A Sign of Summer: The Mortlake House

Summer travel time is almost here and I personally long for a road trip somewhere. In fact, by the time this is posted I will be in the mountains of West Virginia. At any rate, this wanderlust probably goes back to my childhood riding through southern backroads with my 3 siblings in a big old ’56 Chevy wagon without radio or air conditioning—or seat belts, come to think of it. Locating suitable lodging was sometimes an adventure in the pre-Internet age, but my parents tried to find places that had the “AAA” sign, and maybe even a pool.

WPA file Mortlake House006

It’s easy to see how the house, beautifully framed by tall maples and elms, and with its several additions, could be used as an inn. This photograph was taken as part of the WPA’s “Census of Distinctive Buildings” survey in the late 1930s, when the inn was no longer operating.

Maybe that’s why I’m so fond of CHS’s collection of 18th and 19th century tavern, inn and hotel signs, the country’s finest, by the way. Most of the nearly 70 examples in the collection document Connecticut taverns and inns in the age of horses and carriages. But what about similar establishments for the automobile age, especially the decades before WWII?; before the advent of motel chains like the Howard Johnson’s I always hoped we would find on our wanderings?

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In the 1920s and 1930s this sign hung near the road in front of the inn, beckoning travelers to stay. CHS 2013.113.1

Twentieth century Connecticut has been associated with idealized country inns in films like Holiday Inn (1942). The reality is that such local establishments were probably a far cry from the Hollywood version, with their spacious, well-appointed interiors. Long story short, recently CHS acquired a small sign for the Mortlake House, a country inn that operated in the 1920s and 1930s in Brooklyn, Connecticut. Built by the Tyler family in the 1760s and once used as a hotel, the impressive house stood adjacent to the Israel Putnam monument.

Mortlake House #2011

The Mortlake House is visible to the right of the Israel Putnam monument in this 1920s postcard view. Note the large sign over the front door. CHS 1974.50.1050

But there’s more to this story; in fact, there’s a presidential connection. No, Washington didn’t sleep here, but Theodore Roosevelt’s wife, Edith Kermit Carow Roosevelt, did. In fact, she owned the place! As it turns out Mrs. Roosevelt was a descendant of the Tyler family which built the house and, some time after T.R.’s death in 1919, she returned to Connecticut and acquired the property, renaming it Mortlake House. The Mortlake story is too long to relate here; suffice to say it refers to a 17th century land grant in the area.

WPA file Mortlake House 2007

Another view of the house from the 1930s WPA project file.

Mrs. Roosevelt welcomed travelers to her establishment in the 1920s and 1930s. This simple wooden sign, hung near the road, included an enameled metal plaque for what were called “Approved Wayside Stations.” This was a network of selected travel service providers (gas stations, restaurants, inns, motor courts, etc.) that offered the road warrior of the time some assurance of quality. Today the AAA sign bespeaks a similar guarantee for these same services, and you can bet I’ll be looking for such signs on my road trip to The Mountain State…

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The “Approved Wayside Station” plaque was added to the Mortlake House sign, probably in the 1920s. CHS 2013.113.1 (detail)

Now a postscript. Alas, even quiet towns like Brooklyn cannot completely escape the effects of change. Old gives way to new, even in the so-called “Quiet Corner” of the state. Mrs. Roosevelt died in the late 1940s, and after surviving the ravages of time the old house fell victim to progress. In the 1960s the structure was razed and replaced by a modern post office building.

One thought on “A Sign of Summer: The Mortlake House

  1. The sign is really cool and as of today it is NOW on display in “Behind the Wheel,” our temporary exhibit about learning and loving to drive when cars were new. Looks like The Approved Wayside Stations, Inc. was established in Springfield, MA in 1925 and within a year was sponsoring about 300 station proprietors (roadside stands, inns, tea rooms) along main roads throughout New England.

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