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Worn shrine to 'Little Women'


CONCORD, MASS. - As tourist attractions go, the brown, clapboard house on the road to Lexington radiates modesty. The window and door frames sag, making the whole building appear to slump. Inside, the floorboards ripple like waves in a stormy sea, and the plaster is cracked and buckled. Some of the wallpaper is rotting and torn.

This is Orchard House, the setting for "Little Women," 19th-century author Louisa May Alcott's semi-autobiographical novel about young women coming of age in New England - a house that is a shrine to the novel, which has never gone out of fashion, or print, to the woman who wrote it and the flowering of American philosophical thought.

Like the four March girls of the novel, the Alcott sisters - Anna, Louisa, and May - rehearsed their "theatricals" in the attic. They turned the dining room into the stage for performances before audiences that included Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, seated in the living room.

"Being still too young to go to the theater," Louisa Alcott wrote in "Little Women," "and not rich enough to afford any great outlay for private performances, the girls put their wits to work and - necessity being the mother of invention - made whatever they needed. Very clever were some of their productions. ... The furniture was used to being turned topsy-turvy, and the big chamber was the scene of many innocent revels."

About 35,000 visitors a year, most of whom can tell the "Little Women" stories from memory, tour the house, and many of them leave looking just a little teary and emotional.

"There's something magic here," says Linda Fier of Millersville, who was visiting recently with her husband, Bob, and their 10-year-old daughter, Lindsay. "Maybe it's because they were such a large family and they all obviously loved each other so much."

Fier says the visit was her pilgrimage rather than her daughter's: "I read 'Little Women' when I was a girl and I loved it. I want her to read it and love it, too."

The house, furnished almost entirely with Alcott family pieces, is one of the biggest draws in the town where the American Revolution began.

Stripped brick buildings line the downtown streets. There are at least two crosswalks in every block, with yellow signs warning motorists that pedestrians have the right of way.

The Minuteman monument, marking the spot where "the shot heard round the world" was fired, stands in a bucolic plaza across the wooden North Bridge on the edge of town. Just across an open field is "The Old Manse," a large, white colonial era building that housed Concord's early ministers and the families of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Every third or fourth building, it seems, has a historical marker. There's the bullet-hole house on Monument Street where a hole from a bullet fired during the battle of North Bridge, April 19, 1775, can be seen; First Parish, a large white church where the first and second Provincial Congresses met in 1774; and Wright's Tavern on Monument Square, built in 1747.

Traffic is so light at the homes of Emerson and author Hawthorne that tourists can get almost one-on-one guided tours. But crowds stream into Orchard House, with individual tour groups comprising 15 to 20 people.

"They get a couple thousand a month over there. We might get that in a year," says Jane Sciacca, a National Parks Service guide at The Wayside, Hawthorne's home about 100 yards away through a stand of oak and apple trees.

But Orchard House, where Alcott wrote at a half-moon desk in an upstairs bedroom, is in trouble: The roof leaks, and support beams have rotted. The intricate drawings that youngest sister May - Amy in "Little Women" - sketched on her bedroom walls and window frames are in danger of disappearing as the wood rots and walls crack. (In the first chapter of "Little Women" the girls are talking about Christmas presents when Amy confidently announces, "I shall get a nice box of Faber's drawing pencils.")

"It's a very needy structure," says Rick Detwiller, a Boston architect who specializes in historic restorations. "We were at a meeting in an upstairs room there in the early '80s, and I looked around and began wondering how much more the house could take."

Detwiller is part of the team of architects and engineers brought in to help plan a $1.2 million restoration project. The Orchard House Association, which owns and operates the building, obtained a $400,000 federal grant to help restore the property last month and is trying to raise another $800,000.

"Until now, all the work we've done has been reactive," says Jan Turnquist, executive director of Orchard House. "Now, we're going to be able to be proactive - to get the house jacked up and setting evenly again, to do preventive maintenance instead of just fixing what's broken."

The original four-room house was built in the 1690s. Louisa's father, A. Bronson Alcott, an educational reformer and teacher whose ideas were a century ahead of their time and who spent most of his life in debt, purchased it in 1857 with a loan from Emerson. The elder Alcott was a leader of the early transcendentalist movement in America, which taught that people were born good and could come closer to God through nature. In an era of rote learning, he introduced art, music, nature study and physical education in the schools where he taught, and insisted that students could learn best by asking questions. Because of those theories, he rarely held a job for very long; the family moved 22 times before it settled into Orchard House, named for the 12 acres of apple trees surrounding it.

The house was in such bad shape when Bronson Alcott purchased it that Louisa, in one of her journals, called it "Apple Slump."

Thoreau, the elder Alcott's friend, helped him roll a tenant building down the hill behind the main house and attach it to create a larger structure. Over the years, Alcott made more changes to the house, sometimes creating the problems that endanger the building now. He removed a pole, for example, that supported much of the upstairs.

"Having seen the house and the way some things are put together, Mr. Alcott, great as he was, didn't know much about construction," says John Wathne, the structural engineer for the restoration. But the big problem, says Wathne, is that Orchard House was "built as a residential structure."

"It was never intended for anywhere near the traffic it gets. It's like trying to have a Volkswagen Beetle tow a giant trailer."

The summer after the 1994 movie version of "Little Women," with Wynona Rider and Claire Danes, opened in theaters, Orchard House accommodated nearly 50,000 visitors. That's more than The Wayside or Emerson's house, a quarter-mile away, see in five years. But those houses "were built as monumental homes at the time," says Wathne. "This was just a farmhouse."

Wathne recalled being in the basement about a year ago and watching floor joists sag as a group of 15 to 20 tourists crowded into the room over his head. Turnquist tells of finding the ceiling over the upstairs hallway held up by a single nail.

The Orchard House Association spent $80,000 on emergency repairs to shore up the floors and ceilings last year and set about raising the money for a wholesale restoration.

"We've made it safe for now," says Wathne. "Now we have to take it apart, see what's wrong and fix it. If we do our jobs perfectly, you won't be able to see what we did."

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