Mary McKnight House, Springfield, Mass

The house at 79 Ingersoll Grove in Springfield, around 1938-1939. Image courtesy of the Springfield Preservation Trust.

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The house in 2017:

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The McKnight neighborhood was largely developed by John and William McKnight, two brothers who were born in Truxton New York but later moved to Springfield. Here, they first worked as dry goods merchants, before ultimately entering the real estate business. John died in 1890, but his wife Mary continued to be involved in real estate, and built this home on Ingersoll Grove in 1896. Most of the other houses in the neighborhood have Queen Anne architecture, but because this house was built somewhat later, its design reflects the Colonial Revival style, which was coming into popularity at the end of the 19th century.

By 1900, Mary McKnight had sold this house to Cooper Robeson, who lived here with his wife Josephine and their children,  Rebecca, Dorothy, and James. They moved to Boston around 1910, and sold the house to woolen manufacturer Edwin H. Pinney. Originally from Stafford Springs, Connecticut, he was the son of Edwin C. Pinney, who was a state legislator and the president of a woolen company. When he and his wife Jennie moved to this house, they joined the many other business and industrial leaders who lived in the McKnight neighborhood, and they would remain here for many years. They were still living here when the first photo was taken in the late 1930s, and not much has changed in the house’s exterior appearance since then. Today, along with the rest of the neighborhood, it is part of the McKnight Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.

Lyman Besse House, Springfield, Mass

The house at 29 Ingersoll Grove in Springfield, around 1938-1939. Image courtesy of the Springfield Preservation Trust.

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The house in 2017:

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The life of Lyman Besse was a classic Gilded Age rags-to-riches story, beginning with his birth in Wareham, Massachusetts in 1854. His father was a farmer, and died when Lyman was just 11, and five years later he left school and traveled to West Virginia, where he found work as a clerk in a general store. By the time he turned 18, he was back in Massachusetts, earning six dollars a week while working for a clothing merchant in Taunton. In 1876, he came to western Massachusetts to work for C. B. Harris & Company, but the following year, at the age of 23, he decided to go into business for himself.

Working with business partner J. E. Foster, he opened his first clothing store in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1877. The business was a quick success, and he soon began opening stores in other cities across the northeast. In 1879, he married his childhood friend, Henrietta Segee, and they lived in Bridgeport for the next nine years. However, as his business empire expanded, he decided to move to Springfield, which had a more central location. In 1888, he and his family moved into this newly-built house on Ingersoll Grove, in one of the most desirable locations in the McKnight neighborhood.

Like most of the other houses in the neighborhood, Besse’s mansion had Queen Anne-style architecture, although this has been somewhat altered over the years. The property also included a massive carriage house in the backyard, and a driveway that connected to both Ingersoll Grove as well as Clarendon Street behind the carriage house. The grounds were well-landscaped, and beyond the backyard was the McKnight Glen, a section of undeveloped parkland owned by the city. As described in an 1893 volume of The National Magazine, “Mr. Besse’s home is situated in the most picturesque section of the delightful and healthful ‘Highland’ region of Springfield, and is one of the most pleasant and attractive homes in the city.”

When the Besse family moved into the house, Lyman was just 34 years old, but he had already achieved considerable success in his clothing business. His company became known as the Besse System, and would ultimately include nearly 50 stores across the eastern United States. In the process, he helped to pioneer the idea of a chain retailer. The same article in The National Magazine declared that he had the largest clothing business in the world, and noted that his ability to buy in such large quantities from his suppliers gave him a considerable advantage over smaller competitors.

Lyman and Henrietta raised six children in this house, and they also regularly employed at least two servants who lived here with the family. After Henrietta’s death in 1926, their daughter Florence moved back to the house to care for her father. Florence was recently divorced from her husband, and she lived here with her two children, Mary Brewster and Kingman Brewster, Jr. Lyman died in 1930, and Florence and the children moved out soon afterward. Kingman, Jr., who was 11 when they left, would go on to gain prominence as the President of Yale University from 1963 to 1977, and then served as the United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom during the Carter administration, from 1977 to 1981.

At some point in the early 20th century, the house lost much of its original Queen Anne appearance. The exterior was covered in stucco, and the open wooden porches were rebuilt with granite and enclosed. The chimneys were also rebuilt of granite, and the front facade gained some symmetry when a dormer window on the left was converted into a gable, matching the original gable on he right side of the house. Otherwise, though, the basic structure of the house remained the same, and both the porte-cochere on the right and the carriage house in the distance have survived. In addition, the interior, with nearly 10,000 square feet of living space, has retained much of its 19th century appearance.

In the early 1930s, the house was sold to James D. Gill, a retired art dealer and bookseller who, among other things, had published King’s Handbook of Springfield in 1884. His wife, Emily Frances Abbey Gill, was a prominent philanthropist who, among other things, gave significant contributions to Springfield College to build a women’s dormitory, which is the current Abbey-Appleton Hall. James was already in his 80s when he moved into the house, and he died only a few years later in 1937. Emily was still living here when the first photo was taken, and she remained here until her death in 1950 at the age of 94.

Since Emily’s death, the house has been variously used as a dress shop and as a nursing home, but it is now a single-family residence again. Like many of the other  mansions in the neighborhood, the home has been well-preserved. Although the exterior has changed since it was first built in 1887, there is virtually no difference in its appearance from the first photo, and it is an important contributing property in the McKnight Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.

Gay Mansion, Suffield, Connecticut

The house at 222 North Main Street in Suffield, around 1935-1942. Image courtesy of the Connecticut State Library, WPA Architectural Survey Collection.

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The house in 2017:

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One of the finest 18th century homes in Suffield is the Gay Mansion, which was built in 1795 for Ebenezer King, Jr. He was a very wealthy man, with a net worth of reportedly over $100,000 (nearly $1.5 million today), and this is reflected in his Federal-style mansion. Around the same time that this house was built, King was an investor in the Suffield, Cuyahoga, & Big Beaver Land Company. This company, comprised of a number of other Suffield men, owned entire townships in the Western Reserve, a section of northern Ohio that was, at the time, claimed by Connecticut.

Unfortunately for King, he eventually lost much of his money, and had to sell his mansion in 1811. It was purchased by William Gay, a prominent lawyer and the son of Ebenezer Gay, who had been the longtime pastor of the Congregational church. Aside from his law practice, William Gay was also the postmaster of the town for 35 years, and for much of that time the post office was located here in his living room. After his death in 1844, two of his daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, continued to live here. They never married, and after their deaths in the 1880s the house was inherited by the children of their sister Deborah.

The house remained in the Gay family for over 100 years, and by the start of the 20th century it was still filled with old family heirlooms and other antiques. It was even featured in a Good Housekeeping article in 1907, because of its extraordinary level of preservation on both the inside and outside. In 1916, it was sold to Daniel R. Kennedy, Jr., the pastor of the Congregational Church, and he was still living here a couple decades later when the first photo was taken. Very little has changed in the appearance of the house, and it is now owned by Suffield Academy and used as the residence of the headmaster.

Harvey Bissell House, Suffield, Connecticut

The house at 82 North Main Street in Suffield, around 1935-1939. Image courtesy of the Connecticut State Library, WPA Architectural Survey Collection.

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The house in 2017:

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Harvey Bissell was originally from Windsor, but around 1815 he built this house in the center of Suffield. It features Federal-style elements that were often seen in upscale homes of the day, including the ornate lintels over the windows, the quoins on the corners, and the Palladian window above the front door. The house also once had a two-story front porch, as seen in the first photo, although it is unclear whether this was an original part of the design. This porch as gone by 1939, when the house was photographed for HABS.

A year after the completion of the house, Harvey Bissell married Arabella Leavitt, and the couple had six children, one of whom died young. He was a storekeeper here in Suffield, but he and his family later moved to Hartford, Vermont. The 1850 census lists him as a farmer, with real estate valued at $40,000, equivalent to over $1.1 million today. He died that same year at the age of 63, and Arabella later moved to Lawrence, Kansas with several of her children.

Now over 200 years old, the house has undergone significant changes in recent years. In 2011, a large addition was built in the back of the original building and became Suffield Commons, a luxury apartment complex for seniors. The architecture of the addition matches the Bissell House, and the original 1815 section has been renovated into a restaurant.

John Hoskins House, Windsor, Connecticut

The house at 560 Palisado Avenue in Windsor, around 1935-1942. Image courtesy of the Connecticut State Library, WPA Architectural Survey Collection.

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The house in 2017:

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This house was built around 1750 on Palisado Avenue, the main north-south road in Windsor, which runs parallel to the Connecticut River. The river is about a third of a mile from here, in the distance behind the house, and the floodplain in between provided early settlers with particularly fertile farmland. The house’s design is typical for area homes of the mid-18th century, featuring a slightly overhanging second story, which was somewhat of a holdover from late Medieval architecture.

According to the WPA Architectural Survey, which was conducted when the first photo was taken, the house was originally owned by a John Hoskins. This was hardly an unusual name in 18th century Windsor, though, and it does not seem clear as to which John Hoskins lived here. Regardless, the house remained in the Hoskins family until at least 1798, when a map of the town indicated that a Benjamin Hoskins owned the house. His identity also seems somewhat vague, and by the mid-19th century the house was owned by the Ellsworth family.

When the first photo was taken, the house was described as being in “excellent” condition. The only significant change to its original appearance was the porch, which was probably added sometime in the late 19th century. The porch has since been removed, along with the stone wall in the foreground and the barn in the distance. However, the house itself still stands, and probably more closely resembles its original appearance now than it did 80 years ago. It is one of many historic homes along Palisado Avenue, and is an excellent example of a typical mid-18th century farmhouse.

Jonathan Ellsworth House, Windsor, Connecticut

The house at 336 Palisado Avenue in Windsor, in August 1938. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey Collection.

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The house in 2017:

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This house is one of the finest Georgian homes in Windsor, and was built in 1784 for Jonathan Ellsworth. They were a prominent family in 18th century Windsor, and one of his relatives was Oliver Ellsworth, the third Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, who lived a little further north of here on Palisado Avenue. Jonathan Ellsworth’s house would remain in his family for many years, and by the mid-19th century it was owned by William H. Ellsworth, who lived here with his wife Emily and their four children: William, Horace, Elizabeth, and Clara. Horace would later inherit the house, and owned it until his death in 1934, exactly 150 years after the house was built.

The first photo was taken only four years after Horace’s death, and it shows the alterations that had happened to the house over the years. It had lost many of its original Georgian details, and he WPA architectural survey, which was completed around the same time, noted that it was only in “fair” condition. However, in the 1960s it was restored to its former grandeur, with features such as historically appropriate windows, the scroll pediment over the door, the lintels over the first floor windows, and the quoins on the corners of the house. It is an excellent surviving example of an 18th century home in Windsor, and it is a contributing property in the Palisado Avenue Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.