Who Were the Harvard Five—And What Do They Have to do with Connecticut?


The Glass House, New Canaan, 1979. The Connecticut Historical Society, 2012.437.0

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.

How Do You Know What You’re Looking At?

Last Friday, I went to see Finding Vivian Maier at Real Art Ways in Hartford. Maier, a Chicago-area street photographer, made a living as a nanny in the mid-twentieth century. She took tens of thousands of photos of people she encountered while dragging the kids she cared for across the city, and then let those image languish in storage until they were discovered by John Maloof, an amateur historian, in 2007. He realized that he had on his hands the oeuvre of one of the twentieth century’s best street photographers, and she was entirely unknown. Continue reading

On the Road with Richard Welling: Octagon Houses


Octagon House. Drawing by Richard Welling, probably 1976. The Connecticut Historical Society, Gift of the Richard Welling Family, 2012.284.5560

An “Octagon House” is just what it sounds like: an eight-sided dwelling. Octagon houses were something of a fad in 1850s America. They were promoted by a New York phrenologist names Orson Squire Fowler, who believed such houses were cheaper to build, easier to heat, and cooler in summer. Octagon houses are scattered all across the United States from Maine to California. Tiny Portland, Connecticut has not one, but two octagon houses, and they are located next to each other, at 26 and 28 Marlborough Street. They were built in the mid-1850s for Joseph Williams and Gilbert Stancliff. The material used, not surprisingly, was Portland brownstone. It’s sometimes said that the twin houses were built for two brothers, but obviously this was not the case. Joseph, however, was married to Laura Stancliff, presumably Gilbert’s sister. It is also not surprising to find that Gilbert worked in the Portland brownstone quarried; Joseph, however, was a shoe merchant. Always attracted by anything quirky or unusual, Richard Welling probably photographed and drew the octagon house pictured above during the 1970s, when he was working on a book about historic houses.  It’s most likely somewhere in New England, perhaps even in Connecticut, but I’m not sure where.  If someone knows, I’d love to hear from you. To see more drawings by Richard Welling, check out the new Richard Welling Collection in eMuseum, the CHS online museum catalog.

Thrall Hall

On March 18, a few people from CHS had the opportunity to tour Thrall Hall, a square dance hall in East Windsor, Connecticut. Ed Thrall, described by the Hartford Courant as a “true Connecticut Yankee original,” visited demolition sites in and around Hartford in the 1960s and salvaged materials, which he then carted back to his farm. He began building the dance hall in 1968, and it took him 10 years to build what is standing now. I learned about the place in February when I was cataloging some Richard Welling drawings. I was looking for information on one of the buildings in a drawing, and I found some information online about a place called Thrall Hall. Continue reading

On the Road with Richard Welling: Discovering Historic Connecticut Houses

Preliminary drawing for The Lieut. Walter Fyler House, Windsor.  Black ink and brown wash on paper, 1976.  The Connecticut Historical Society, Gift of the Richard Welling Family, 2012.284.5289

Preliminary drawing for The Lieut. Walter Fyler House, Windsor. Black ink and brown wash on paper, 1976. The Connecticut Historical Society, Gift of the Richard Welling Family, 2012.284.5289

In 1976, in conjunction with the nation’s Bicentennial celebration, Richard Welling produced a slim volume featuring twenty of Connecticut’s most historic houses. From late 1975 through the early spring of 1976, Welling was on the road, crisscrossing the state, sketching buildings that ranged in date from Colonial times through the Victorian era. The book came out in May, and my parents bought a copy, which they proceeded to use as a guidebook to their ongoing exploration of Connecticut, taking me along with them on many of their excursions. We had already visited some of these houses, of course—the Buttolph-Williams house in Wethersfield, the Nathan Hale homestead in Coventry, the Harriet Beecher Stowe house in Hartford—but Welling’s book took us farther afield to the Henry Whitfield house in Guildford, the Dr. Alexander King house in Suffield, the Hempsted house in New London, and many others. I don’t think it ever occurred to me at the time to wonder about the artist whose engaging drawings inspired our investigations. But when CHS acquired the contents of Richard Welling’s studio in 2011 and 2012, I welcomed this particular set of drawings as old friends, and realized that Richard Welling had once helped to inspire my own interest in Connecticut history and architecture. As Welling said in his introduction to his book, “Connecticut, you are a grand little state!”

New York City in the 1970s

Richard Welling. Times Square, New York City. 2012.284.694.

Richard Welling. Times Square, New York City. 2012.284.694.

Despite not being alive in the 1970s and having only spent a limited amount of time in New York City, photographs of it in the ‘70s are some of my favorite things on earth. (Actually, really any photos from ‘70s do it for me; the Environmental Protection Agency’s 1972-1978 project, Documerica, is one of the most awesome collection of photographs ever. It was originally conceived as a way of documenting subjects of environmental concern across the United States, and while it does do that, it also seems to capture the spirit of the decade. I think. I wasn’t there.) So, Richard Welling, who I’ve written about before, was into the architecture of New York City and photographed it with his SX-70 Polaroid camera in the 1970s. Continue reading

Richard Welling Pictures Hartford


Richard Welling. Before and after of CityPlace from Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch. 2012.284.150 and 2012.284.127

My most recent project here is to catalog photographs, prints and drawings by Hartford artist Richard Welling. I started on his Polaroids, of which there are hundreds. Welling loved photographing Hartford as it changed in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s, and as a result, I’ve been playing building detective for the past few weeks. My job has been to go through a group of Polaroids of downtown Hartford and identify the buildings in them. Welling was very interested in urban renewal, that mid-twentieth century practice of razing inner city buildings in the hopes of clearing out slums and reenergizing downtowns.* With an SX-70 camera, he photographed several of Hartford’s ambitious renewal projects, often juxtaposing the old and the new. Several of Hartford’s old landmarks have since been razed, so having photographs that document their rightful place in the built landscape is priceless. Continue reading