Tag Archives: Wheeler House

Check Out These Decked-Out Holiday Houses

It’s one of the most interesting — and oldest — places in Westport. I’ve lived here my whole life, yet never been inside.

Adams Academy — the low-slung yellow building on North Morningside — was the spectacularly named Ebenezer Adams’ private school from 1837 to 1867. He taught over 600 students — including (rare for the time) girls. Most of the graduates — male only, of course 😦 — went on to Yale.

After Adams sold his academy, it served as a public school, town park, home for the  needy and town offices.

Now restored, it’s back to a 19th century schoolroom.

Adams Academy (Photo/Michael Mombello)

It’s rarely open. But next Sunday (December 9), it’s one of 5 stops on the Westport Historical Society’s 32nd annual Holiday House Tour. Ebenezer and his daughter — well, WHS volunteers dressed as them — will be there to greet guests.

The tour offers a peek inside some of Westport’s most historic structures. It combines our natural voyeurism curiosity with our intrigue in our past — and our love for New England-style holiday decorations.

Each stop on the self-guided tour includes WHS docents, explaining how people of the period celebrated Christmas and New Year’s. Halls (and more) will be decked with boughs of holly (and much more).

The event begins at the Historical Society’s own Wheeler House home on Avery Place. Built in 1795, then remodeled in the 1800s in Italianate style, it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Wheeler House — the Westport Historical Society’s Avery Place home — in a painting by famed local artist Stevan Dohanos.

Wheeler House — dressed in Victorian splendor — is complemented by the only octagonal-roof cobblestone barn in Connecticut. It will be open too, showcasing the fantastic, intricate wintertime train set that for years thrilled shoppers at Swezey’s Jewelers on Main Street.

The  Goodsell-Grumman Toll House dates back to 1760. It originally stood on Catamount Road, but when a private highway — Easton Road — was built in 1817, it was moved to its present location there. It’s one of the few remaining saltbox-style homes in Westport.

The Goodsell-Grumman Toll House on Easton Road. (Photo/Michael Mombello)

Two other Holiday House tour homes are in Southport. A 1673 (!) colonial saltbox — one of the oldest still standing in Fairfield — features an original entryway staircase, exposed beams and massive fireplaces.

The John Osborne House, Kings Highway West in Southport. (Photo/Michael Mombello)

A converted barn, built in 1705, has original framing and reclaimed period wood for all walls and floors. This house sits atop a burial ground from the Great Swamp War. In the 1940s, it was used as an artists’ studio.

The Osborne Barn, Oxford Road, Southport. (Photo/Michael Mombello)

There’s a lot going on this season. It’s not easy to fit a House Tour into your schedule.

But there’s no better way to get in the old-time holiday mood.

Just ask Ebenezer Adams.

(The Westport Historical Society’s Holiday House Tour takes place Sunday, December 9, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Click here for tickets.)

Remembering Barbara Van Orden

Many Westporters may not recognize the name Barbara Van Orden.

But without her, the Westport Historical Society might not be what — or where — it is today.

Barbara Van Orden

Barbara — who died on Sunday, age 88 — was a museum docent in several places where she and her husband Paul lived. After moving to Westport in 1977, she spent 26 years as a very knowledgeable and much-loved docent at the Yale Art Gallery.

She was also active in the Westport Garden Club and Saugatuck Congregational Church. But it was at the Historical Society that she made her most impressive local mark.

Barbara worked with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward to raise money to purchase Wheeler House, the handsome 1795 home in the heart of downtown.

Then, attending countless auctions, she led the drive to furnish the period parlor, kitchen and bedroom, to look as they did in 1865-70 when Morris and Mary Bradley lived there.

She was also the longtime head of WHS volunteers and collections.

Thanks in large part to Barbara’s untiring, loving work, the Westport Historical Society moved — literally as well as figuratively — into the modern era, while honoring the town’s rich heritage.

Thanks in large part to Barbara Van Orden, the Westport Historical Society owns this handsome home on Avery Place.

Barbara was born in Ohio, and graduated from Bowling Green State University. In addition to history and art, she loved traveling, gardening and her summer home on Nantucket.

Her family says, “throughout her life, Barbara provided a constant example of the value of personal strength, discipline and perseverance, even in the face of challenges. Her daughters and grandchildren have inherited her tenacity, openness to new ideas, a keen perspective on what is really important, and an appreciation for all the good things life has to offer.

She is survived by her husband of 67 years, Paul; her daughters Sharon Alexander and Lisa Berger, 4 grandchildren and 1 nephew.

A funeral service is set for this Sunday (July 8, 1 p.m., Saugatuck Congregational Church), followed by a reception at the church.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Westport Historical Society, Westport Garden Club or Saugatuck Congregational Church.

7-Sided Barn Holds Several Wonders

The Westport Historical Society has plenty of cool stuff tucked away in the attic and basement.

But its most amazing artifact may be hidden in plain sight: the 7-sided cobblestone barn.

Located right behind the Wheeler House headquarters, opposite Town Hall, it’s the only barn of its kind in the state. And its doors are always open.

The Westport Historical Society barn

The Westport Historical Society barn

When you wander in, the first thing you see is a 5-foot square historical diorama of downtown. Created for the Society by Tom Clough in 1999, it represents Westport in the mid- and late-19th centuries.

Clough calculated the size of buildings and other features from photos. When he actually measured Toquet Hall, he found his estimate was just one inch off.

A small detail of the Saugatuck River waterfront, from the WHS diorama.

A small detail of the Saugatuck River waterfront, from the WHS diorama.

The tallest object — the spire of Christ & Holy Trinity Church — is 4 inches high, on a 270:1 scale. The smallest are the minuscule spokes on a bicycle, leaning against the old library. (Where was that? Push a button on the display, and you’ll see it was on the corner of Post Road and Main Street, in the building that now houses Starbucks.)

The diorama also includes 50 and 60-foot sloops, which docked where Parker Harding Plaza now stands. (You didn’t know that parking lot was landfill? Ah, the things you’ll learn!)

A 20-minute narration describes Westport’s maritime commerce, including our staple crop (onions) and manufactured goods (tinsel ribbon cord, fringes, candlewicks, shoes, valises and buttons).

In true Westport fashion, the narrator is Joanne Woodward.

Upstairs, there’s an even larger display: the miniature train holiday scene that — every Christmas for decades — entertained Main Street shoppers from Swezey Jewelers’ front window.

Model railroad specialist Hank Teller fine-tuned the 4-track display. It includes small replicas of the Saugatuck Congregational Church, Saugatuck firehouse — and of course Swezey’s itself.

The barn has its own history. Built by blacksmith Farmin Patchin during the late 1840s or ’50s, it was in disrepair when the WHS bought the property in 1980.

It took 10 years to restore the structure, under the supervision of Leo Cirino. Stones were painstakingly removed and catalogued, then returned to their original positions as the walls were rebuilt.

There’s plenty to see at the Historical Society. Including an odd but intriguing 7-sided barn that most of us pass by often, without really seeing.

(For more information on the Westport Historical Society, click here or call 203-222-1424.)