We were taken up by a whirlwind this past weekend. We made a truly quick trip to New England for a niece’s graduation from the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. Departing early on Saturday, we arrived in Hartford, Connecticut around 10 am. Not often in this part of the world, we resolved to do a little sightseeing that day.
Tufts School of Veterinary Medicine is in North Grafton, just east of Worcester, Massachusetts. There are LOTS of colleges and universities in the vicinity, so getting a hotel room proved near impossible, so we elected to stay in Hartford and drive. Not a bad drive; it was just one hour away.
Saturday: Hartford, Connecticut.
Hartford is what you would expect from a New England city — a little gritty, some parts charming, others clearly run-down, and still others just ancient. Our first stop, however, was not in Hartford, but a town about 20 minutes west called Farmington.
Farmington is one of those painfully precious New England villages, with streets lined with quirky grand houses, some with parts dating from the late 1600s to the 1920s — lots of clapboard and shutters, impeccably maintained and too charming for words. Greek Revival seemed to be the dominant theme, which was popular during the early Republic (c. 1820-1850). We took a turn down Main Street assuming we’d find businesses there, only to find more grand houses and Miss Porter’s School, the world renown all female college preparatory school (Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis is one of its more fabled alumnae (class of 1947), as was Theodate Pope Riddle (class of 1888) (more on her below)). So we doubled back to Farmington Avenue and had a perfectly prepared pizza and a wonderful salad at the first place we came across, Naples Pizza.
We were in Farmington to see Hill-Stead, the country seat of Theodate Pope Riddle (1867-1946), the builder and founder of what is now the Hill-Stead Museum. The house is one of the best preserved Colonial Revival houses in America, and one of the first to be called Colonial Revival, and possesses a notable art collection.
Theodate designed and built Hill-Stead for her parents, Alfred Pope and Ada Brooks Pope. Alfred made a fortune in the iron business and accumulated a significant art collection that includes works by Degas, Monet, Manet, Cassatt and Whistler, among others, all displayed where the family hung them. Theodate specified in her voluminous will (we were told it was 83 pages long) that nothing should ever leave the collection, nothing should be added to it, nor should any of the works ever travel, and the house is to remain exactly as she left it. It’s a comfortable and commodious dwelling, designed to lay lightly on the land, as if it had always been there. When the house was finished she inquired of local farmers and purchased mature trees to transplant around the house so it looked like it had always been there.
She was among the earliest women architects in the United States. She was licensed to practice in New York and Connecticut, and became a member of the American Institute of Architects in 1918. All but one of her buildings still stand.
Theodate survived the sinking of the R.M.S. Lusitania in 1915, rather dramatically being brought to a morgue and presumed dead but for an attendant noticing the fluttering of an eyelash. A year later she married (at the age of 49) diplomat John Wallace Riddle (1864-1941). They traveled widely and adopted several children. Hers was a full and happy life.
From there we made our way back to Hartford to visit The Mark Twain House & Museum. This is the house where Twain (Samuel Clemens (1835-1910)) moved in 1871 after his marriage to Olivia Langdon to a house built with his wife’s money. He wrote his best known works there: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), Life on the Mississippi (1883), The Prince and the Pauper (1881), A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884).
The house (built with funds from his wife’s inheritance) was designed by New York architect Edward Tuckerman Potter in a dark, brooding, heavy style that defies categorization. If you were to call it anything, it could be called Victorian Gothic Revival, though truthfully it calls to mind the later scenes of Gone With The Wind (1939); recall the dark, dark house Scarlett O’Hara had built in Atlanta where she took a tumble down the ruby red carpeted stairs during a fight with Rhett Butler. Twain once wrote “How ugly, tasteless, repulsive are all the domestic interiors I have seen in Europe compared with the perfect taste of this ground floor.” (this from the Mark Twain House website.) Photography is prohibited, but we found images online — they don’t capture how brooding, dark and oppressive it is. It’s a curious thing, and one comes away feeling you know less about Twain than you did before, not more. The museum attached to the house may fill that gap, but we didn’t have the time (or patience) to spend time in it.
That night we had dinner at Trumbull Kitchen, a restaurant just steps from Bushnell Park in dowtown Hartford. Eclectic, fresh and lively — highly recommended.
Sunday: Worcester, Massachusetts.
The graduation ceremony was in the afternoon and we needed to be in Worcester by 11 am for brunch, so we headed over to Glastonbury to have a massive breakfast at Ken’s Corner Breakfast & Lunch. This is one of those neighborhood places that excel in short-order goodness — on the specials list were things like Nutella stuffed French Toast. We opted for eggs, bacon, sourdough toast, served with two pancakes as large as your head. All perfect.
We arrived in Worcester a bit early, so we drove around a bit to take in the sights. We found Bancroft Tower, a quirky Romanesque structure built in 1900 in Salisbury Park by Stephen Salisbury, III as a memorial to Worcester native George Bancroft (1800-1891), who as Secretary of War was responsible for the land-grab that brought into the United States the land that became California, Texas and the Pacific Northwest. Bancroft was Secretary of the Navy, the founder of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, and served as Ambassador to Great Britain and to Germany. One used to be able to climb to the top to take in the view, but the thing is now shuttered. Still, go see it in all its quirky majesty.
Stephen Salisbury, III (1835-1905) was (naturally) the grandson of the Stephen Salisbury I (1746-1829), whose Georgian-style house (constructed in 1772) stands on the grounds of the Worcester Historical Museum. The house is closed on Sundays but we walked by and had a look. We’re told that it’s the best document house museum in New England.
The decor and the wine list at Boynton Restaurant and Spirits are nothing to write home about, but the food is absolutely stellar, and a great value for the presentation. It was a great surprise. Seafood is a real standout.
And finally, on to the Commencement at Tufts, which was outdoors under a tent, and but for the occasional breeze, a bit stifling in the 80+ degree weather. The speeches might not have seemed so long if the weather was more clement, but the overall tenor was one of self-congratulation by the faculty, not congratulation to the graduates. When it finally came time to hand out the diplomas, we had to hit the road to make our flight back to Washington. Still, it was a great trip — we learned something, saw new things, and had some really great meals.
Hill-Stead Museum, 35 Mountain Road, Farmington, CT 06032 (860) 677.4787
The Mark Twain House & Museum, 351 Farmington Avenue, Hartford, CT 06105 (860) 247.0998
Naples Pizza, 838 Farmington Avenue, Ste 7, Farmington, CT 06032-2351 (860) 674.8876
Trumbull Kitchen, 150 Trumbull Street, Hartford, CT 06103 (860) 493.7412
Ken’s Corner Breakfast & Lunch, 50 Hebron Road, Glastonbury, CT 06033 (860) 657.9811
The Boynton Restaurant & Spirits, 117 Highland Street, Worcester, MA 01609 (508) 756.8458