So many New England places have served as historic movie sets that we found it hard to choose one for each state. Filmmakers over the years have set scenes in the mansions of Newport, along the colonial seaports and at college and prep school campuses – to name just a few.
Take, for example, the 1987 film Mystic Pizza. It features the Connecticut towns of Stonington, Mystic, New London, Pawcatuck, Groton, Watch Hill and Westerly, along with the Yale campus and Watch Hill and Westerly in Rhode Island.
We did manage, however, to come up with representative historic movie sets in each New England state. If you know of others, please include them in the comments section.
We decided to go with Amistad because of its historic theme. Amistad, of course, told the story of the slaves who rebelled aboard the ship of the same name. They went to trial and won their case with the help of John Quincy Adams.
Steven Spielberg used several historic movie setes for the 1997 film, including both the Massachusetts and Rhode Island statehouses, Mystic Seaport and several Newport, R.I., mansions.
Surprisingly, Amistad was the first film to use the seaport since the television movie A Man Without a Country 25 years earlier.
Acadia National Park
Acadia National Park serves as a historic movie set for Pet Sematary because the Antiquities Act protects it from development. The 1906 Act gives the president the right to create national monuments from federal lands, and Pet Sematary is one of a number of blockbuster movies shot on land protected by the Act.
Mainer Stephen King, appropriately, wrote the horror novel on which the 1989 film is based. The story about a haunted pet cemetery takes place in Ludlow, Maine, a real town in Aroostook County. But he actually shot the film in a number of Maine towns: Hancock, Bucksport, Ellsworth and Bangor.
The film boasts the tag line, “Sometimes dead is better,” and features a soundtrack by the Ramones.
The Crane Estate
Witches of Eastwick, based on the novel by Boston North Shore resident John Updike, features the Crane Estate in Ipswich. David Adler designed the Tudor Revival mansion for the Robert Crane family on a 2,100-acre estate. The Trustees of Reservations now own the estate and offer public programs and beach access during the summer.
In the 1987 film, the Crane Estate is the home of the eccentric millionaire Daryl Van Horne, played by Jack Nicholson. Other historic movie sets in Witches include Abbot Hall in Marblehead and Milton Academy in Milton, both in Massachusetts.
Philips Exeter Academy
Philips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H., provided the historic movie set for A Separate Peace, the coming-of-age novel every Baby Boomer read in school. The 1972 film starring a 20-year-old Parker Stevenson took place during World War II.
John Knowles published the novel 15 years after attending Philips Exeter as a boarder from West Virginia. He fell in love with the place, later writing, “The great trees, the thick clinging ivy, the expanses of playing fields, the winding black-water river, the pure air all began to sort of intoxicate me.”
Historic Exeter, N.H., is also featured in the A Separate Peace, as is New Hampshire’s Salisbury Beach. The nearby towns of Portsmouth and Dover, N.H., also appeared in another sort of coming-of-age film: the 1962 production of Lolita.
A later made-for-TV version of A Separate Peace was filmed in Toronto, Canada.
The Blithewold Mansion
We already gave Amistad to Connecticut, so we decided to select Mr. North as Rhode Island’s historic movie set. Thornton Wilder wrote the novel on which the 1988 film is based. Mr. North starred Anthony Edwards, Robert Mitchum and Lauren Bacall.
When the main character arrives in Newport, R.I., rumors about his healing powers start to spread. Director Danny Huston filmed it not in Newport, but at The Blithewold Mansion in Bristol. Coal baron Augustus Van Sickle built the English manor-style house, which features 33 acres full of rare and unusual plantings. The nomination for the National Register of Historic Places describes Blithewold as having outstanding landscaping, gardens and arboretums. Popular for weddings, Blithewold is now run as a house museum.
If you’re wondering about which Newport mansions served as historic movie sets, the Colony House appeared in Amistad as the appellate court. Marble House served as Queen Isabella’s palace, and Rosecliff Mansion appeared as the White House dining room.
The University Green Historic District
The University Green Historic District, a central part of the University of Vermont campus, stars as the historic movie set in What Lies Beneath. The horror film starring Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer has a stock plot. Claire Spencer, the wife of a university scientist, believes her lakeside Vermont home is haunted – or else she’s going mad.
The film features other Vermont locales, but the University Green is easily the most historic. It dates to 1801 and has some of the school’s oldest and most architecturally significant buildings surrounding it. The National Register of Historic Places added it to its list in 1976.
Images: Mystic Seaport, By Stan Shebs, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=115477; Acadia By Chandra Hari – Wikimedia file, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64743138; Crane Estate, By Djmcrenn – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4520123; University Green of Vermont, By Mfwills – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8670114. This story about historic movie sets in New England was updated in 2020.