Sunday, November 25, 2012

My Backyard - Mark Twain House; Hartford, CT

"To us, our house had a heart and a soul and eyes to see us with, and approvals and solicitudes and deep sympathies. It was of us, and we were in its confidence and lived in its grace and in the peace of its benediction." - Mark Twain

I was missing a good friend who lives in Connecticut. So I got to thinking. I should take a drive and go spend a day with her. To catch up. Commiserate. We had both battled health demons while being so overworked and involved in our jobs before losing them; hadn't seen each other or talked in a long time. Time to reconnect. I sent her a message; she invited me over and suggested visiting some local sites near her. I was immediately on board.

Few days later, early morning, I skipped the usually quicker highway route and opted instead to take the back roads to Hartford. So glad I did. It was a gorgeous warm Fall day. The sun was shining. I passed by dairy farms, little white churches and trees adorned in their fiery autumn colors. Idyllic New England countryside.

Seeing my girlfriend was good for the soul. She's been through a lot lately; I was happy to see she looked great. We chatted for a bit then headed out to lunch at a local Chinese restaurant. We set our plan for the day - visiting the home of the iconic author and social commentator, Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) and Bushnell Park in the heart of the city.

We made our way to what was once called Nook Farm, a residential area where the author built his home - surrounded by the homes of other authors and publishers of his day. One of his neighbors was Harriet Beecher Stowe (she of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" fame). Samuel Clemens lived here from 1874-1891. And it was here that he wrote classics like "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and "Adventures of Tom Sawyer".

We entered the property through the visitor center and museum which houses some of the inventions the author ill advisedly invested in (leading to his almost financial ruin). The property also houses an auditorium where events celebrating Mark Twain are held and a cafe featuring American and Japanese food. In the lobby we found a life size sculpture of Mark Twain made from blocks! My lego-lovin' grandkids would have loved it!

We signed up for a guided tour of the home. Our guide was very informative. She told us some interesting and funny tales. The home was sold by the author in 1903 and since then it was many things, including a city library. Restoration of the home began in the 1950's - designated a national historic landmark in 1963. It's almost fully restored (a 1st floor guest bedroom is still being worked on). Landscaping surrounding the house was also restored to how it would have appeared when the Clemens family lived there.

The guide led us to the 3 floor Gothic architecture home. She invited us inside and into a grand entryway where the author received his many visitors. What struck me immediately was its massive size - 11,500 square feet with over 20 rooms. It really wasn't what I was expecting. I don't know about you but in my mind I pictured the author's home to be a small quaint cottage on the banks of a river. Nope. Far from it. This was like a miniature version of the mansion in Newport I had toured. Oddly, here we were in this imposing house of a bygone era but we could hear the rush of afternoon traffic outside on the busy urban street! Quite different from the bucolic setting of the author's day.

The home is filled with the author's own furnishings; some belonged to his wife Olivia's family. We marveled at the ornate woodwork. The luxurious furniture. The sculptures and paintings. While we trailed the guide through the home, she regaled us with tales of the author, his family, his books, his friends and his many inventions. I particularly like a story she told of a favorite storytime game the Clemens' children played. They would place various objects on the mantle in the library. Their father would then have to devise a story using those items and incorporating a cat that appeared in a painting hanging nearby. Quite creative and clever!

Samuel Clemens' success as a writer afforded him the means to decorate the home with exquisite items (some by noted designer, Tiffany). It was equipped with the latest in modern innovations for its time, including indoor plumbing and one of the first phones. The rooms were designed to reflect Mark Twain's foreign travels - China, Turkey, India, Asia - and were filled with beautiful tufted furniture and gas lit chandeliers.

We followed the guide up a stunning thick wooden staircase to the second and third floors. The railings were dangerously low; apparently this was the custom back in the day. Maybe so, but it scared the bejeebus out of me so I didn't stand too close. We admired intricately carved angels in the handsome wooden bed (purchased by the author in Venice) in the master bedroom. My favorite room was on the third floor: the crimson painted billiard room with windows that once overlooked farm land and a gently rolling river. This was Samuel Clemens' version of a man cave. It was here where he entertained his friends and wrote his great works.

At the conclusion of the tour, we wandered outside to take pictures of the home. That's when we noticed what appeared to be a film or tv crew. We were told they were from the tv show "Ghost Hunters". Apparently, there are rumors that the house could be haunted. Can't confirm or deny that. We certainly didn't see any ghosts or paranormal activity.

After leaving the home, we made our way through the city to Bushnell Park where we strolled the grounds as the sun was setting. What an amazing surprise to find such a beautiful place in the heart of the city. Though we were downtown, it was quite peaceful. The park was established in 1854 and named after Reverend Horace Bushnell who lobbied to make the park a reality. The white marble and granite state capitol building with its sky high golden dome (which reminded me of a fairy palace) presides over the 41 acre park.

We admired the statues and memorials dotting the grounds. My favorite had to be a statue of Horace Wells. Who's that you ask? Why, probably the most important person to all of us. He discovered anaesthesia! A very important person in our history indeed!

There's also a memorial to honor Spanish-American War veterans, a vintage 1914 carousel, a performance pavillion and the 30' tall Corning Fountain featuring a Native American theme. Another impressive monument was the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch that we drove through to enter the park. It was dedicated in 1886 to honor the brave men who fought in the Civil War.

Interestingly, up to about 75 years ago, the Park River flowed through this area. (The same river that Samuel Clemens could see from his billiard room.) It was rerouted via an underground conduit. An actual functioning pump house was built soon after and now doubles as an art gallery. A serene man-made pond also graces the grounds. It features a stainless steel sculpture by a local artist entitled "harmony". The park is known as an arboretum of rare and native trees.

We ended our day by stopping at a local restaurant for dinner. Sadly, we didn't have time to visit Harriet Beecher Stowe's home. So, that just means I need to do a repeat trip to visit my dear friend. My adventurous sisters have all eagerly offered to accompany me. Can't wait!


  1. I loved your description of the home! I never realized his home was so big! Reading this makes me feel like I was really there with you! Now, I am getting excited to check it out!

  2. thanks Helen! can't wait to go back there with you.


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