Artist Richard Welling loved to drawing buildings, especially very large buildings. He was therefore drawn to cities, and his two favorite cities were Hartford, Connecticut and New York City. His drawings chronicling the construction of the World Trade Center are today at the New-York Historical Society, but some of his other New York drawings came to the Connecticut Historical Society with the contents of his studio in 2012. Like Welling, I’m a Connecticut native, but for almost ten years I worked in New York, commuting daily on Metro-North like many other Connecticutians. Welling’s view of the Manhattan skyline looking north over Forty-Second Street is one that I can relate to. The New York Public Library where I used work appears in the foreground. Welling could make Hartford look every bit as glamorous as New York City, and understanding his fascination with New York helps to explain his enthusiasm for the sweeping changes that were transforming Hartford during the late twentieth century.
Inscriptions on the back of this 1930s photograph of the Farmington River provide quite a bit of information about it. The dam in the foreground is said to be in the same location as the dam for the first gristmill on the river, established in 1701. In the 1930s, there was still an active gristmill on the site, known as the Winchell Smith Gristmill. Smith, a noted playwright, invited the filmmaker D.W. Griffith to film a scene from the movie “Way Down East” there in 1920. The building was later a popular restaurant and bookstore, both now closed. I used to enjoy sitting outdoors there on a summer evening, sipping a drink and watching the swallows and cedar waxwings catching insects out over the river.
So what does all this have to with Downton Abbey? In an episode last season, the staff of Downton Abbey took the evening off to go to the new American film at a local theater.
When most people think of Connecticut architecture, they most often think of Colonial saltbox houses or white steepled churches nestled in green hills. They usually don’t think of the International Style of modern architecture, and they certainly don’t think of Harvard University. But in the 1940s, five architects from Harvard settled in the green hills of New Canaan, Connecticut, attracted by its rural charm and the convenient train transportation to New York. Marcel Breuer, the oldest of the five, was an instructor at Harvard; John M. Johansen, Marcel Breuer, Landis Gores, Philip Johnson and Eliot Noyes were his students. All five built houses in New Canaan, not only for themselves, but for their neighbors. Philip Johnson’s house, known simply as “The Glass House,” has been called the “most famous house in the world.” A simple glass box set on a grassy promontory, it’s a far cry from today’s McMansions. Johnson lived in it from 1949 until his death in 2005. Now administered by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, it’s well worth a visit, even if you don’t like modern architecture. Think of it rather as a pavilion for viewing the landscape, a work of art, an expression of a personality. Other modernist houses still dot New Canaan’s hills, and may be glimpsed through the trees as you drive the narrow back roads.
The gentleman driving the sulky is John A. Pilgard. The horse is Hartford Louise. Pilgard had come to Hartford as a poor immigrant boy and became a successful merchant, banker, and civic leader. A butcher and grocer by trade, Pilgard greatest love was fast horses, especially those that he bred and raced himself. He was a member of both the Road Drivers Club and the Hartford Driving Club, and drove his horses in races at Charter Oak Park and at tracks in Riverside Park and on Albany Avenue. In the winter he took part in races on the ice-covered Connecticut River. He dreamed of winning the Hambletonian, the most prestigious trotting race in Americat , the “Kentucky Derby” of harness racing. In 1934, when this photograph was taken, he had three horses in training, all named for his children: Hartford Peter, Hartford Bertha, and Hartford Louise. Hartford Bertha had run the Hambletonian in 1934; Hartford Louise was entered for 1936. In 1935, Pilgard was elected Mayor of Hartford, fulfilling another lifelong dream, but his health failed, and he died nine days after the election without ever taking office. He left no will, so his estate was divided between his wife and children. I don’t know what became of Hartford Louise and Pilgard’s other horses. For many years, this photograph of Pilgard driving Hartford Louise hung in Honiss’s Oyster House on State Street in Hartford.
It’s the Fourth of July. An American flag is flying from Fort Trumbull, and a stately procession of tall ships is leaving New London harbor. The monument commemorating the Revolutionary War Battle of Groton Heights is visible in the background. It could almost be a snapshot taken during OpSail, but this drawing was made by an artist more than one hundred years ago, and the ships are contemporary working vessels, not museum relics. The artist, Reynolds Beal, was part of an artists’ colony at Noank, Connecticut, where he spent his summers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Some summers he chartered a sailboat, cruising up and down Long Island Sound, making sketches along the waterfront. A sketchbook from 1899, which he spent on the yawl Starfire, and a few other drawings of Connecticut coastal scenes are in the collections of the Connecticut Historical Society. Beal made his drawing of Fort Trumbull on July 4, 1887. That was just one year after my grandmother was born, and one year before my grandfather’s family immigrated from Ireland. Yet the view doesn’t look much different than it does today.
At the end of the nineteenth century, much of the west part of Hartford was still farmland. Cows grazed in the meadows along the Park River, where small boys went swimming in the summertime. But the area was beginning to build up, primarily with great estates, but also with more modest homes in the neighborhood that would later be known as the West End. One of the grandest of the great estates lay must outside the West End at the corner of Woodland Street and Asylum Avenue. This property belonged to Francis and James J. Goodwin; James Goodwin’s huge mansion was locally known as Goodwin Castle. The Connecticut Historical Society has many photographs of the house and a plan showing the location of trees and shrubs on the extensive grounds. It must have been lovely in May, when the cherry trees and crabapple trees were in blossom. Other flowering trees such as tulip trees and sourwood bloomed later in the summer. The red foliage of the sourwood and maples would have stood out against the green of the arborvitae and pines in the fall. The original plan for the Goodwin estate and other garden plans and architectural drawings will be on view at the Connecticut Historical Society from 9:00 to 5:00 on Saturday June 28, in conjunction with Hartford Blooms, a nine-day showcase of Hartford’s gardens and historic architecture. Stop by and see what this part of Hartford was like one hundred years ago.
During the nineteenth century, a trip to the beach was a major expedition, not something to be undertaken lightly. Because of the difficulties of travel, people went to the shore for weeks or months at a time. Only the very well-to-do could afford such extended vacations, and the less-than-affluent primarily frequented those resorts that were easily accessible by railroad. The advent of the automobile changed all of that. Connecticut is a small state, and every part of its coast is within easy day-tripping distance. A family could pack a picnic, pile in the car, and be at Rocky Neck or Hammonassett or Sherwood Island in an hour or two. The development of these new state parks assured beach access to everyone with an automobile. A collection of photographs here at the Connecticut Historical Society shows the Schaber family of Hartford at Rocky Neck and Hammonassett during the 1940s. A row of automobiles looms in the background of a snapshot showing the family lounging beneath a beach umbrella at Meigs Point in 1949. Meigs Point, a part of Hammonassett Beach State Park, had served as an aircraft firing range during World War II, and the area had been closed to the public. Facilities in 1949 still appear to have been somewhat limited. Today the park boasts several large bathhouses, a huge campground, and, of course, vast parking lots to accommodate the cars of thousands of visitors. A nature center is located at Meigs Point, overlooking the expansive marshes.
Certain flowers remind me of certain people. Trailing arbutus reminds me of my father, who knew where to find it growing in the woods around Manchester, where I grew up. Hybrid tea roses remind me of my mother, who grew them in her garden. Mountain laurel reminds me of a woman I never knew, who lived in Old Saybrook more than a century ago. On June 21, 1883, Sara E. Sill drew a picture of a sprig of mountain laurel. Sara was an amateur artist and an amateur botanist, but she drew her sprig of laurel with great precision and detail, giving it its Latin name, Kalmia latifolia. The mountain laurel was not yet Connecticut’s state flower—that wouldn’t happen until 1907—but it was admired for its showy blossoms and evergreen foliage, which was widely gathered and used in holiday decorations. It was one of over two hundred flowers that Sara depicted that year, mounting them in an album that today is in the collections of the Connecticut Historical Society. Rather than arranging the flowers according to their scientific classification, or grouping them by color, as is most often done in modern guidebooks, Sara presented her drawings in chronological order, day by day, as the flowers came into bloom, so that her album shows that progress of the seasons, from early spring through autumn, starting out with pussy willow catkins and ending with holly berries. Mountain laurel was beloved of many artists, including the Connecticut Impressionists, who depicted it in numerous canvases of the ledges along the Connecticut River, but for me, the sight of the clusters of tiny pink umbrellas always evokes the memory of Sara Sill and her fascination with Connecticut wildflowers.
The gracious old house has a wide veranda and is surrounded by mature trees. In the photograph, it is autumn, and the ground is littered with leaves, but in spring, the gardens must have been a riot of color. There was a coach house, a barn with one of the first basketball hoops in the country, made out of an iron hoop from a sugar barrel. For an old man in the 1970s, looking back on his childhood, it was “Paradise Lost,” an ideal place for a boy to grow up. The house was located at the corner of Farmington Avenue and Sigourney Street in Hartford, on a large lot that sloped down to the railroad tracks. It belonged to James Dixon, who served as Senator from Connecticut during the Civil War. After Dixon’s death, his family continued to live there well into the twentieth century. Miss Elizabeth Welling, the great niece of Senator Dixon and his wife, was the last person to live there. She was the aunt of the Hartford artist Richard Welling. The house was torn down in the 1920s to make way for the new home offices of the Aetna Life & Casualty Company. My father got a job there during the 1930s, in the depths of the Great Depression, and worked as an underwriter for Aetna for thirty-nine years. My childhood home, in a wartime housing project, across the river in Manchester, was torn down in the 1950s in order to erect housing for the elderly. For many years afterwards, the flowers from my mother’s garden continued to come up. It was my own “Paradise Lost” and I still go back there in my dreams.
I didn’t really appreciate postcards until I began reading what was written on the backs of the cards. Most postcard collectors like their cards in pristine condition, unused, never sent, but I prefer those that have been through the mail, carrying messages between friends and family members. “Who said we couldn’t find our way?” a woman named Jennie wrote to her mother in Taftville from Savin Rock in West Haven. “We got here alright so don’t worry. We were on a roller coaster even higher than this one.” Maybe Mom didn’t worry about Jennie getting lost on the way home, but she may have worried about her riding that giant roller coaster. Messages on other postcards from Savin Rock talk about the fabulous seafood dinners, the bathing beach, and the hotels, where visitors would come to stay for a week or more while enjoying the delights of the Connecticut shore. In its later years, the amusement park at Savin Rock fell into disrepair, and it was demolished during urban renewal in the 1960s. The Connecticut Historical Society has thousands of postcards in its collections, some with messages and many more without. All may be viewed in the Research Center at 1 Elizabeth Street in Hartford, Thursday from 12-5 and Friday and Saturday from 9-5. You may not only find pictures of your town and your favorite Connecticut attractions; you may also find out what people thought of them when they visited them in years gone by.