pictures dating back to the early 1800s. Although none of Emily’s original poetry is located at the Homestead, the museum’s curators have created reproductions of her work, allowing visitors to see her creative process. From candy wrappers, to envelopes, to pieces of parchment, the museum has copies of the kinds of paper and other surfaces Emily once used for recording her poetic inspirations.

Currently the museum is in a state of rebirth and rebuilding, with new restoration plans underway. As such, the museum will be giving modified tours of the Dickinson family home throughout the spring season. Tours of The Evergreens will also be modified until maintenance work on the estate is finished.

The museum is recreating the Dickinsons’ conservatory off the family’s library at the Homestead. After the property was sold outside the family in 1916, the conservatory was taken down. However, pieces like the window sashes and the conservatory’s doors had been stored inside a garage on the grounds.

“We’ve had archeological digs here to find the foundation,” said Michael Medeiros, public relations coordinator for the museum. “We have historical records, like photographs taken around 1916 and other lithographs. Her niece also has some recollections of the conservatory that she had written down.”

Medeiros said the museum wants to provide visitors a chance to experience Dickinson’s life as it was in her Amherst home. Restoring the conservatory is a chance to reclaim the original intent of the house and property, not change it, he said.

“Any changes here go according to the way it was,” Medeiros said. “The whole goal of restoration work is bringing it back as closely as possible to how it was when Emily Dickinson was here, so people can experience her spaces a little more closely.”

The conservatory, like Emily Dickinson’s bedroom where she wrote her poetry, is a very intimate space. Encompassing only 102 square feet of the property, the conservatory is where she tended her plants and bulbs through the wintertime.

“We have an idea of what she had in her conservatory,” Florio said. “From jasmine to pomegranates, she grew all kinds of plants. You can imagine the 19th century’s horrible winters, driving by in your little sleigh, and here’s this riot of color from her flowers.”

As work continues on the conservatory, the museum invites guests to tour the household and view the restoration’s progress. Through May, the museum will be open Wednesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Starting in June and running through August, visiting hours will be open daily (except Tuesday) from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

For more information about tours and the conservatory’s reconstruction, call the museum at 413-542-8161 or visit the museum online at emilydickinsonmuseum.org.