Photo by Salt Water New England

Monday, July 8, 2019

A Bit of Mad Scientist

Many favorite houses over the years have had a bit of a "mad scientist" feel to them.

The structures have traditional bones; the interiors contain many of the familiar artifacts and touchstones.  But any visitor quickly gets the feeling that significant experimentations are being conducted.

Houses with mad scientist cooks are the easiest to identify, of course.  But the engineers, the botanists, the authors, the cartographers, the scientists, the mystery solvers, imbue the quarters almost as palpably, even if just out of sight behind some closed door, up the staircase, or out back in the workshop.

And with friends, there is always that tension. "Normal" conversations in the sitting room inevitably give way to showing the newest work or galleys, and on more than a few occasions, taking spontaneous field trips.  (On one such occasion, we found ourselves deep in the woods at midnight calling in barred owls.  On another, examining prototypes that used lasers to provide equine acupuncture. Or testing vintage cars rebuilt using 3D printing for missing parts.)

Across all of the examples, there are perhaps two constants.

The first is that the houses are never inert, but always evolving.  Even in their incompleteness is an excitement of what might come next.

Second, spending time with such people makes guests leave with an inspiration that can be measured in months, years, and often lifetimes.


  1. Well stated. I understand the sentiment. From a scientist, although much less interesting than your science friends. GLH

  2. I was fascinated with TR's house Sagamore Hill. The main floor rooms are a wonderful combination of personalities--mostly Teddy's, but you can witness where Edith put her foot down.

    Upstairs, OMG! The bedrooms are a warren of sleeping abodes that wander hither and yon. Must have been stifling in the heat.

  3. I absolutely adored reading this.

  4. The only remotely similar experience I've had was when visiting with the father of a lady friend (in a previous life of mine, about 40 years ago). After a few minutes of pleasantries, he left the room and returned with an ancient missal, probably from the Renaissance period, all excited about his latest acquisition. He was a university professor and supposedly an acquaintance of Tolkien.

    I have no memory at all of the house, except that it was old.

  5. My brother calls this "intellectual decorating."

    - ER

  6. What a wonderful read. Thank you so much!

  7. I have an uncle who spent his leisure hours building a Fresnel lens in his backyard workshop. And a cousin who built strange hybrid vehicles from bits and pieces of others. Even in the most humble home, my dad has always had a study where he composes his manuscripts with an old fountain pen, then painstakingly types them out. (And all the women sew, but that doesn't seem very mad scientist-ish.)

    I'm curious what distinguishes a "mad scientist house" from simple homes where creative people throw themselves into their hobbies. Is the level of expertise? The way they invite others to join them in the mystery & discovery? The role that the experiments play within the family? Something else?

  8. Can the term "Mad Scientist" include discovering and displaying the historic archaeology of one's old house?

    For instance, we uncovered an original 1692 clapboard exterior wall in good condition, and now it's integral to the layered character of the 1721 front room which was constructed right up against it.

    We also found many concealed old shoes - 1690s through 1850s - behind lintels, doorways, and chimney openings (an ancient tradition to deflect evil spirits) and they are now all displayed in a case in our living room. What a unique conversation starter during cocktail parties!

  9. Jefferson. Monticello.