Harriet Beecher Stowe House, Hartford, Connecticut

The Harriet Beecher Stowe House on Forest Street in Hartford, around 1905. Image courtesy pf the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2018:

Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author who was made famous by her 1852 anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was born in 1811 in Litchfield, Connecticut. She grew up in Connecticut and attended the Hartford Female Seminary, but she subsequently moved to Ohio, where she met her husband, Calvin Ellis Stowe, and then to Brunswick, Maine, where she wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin. From there, they moved to Andover, Massachusetts, before finally returning to Connecticut in 1864.

Here in Hartford, the Stowes constructed a Gothic Revival mansion along the banks of the Park River. Known as Oakholm, the house was a dream home for Harriet, and she built it using much of the money that she had earned through the sale of her books. However, it proved too expensive to maintain, and the Stowes ultimately sold the house in 1870. The house was demolished in 1905, and the site of the house is now approximately where Interstate 84 crosses Capitol Avenue.

The Stowes’ final house, seen here in these two photos, was constructed in 1871 by Franklin Chamberlin, a lawyer who owned a large tract of land at the corner of Forest Street and Farmington Avenue. The Stowes purchased the house in 1873, and a year later they were joined by Mark Twain, who built a house just around the corner from here on Farmington Avenue. These two famous authors became the leading figures in Hartford’s flourishing literary scene, and they remained neighbors until 1891, when Mark Twain and his family moved to Europe.

In the meantime, Harriet Beecher Stowe continued to write while living in this house, although none of her subsequent works could top her first novel, which had sold more copies during the 19th century than any other book except for the Bible. She was also involved in civic organizations such as the Hartford Society for Decorative Art, which she helped to establish in 1877 along with several other notable Hartford women, including Mark Twain’s wife Olivia Clemens. The society was later renamed the Hartford Art School, and it is now part of the University of Hartford.

Calvin Stowe died in 1886, and Harriet’s health soon began to deteriorate. She evidently suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, and displayed erratic behavior such as wandering around the neighborhood, sometimes even entering her neighbors’ gardens and homes. She also took to rewriting Uncle Tom’s Cabin from memory, unaware that she had already written it. She outlived her husband by a decade, and lived here in this house until her death in 1896, at the age of 85.

Stowe’s children subsequently sold the house to Frances Z. Niles, a wealthy heiress whose father, Jonathan S. Niles, had been a prominent foundry owner. She was living in the house when the first photo was taken around 1905, and the 1910 census shows her here along with her niece, Caroline Hansell, and two servants. Neither Frances nor Caroline had ever married, and they lived here until Frances’s death in 1922. She left an estate that was valued at over $90,000, or nearly $1.4 million today. The house itself was valued at $17,000, but her single greatest asset was 33 shares of Aetna, valued at over $44,000.

In 1924, nearly 30 years after the Stowe family sold the house, it was purchased by Harriet’s niece, Katharine Seymour Day. She moved into the house, and became an outspoken advocate of historic preservation. Perhaps her single most important accomplishment in this field came in the late 1920s, when she spearheaded an effort to rescue the neighboring Mark Twain House from potential demolition. Through her leadership, the Mark Twain Memorial and Library Commission was established, which purchased the house in 1929 and subsequently restored it. Then, in 1940, she purchased the house directly to the right of hers, which had once been owned by Franklin Chamberlin.

Today, very little has changed in this scene. The house is still standing, and it is now the centerpiece of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, which offers guided tours of the home. The organization also owns the house on the right, which is now known as the Katharine Seymour Day House. It now houses administrative offices, along with a research library. Although not visible in this scene, the Mark Twain House is also still standing, and it is located directly behind the Stowe House. It is operated by a separate organization, but it is also open to the public for tours. Because of their connections to two of the most important American writers of the 19th century, both of these homes are now listed as National Historic Landmarks, the highest level of recognition on the National Register of Historic Places.

Katharine Seymour Day House, Hartford, Connecticut

The house at the corner of Forest Street and Farmington Avenue in Hartford, around 1905. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The house in 2018:

This house was built in 1884, and was designed by noted New York architect Francis H. Kimball. It features a variety of exterior colors and building materials, as was typical for Queen Ann-style homes of this period, including light-colored limestone and contrasting brownstone trim. Other common Queen Anne elements include an asymmetrical facade, along with a complex roof that is filled with an eclectic mix of gables and dormers. This style was particularly common in the United States during the 1880s and 1890s, with this house dating to the early part of that period.

The original owner of this house was Franklin Chamberlin, a lawyer who had once owned much of the land here at the corner of Forest Street and Farmington Avenue. In 1871, he had constructed a house just to the left of here, at 73 Forest Street, and in 1873 he sold it to Harriet Beecher Stowe. A year later, he sold another part of his land to Mark Twain, who constructed a house of his own on the property. However, Chamberlain retained the corner lot for himself, and subsequently built this house, which was flanked on either side by two of the country’s most celebrated authors.

Chamberlin died in 1896, but his widow Mary lived here in this house until her death in 1907. The next owner of the house was Willie Olcott Burr, the editor of the Hartford Times. His father, Alfred Edmund Burr, had been the editor of the newspaper for 60 years, and Willie began working for him as a teenager in 1861. The newspaper prospered under both father and son, and by the early 20th century it had the largest circulation of any paper in the state. Willie Burr moved into this house sometime in the early 1910s, and the 1920 census shows him living here with his wife Angie and two servants. He died only a year later, although Angie would continue to live here throughout the 1920s and 1930s.

In 1940, the house was purchased by Katharine Seymour Day, who was the grandniece of Harriet Beecher Stowe. She had previously purchased her great aunt’s former home next door, and in the late 1920s she led the effort to save the Mark Twain House, which was being threatened with demolition at the time. Her 1940 acquisition of this house helped to further preserve the neighborhood, and the house is still standing today, with few noticeable differences between the two photos. Along with the neighboring Stowe House, it is now part of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, and it serves as offices and as a research library for the organization.

Mark Twain House, Hartford, Connecticut

The Mark Twain House on Farmington Avenue in Hartford, around 1880. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

The house in 2018:

Samuel Clemens, better known by his pen name Mark Twain, was born and raised in Missouri, and he is probably best identified with the Mississippi River, where many of his works are set. However, Mark Twain actually spent much of his literary career in Hartford. He moved here in 1871, a year after his marriage to Olivia Langdon, and the couple initially rented a house here in the Nook Farm neighborhood. Mark Twain came to Hartford in part because it was the home of his publisher, Elisha Bliss. However, the city also enjoyed a thriving literary community, with prominent authors such as Charles Dudley Warner and Harriet Beecher Stowe also living in Nook Farm.

After several years of renting, Mark Twain decided to build a house of his own. He purchased a lot on Farmington Avenue, just around the corner from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s house on Forest Street, and he hired architect Edward Tuckerman Potter, who designed this ornate High Victorian Gothic-style house. It was completed in 1874, and the family would go on to live here for the next 17 years. At the time, the couple had two young daughters, Susy and Clara, and a third daughter, Jean, would be born in 1880. They had one other child, a son named Langdon, but he died in 1872 at the age of 19 months. The first photo was taken around the time that Jean was born, and it shows the house as it appeared before the servants’ wing was added to the right side of the scene in 1881.

Mark Twain was already a prominent author by the time he moved into this house, having recently published books such as The Innocents Abroad (1869) and The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today (1873). However, his 17 years at this house would become perhaps the most productive of his career, and he wrote many of his most famous works here, including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), A Tramp Abroad (1880), Life on the Mississippi (1883), The Prince and the Pauper (1881), Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889).

Despite significant literary success throughout the 1880s, Mark Twain suffered several major financial setbacks in the early 1890s. Because his Hartford house was so expensive to maintain, he and his family moved to Europe, where he went on lecture tours. He eventually succeeded in paying off his creditors and becoming financially stable again, but during this time he also experienced struggles within his own family. In 1896, his youngest daughter Jean was diagnosed with epilepsy – which would ultimately lead to her early death in 1909 at the age of 29 – and only five months later, in August 1896, his 24-year-old daughter Susy died of spinal meningitis. Her death hit the family particularly hard, and they never lived in this house again, in part because of its association with Susy.

Mark Twain finally sold this house in 1903, a year before his wife Olivia’s death. He would eventually return to Connecticut, although not to Hartford. In 1908, he built a home in Redding, near the southwest corner of the state in Fairfield County. He named it Stormfield, after his short story “Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven,” which would prove to be his last story published during his lifetime. It was at Stormfield that, on Christmas Eve in 1909, Jean drowned after apparently having a seizure in the bathtub. Less than four months later, Mark Twain also died at his Redding house, having outlived his wife and three of his four children.

In the meantime, the new owner of his Hartford home was Richard M. Bissell, an insurance executive who would later go on to serve as president of The Hartford for many years. He and his wife Mary had three children who grew up here, including Richard M. Bissell, Jr., who was born in 1909. The younger Richard went on to become a high-ranking CIA executive during the Cold War. He was involved in the development of the U-2 spy plane, and he was later appointed Deputy Director for Plans in 1959, a position that put him in charge of planning clandestine operations. These included the disastrous 1961 Bay of Pigs Invasion, the failure of which ultimately led to his departure from the CIA in 1962.

Richard Bissell, Jr. spent the first eight years of his life here in this house, before he and his family moved to Farmington in 1917. The elder Bissell subsequently leased the house to the Kingswood School, a private school for boys that Richard Bissell, Jr. attended. The Bissell family sold the property in 1920, but the sale included a stipulation that allowed Kingswood to remain here until 1922. They did so, and after they left the new owners announced plans to demolish the house and build an apartment building on the site. These plans were eventually scrapped after a significant public outcry, and the interior of the house was instead divided into 11 apartment units in 1923.

The threatened demolition of the historic house helped to spur support for its preservation, and in 1929 it was purchased by the Mark Twain Memorial and Library Commission. The ultimate goal of this organization was to restore the house to its original appearance, but these plans took many years to come to fruition. In the meantime, the first floor became a branch of the Hartford Public Library, and the upper floors continued to be rented to residential tenants while the organization raised funds for the restoration.

This work was finally completed in 1974, and today the entire house is open to the public as a museum. Thanks to the preservation efforts that began nearly a century ago, there is very little difference between these two photos, aside from the addition of the 1881 servants’ wing. The neighboring Harriet Beecher Stowe House has also become a museum, known as the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, and both of these houses are now designated as National Historic Landmarks because of their literary significance.

Main Street from Sheldon Street, Hartford, Connecticut

Looking north on Main Street from Sheldon Street, around 1903-1906. Image courtesy of the Connecticut State Library.

Main St. south of Arch

Main Street in 2016:

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When the first photo was taken, this section of Main Street just south of downtown Hartford was still an assortment of low-rise brick commercial buildings, most of which probably dated back to the mid 19th century. However, this would soon change. Already, larger buildings were rising in the distance, including the Travelers Insurance building, partially visible in the distant center of the first photo. Also building around the same time was the Wadsworth Atheneum, hidden from view at this angle but located on the right side of Main Street. This museum opened in 1844, but by the turn of the century they were looking to expand their building.

At the same time that these buildings were being built, though, others were coming down. The first photo was taken shortly before St. John’s Episcopal Church, seen in the right center of the photo, was demolished to make way for the Atheneum expansion. The commercial buildings further to the right would soon disappear, too. By 1915 they would be demolished to build the Municipal Building, located at the corner of Main and Arch Streets.

Today, not much is left from the first photo. The Atheneum is still there, and is partially visible behind the trees, and the only other surviving landmark is the Travelers Insurance building, which was greatly expanded in 1919 to include the tower in the center of the 2016 scene. The only other prominent historic building in this scene is the Municipal Building, which was completed about 10 years after the first photo was taken and still functions as Hartford’s city hall a century later.

Sheldon Street from Main Street, Hartford, Connecticut

Looking east on Sheldon Street from Main Street, on April 18, 1906. Image courtesy of the Connecticut State Library.

Sheldon St. east of Main

Sheldon Street in 2016:

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Located in the southern part of downtown Hartford, Sheldon Street has undergone some significant changes in the past century. Most of the buildings from the first photo are late 19th century brick commercial buildings, and none of them are still standing today. Most would have been gone by the 1950s, when two major public buildings were constructed on either side of the street. On the left is the Hartford Public Library, which was built in 1957 and extensively renovated in 2007, and on the right is the Abraham A. Ribicoff Federal Building, which was completed in 1963 and houses the U.S. District Court along with other federal offices.

St. John’s Episcopal Church, Hartford, Connecticut

St. John’s Episcopal Church on Main Street in Hartford, around 1903-1906. Image courtesy of the Connecticut State Library.

St. John's Episcopal Church

The scene in 2016:

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When this church building was completed in 1842, it was one of two Episcopalian churches along Main Street in downtown Hartford, and it was designed by architect Henry Austin in the Gothic Revival style that was popular at the time. The same style of architecture can be seen today in the Wadsworth Atheneum, which was completed just north of here only two years later.

The congregation remained here for over 60 years, but by the early 20th century this section of Main Street had become predominantly commercial, and the property was being eyed for an expansion of the Atheneum. The church sold the property in 1905 and moved to a new location in West Hartford, and the old building was demolished to make way for the addition. Today, the site of the church is now partially occupied by a small park, located between the Atheneum on the left and the Hartford Municipal Building, which is just out of view to the right.