I Love New York

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Midtown Manhattan. Drawing, black ink on paper, 1980s? The Connecticut Historical, Gift of the Richard Welling Family, 2012.284.5733

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.

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Linocuts and an Apology

Last time I wrote a blog post, I wrote it about Richard Welling’s linoleum blocks. I mistakenly wrote that we don’t have prints made from the blocks. I would like to formally apologize for that. We actually do have linocuts of most of the Welling linoleum blocks. I just got through cataloging them, and they are really beautiful. Continue reading

Richard Welling’s Lino Blocks

Linoleum blocks, either mounted onto particle board or left unmounted, are perfect for printmaking. The linoleum is soft enough that it can be carved into with a knife or special chisel-like tools. The areas that are carved out will not appear in the print; ink gets applied to the raised, uncut portions of the block, then transferred to a sheet of paper or fabric. Continue reading

Where in Connecticut?

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Hon. James Dixon’s Former Home, 159 Farmington Avenue, Hartford. Photograph by F. D. Berry, ca. 1900. Samuel Taylor Collection, The Connecticut Historical Society

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.

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: Along the Maine Coast

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Wrecks- Wiscasset. Drawing by Richard Welling, ca. 1974. The Connecticut Historical Society, Gift of the Richard Welling Family, 2012.284.5642

When I was growing up, my family spent two weeks in Maine every summer, and those were probably the best two weeks of my entire year. Later on, when I was grown up and living in the Boston area, I went to Maine frequently, both on weekend day trips and for extended vacations, exploring parts of the state that I hadn’t known as a child. When CHS was given the Richard Welling Collection in 2011-2012, I was delighted to discover that Richard Welling had drawn many of my favorite Maine landmarks, including the Hesper and the Luther B. Little, two derelict schooners on the waterfront in Wiscasset.  In fact, he made this drawing one summer while he was traveling with his daughter, just as I used to travel up the Maine coast with my parents long ago. The old schooners are gone now; after decades of vandalism and decay, their remains were moved to a local landfill in 1998. What I didn’t realize when I used to stop to admire the old ships was that such abandoned wrecks were once not an uncommon sight throughout New England, even right here in Connecticut. For many years, the old wooden whaler Colgate could be seen rotting away in Winthrop Cove in New London.  To see more pictures by Richard Welling, visit the Richard Welling Collection in the CHS online catalog.  To see pictures of Colgate, before and after it was abandoned in Winthrop Cove, look in Connecticut History Online.

On the Road with Richard Welling: Octagon Houses

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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!”

Men at Work

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Construction Workers. Drawing by Richard Welling, 1969. The Connecticut Historical Society, Gift of the Richard Welling Family

Richard Welling was known as the “Artist in a Hard Hat” because he spent so much time at construction sites. He spent so much time drawing the World Trade Center when it was first going up in Manhattan that the Port Authority issued him a pass to the site—and his own hard hat. Welling was fascinated with how buildings are built, and he had a real affinity for the construction workers who build them. Though I don’t usually think of Richard Welling drawing people, his sketchbooks provide vivid glimpses of these men at work: ironworkers and welders and men pouring cement. In this double-page spread from one of Welling’s sketchbooks, the drawings on the back side of the sheets have bled through, creating a complex, multi-layered image that the artist may not have intended. The looming figure at the right is identified as a “sidewalk superintendent.” Tiny figures of construction workers appear in many of Welling’s drawings of construction and demolition, helping the human viewer to relate to their often inhuman scale. When the artist’s family gave the contents of the his Hartford studio to the Connecticut Historical Society in 2011-2012, it included hundreds of drawings, thousands of photographs, and dozens of personal artifacts, such as the artist’s hard hat. Welling’s work will be featured in an exhibition at the CHS this coming October.