Cogswell's Grant, 60 Spring St, Essex, MA 01929
Old Corner Book Store, 283 Washington St, Boston, MA 02108
Bertram Kimball Little (July 27, 1899 – June 21, 1993) was a member of the Horace Walpole Society, elected in 1949, honorary member in 1987.
He was elected to resident membership in the Massachusetts Historical Society on February 14, 1952, and was a familiar figure at its meetings up until few years before his death, when frailty denied his gathering with colleagues. Bert served on the Society's House Committee from 1954 to 1984 and wrote two memoirs—on William Sumner Appleton and Harold Bowditch—for the Proceedings.
Over the nearly seventy years since their marriage in 1925, Bert and his wife, Nina Jarvie Fletcher Little, together developed the premier collection of American folk art in this country, and they engaged in remarlcable scholarship, publication, and preservation. No New England couple in the past had such penetrating depth and breadth respecting the American arts. They were extraordinary advocates of endangered or ignored arts in dimensions both large and small.
The couple married in 1925 and in 1928 they purchased a home in Hudson, Massachusetts, for a weekend and summer retreat. Then in 1937 purchased a 165-acre property in Essex, Massachusetts, carefully restoring the 1738 farmhouse, preserving original finishes while documenting their work. They named it Cogswell's Grant, after John Cogswell, the original 1636 land receipt. The couple collected and decorated their house with various "country arts" until 1984 when Mrs. Little transferred property ownership over to Society for the Preservation Of New England Antiquities, reserving life tenancy rights for herself and her family. The property is now a historic house museum which is owned and operated by Historic New England. Collections of the couple over the years can be found at many museums including Maryland Historical Society Museum in Baltimore and the American Folk Art Museum in Manhattan.
A quintessential New Englander, Bert was born on July 27, 1899, in Marblehead, Massachusetts, to David Mason and Clara Bertram (Kimball) Little. At the Middlesex School in Concord and at Harvard College, where he graduated with the Class of 1923, Bert discovered early his literary and dramatic talents. He was editor of the Crimson, was a member of the Signet Society, and was active in the Hasty Pudding Club. Drama meant much to Bert throughout his life. He maintained this interest through amateur theatrical performances by directing and acting in plays for the Footlight Club of Jamaica Plain, which he served as president. He also attended Harvard Divinity School and Union Theological Seminary in New York City, but he decided not to enter the ministry.
Old Corner Book Store, 283 Washington St, Boston
Instead, Bert took a position at Little, Brown & Co., where he worked in the advertising and editorial departments between 1926 and 1930. Subsequently, he became a proprietor of the Counting House, a rare book store, the Brattle Book Shop, on historic T Wharf, Boston. For a year he served as the advertising manager of Lothrop, Lee & Sheppard, after which he became the associate editor and assistant circulation manager for the magazine The Open Road for Boys (1936-1947). Bert's historical instincts manifested themselves as he became secretary for the volunteer committee that planned Harvard's tercentenary exhibition in 1936. This loan exhibition, a landmark for its time, involved the publication of a catalogue listing and illustrating American furniture, silver, pewter, glass, ceramics, paintings, prints, and allied arts and crafts of the period 1636-1836.
Bert found his true vocation in 1947, when he became the corresponding secretary and director of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities. He held the directorship for twenty-three distinguished years, until 1970. During this era, so critical to the preservation movement in America, Bert not only guided the Society's care of some fifty-eight historic houses and properties, he also kept the organization in such financially sound order that it served as a model for other emerging preservation groups. Under Bert's guidance, the Society's publication Old-Time New England set standards for the preservation field with far-reaching results. In the May 1960 issue of The Magazine ANTIQUES, Bert discussed the Society's fifty years of preservation efforts. He observed that the staff of the Society was willing to face public misunderstanding or disapproval by deliberately maintaining properties without undertaking "restoration or change of any sort" in order to serve the future with invaluable sources for study and learning. That approach to preservation—leaving well enough alone—which may have been peculiar to frugal New England, has proved to be an important and powerful concept applicable to all the arts. Three years after this article, another issue of ANTIQUES (October 1963) contained a piece co-authored with Bert's eventual successor as director of SPNEA, Abbott Lowell Cummings. This article expressed a joint opinion that urban renewal and preservation efforts were in conflict and could not be reconciled without serious reorientation. Candidly they observed that decisions about what was worth preserving could be determined only by informed individuals—predominantly architectural historians. In retrospect, this viewpoint, which must have been unpopular in its day, was clearly correct.
During World War II, Bert served as the director of the Boston Blood Donor Center of the American Red Cross. He was active in the Boston Council of the Boy Scouts of America. He was a regular participant in the Antiques Forum of Colonial Williamsburg. He became a member of Historic Boston, which preserved the Old Corner Bookstore (1713) (now Brattle Book Shop) in 1960. He served with Nina on the faculty of summer seminars on American culture at the New York State Historical Association in Cooperstown. He was associated with the Standards and Surveys Committee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation as well as the Advisory Board of the National Park Service. He was a director of the Fruitlands Museums, Harvard, Massachusetts. And he was an overseer of Strawbery Banke, Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Wherever Bert served, he enlivened conversation with his wit, knowledge, and enthusiasm. His capacity to encourage young and emerging students in the American arts converted many individuals to the field of historic preservation.
Bert's affiliations were many. They included the Harvard Musical Association, the Masons, the American Antiquarian Society, the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, the Salem Marine Society, the Club of Odd Volumes, the Rushlight Club, the Society of the Cincinnati of the State of New Hampshire, the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, the Harvard Club of New York, and the Union Club of Boston. Bert was a senior deacon of the First Parish (Unitarian) in Brookline, where his memorial service was held.
In 1949 he was elected to a small society of collectors (limited to thirty nationwide). Members of this group, the Walpole Society, particularly remember Bert with fondness and high regard for his ready wit and quiet merriment. Although old New England at heart, Bert was always ready for a new discovery—his life seemed to all who knew him a constant unfolding of surprises—a witness to joy. At the time of his death, he was the oldest living member and held the greatest longevity of membership in the Walpole Society.
Together with Nina, Bert received the highest recognition for contributions to their field: the Louisa du Pont Crowninshield Award of the National Trust for Historic Preservation (1964). In 1984 he was the first recipient of the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Award for contributions to the study, preservation, and interpretation of American decorative arts.
Bertram Kimball Little, affectionately called 'Bert" by his many friends, died at the age of ninety-three on June 21, 1993. His passing took place only a few months after that of his wife, Nina Jarvie Fletcher Little, the nation's foremost collector-scholar in the field of early American folk art, on March 3, 1993.
The Littles are survived by five grandchildren and three immediate off-spring who continue their concern for preservation and research, as well as their deep affection for American history—Dr. John Bertram Little of Brookline, Warren Masters Little of Cambridge, and Selina Fletcher Little of Salem.
Of the many publications that witness the Little legacy, the handsome 1984 volume Little by Little: Six Decades of Collecting American Decorative Arts by Nina Fletcher Little is the best known. Its publication served to generate a splendid exhibition of "Selections from the Littles' Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston" in 1984.
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