March 3, 2006
A 'Village of Pretty Houses,' Where Women's Lives Were Reshaped
By EVE GLASBERG
FARMINGTON, Conn., looks like a rich but sleepy suburb where nothing much happens. That's fine with its preppy residents, who would just as soon not be noticed. The rapper 50 Cent found it and joined its mansion-owning crowd in 2004. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis knew her way around the place, too, as did her sister, Lee Radziwill, and her White House social secretary, Letitia Baldrige, as well as Gene Tierney and Lilly Pulitzer — all of whom attended Miss Porter's, the fancy girls' boarding school that occupies much of the historical village center.
And behind Farmington's prosperous-looking facade of tree-lined residential streets and sedate-looking buildings, there are discoveries for the casual visitor: a collection of Impressionist art, a look at the modern incarnation of the young Jacqueline Bouvier's school, traces of kidnapped Africans' rebellion on the slave ship Amistad.
George Washington, who passed through several times in 1780 and 1781, is said to have called Farmington "the village of pretty houses." Some of those houses still stand, including a saltbox at 37 High Street, built in 1720, now preserved as the Stanley-Whitman House museum. Also in the village center are the buildings of Miss Porter's School, many of them brick and brown-shingled structures built in the 19th century. At the small fieldstone St. Patrick's Church at 112 Main Street, a brass plaque reading "Misses Bouvier" remains on the pew donated by the future Mrs. Kennedy and her sister when they were at Miss Porter's in the 1940's.
Boarders at the school now pay $35,050, plus $1,766 in fees, a year, and it has long had an air of privilege. But its founder, Sarah Porter, was a revolutionary of sorts. She had received a classical education at Yale "after hours," working around the ban on female students with the help of sympathetic professors and tutors, and girls at her school, started in 1843, received the kind of education usually reserved for their brothers. Today Miss Porter's is a prep school, still only for girls, with 325 high-school-age students. Downtown, dressed in jeans and hoodies, they browse through best sellers like Curtis Sittenfeld's "Prep" in the Millrace Bookshop or chatter over lattes and brownies at Starbucks.
Miss Porter's was such a good experience for Theodate Pope, who studied there from 1886 to 1888, that she decided to build a big house in Farmington — to her own design — where her parents could retire. Most people in that era thought that women should not be architects, but that did not stop her. The house was built, her parents came from Cleveland to move in, and her father brought his art collection. The property is now the Hill-Stead Museum.
Visitors winding up the long driveway see a rambling white clapboard house atop a hill, with a commanding view of the surrounding Litchfield Hills. Of the original 250 acres, 152 remain, with nine buildings and extensive grounds designed by Miss Pope with the help of Warren H. Manning, a protégé of Frederick Law Olmsted, and Beatrix Farrand, another noted landscape architect who was Edith Wharton's niece. At a time when the trajectory of most privileged young women's lives began with debutante and ended with homemaker, Miss Pope had other goals. "For years I have felt breathlessly that I must help the cause of good architecture," she wrote in her diary. She hired Princeton architecture professors to teach her and enlisted help with the house from the prestigious New York architectural firm McKim, Mead & White, while reserving major decisions for herself. "It will be a Pope house," she wrote to the firm, "instead of a McKim, Mead & White house."
The rooms are elegantly furnished. Mementos of Miss Pope (she later married John Wallace Riddle) convey the sense of real life lived in this house — her hats and dresses; some stockings, stained in the heel, lying delicately on tissue paper in a half-opened bureau drawer. And what a life — Miss Pope survived the sinking of the Lusitania and was a friend of Henry James, who used to come out for séances. But what really takes the eye is the art collection.
Two paintings from Monet's haystack series face each other across the expanse of two adjoining rooms. "Jockeys," an 1886 Degas pastel, hangs above the fireplace in the dining room. More works by Monet and Degas, as well as others by Manet, Whistler and Cassatt, are carefully placed throughout the house. Hill-Stead's most important Degas, an 1886 pastel of a nude bathing called "The Tub," now hangs in the drawing room but at one point was tucked away in a bedroom. Decorative objects include a Wedgwood tea set in a rare creamy yellow porcelain bisque and a Corinthian pyxis jar dating from between 600 and 575 B.C.
Hidden in a corner of the drawing room is a Matisse drawing of Juan Gris and his wife, given to Miss Pope as a wedding present in 1916 by Anna Roosevelt Cowles, a Farmington neighbor and a sister of Theodore Roosevelt. She had introduced Miss Pope and Mr. Riddle. In 1920, Theodate Pope Riddle got an architectural commission for reconstruction of Theodore Roosevelt's birthplace in Manhattan.
Back in the center of town, visitors can also tour Miss Porter's School. Student guides point out classrooms, art studios, athletic facilities and more, revealing an academically rigorous institution that is better equipped than some small colleges.
The guides may know little about the school's most famous alumna, but it's easy to imagine her walking among the graceful older buildings on shaded paths or gossiping with girlfriends in the dining hall at 60 Main Street, still used for the same purpose. At Miss Porter's, Jacqueline Bouvier rode horses and was on the tennis team. She excelled at languages and won an English prize, a book of poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay, which she collected in a graduation ceremony held at the Congregational church at 75 Main Street. Miss Porter's has Bouvier artifacts, including a windowpane in which Jacqueline etched her name with a diamond, which can be seen by appointment.
Also in Farmington's downtown are several buildings with another kind of historical significance. At the beginning of the 1840's, Farmington abolitionists sheltered the Africans who had rebelled aboard the slave ship Amistad. Farmington was a strongly Abolitionist town, and its residents supported the legal case that eventually won the Africans' freedom.
Most of the Amistad-connected buildings are private homes and not open to the public, but the National Park Service Web site explains their significance and outlines an interesting walking tour.
In one of the houses, at 116 Main Street, a young girl named Margru stayed with the family of a minister, Noah Porter. She was given lessons and learned English. In 1841 Margru and the others who had been on the Amistad were returned to Africa. Two years after that, the Porters' oldest daughter, Sarah, founded her famous school.
If You Go
Farmington, Conn., is about 10 miles west of Hartford. From Interstate 84, take Exit 39, follow Route 4 west and turn left onto Route 10 South.
The Hill-Stead Museum (35 Mountain Road; 860-677-4787; www.hillstead.org) is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday from November through April and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. the rest of the year. Admission is $9 for adults and $4 for children.
Miss Porter's School (860-409-3500, www.missporters.org), offers student-led tours on weekdays and, for weekend visitors, provides a brochure at 66 Main Street for self-guided visits. A guide to buildings in Farmington's village-center historic district is at www.hartnet.org/hha/Main_Street.htm. For the Amistad story, with links to a map and guide for Farmington sites, see www.cr.nps.gov/nr/travel/amistad/amistadstory.htm.
For lunch or dinner in Farmington, try the Grist Mill Restaurant (44 Mill Lane; 860-676-8855, reservations recommended), with fine dining in a rustically restored 17th-century building with a view of the Farmington River, or Picolo Arancio (819 Farmington Avenue; 860-674-1224), with Italian meals and pizzas.