Archive for Sunday, February 17, 2002

later abandoned, haunted

February 17, 2002


— Atop a hill not far from downtown Hartford, the house where Mark Twain raised his family and wrote his best-loved works stares down at passers-by with an appropriate haughtiness.

Just as Twain was no typical American, this late 19th-century gem from the Gilded Age is no ordinary house.

The red-brick Gothic mansion, with its seven bedrooms and seven bathrooms, carriage house and plant-filled conservatory, has received a new burst of attention with the recent broadcast of a two-part Public Broadcasting Service documentary by Ken Burns.

The Tiffany-designed interior, massive porch, mahogany and teakwood furniture and bric-a-brac brought from numerous trips overseas by Twain  the pen name used by Samuel Langhorne Clemens  conferred distinction on the once-poor kid from Hannibal, Mo.

"He wanted to be respectable, and the house was a symbol of his respectability," said David Bush, marketing director of The Mark Twain House.

Built for what was then an astonishing $40,000, the house and its nine acres were about average for a man of his social station, Bush says. The cost was financed by Olivia, Clemens' wife.

To Clemens, who moved from Buffalo, N.Y., to be near his publisher, the house "was of us, and we were in its confidence and lived in its grace and in the peace of its benediction."

He and his wife moved into their new home in 1874 with their young children, Susy and Clara. The family joined a neighborhood of more than a dozen mansions, including the next-door home of another famed writer, Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

It was here that Clemens produced some of his greatest works, including "Tom Sawyer" in 1876, "Life on The Mississippi" in 1883, "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" in 1884 and "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" in 1889.

It's also where his favorite daughter Susy died of spinal meningitis, prompting Olivia's refusal ever to return to the house.

Twain abandoned the house and moved to Europe in 1891 after financial reverses. He sold it in 1903.

Exclusive neighborhood

The neighborhood along the Park River boasted literary, political and religious leaders, including some of the era's most radical thinkers, whose ideas and debates helped shape the United States after the Civil War.

Only five of the homes remain. They are hardy survivors of a wrecking ball that cleared a path now occupied by shopping centers, apartment buildings and a school.

Even the river was entombed and covered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers after a flood in the late 1930s.

"I won't say the neighborhood is a big plus in the sense it's no longer residential and it's not a destination the way the downtown is," says Bill Hosley, executive director of the Antiquarian and Landmarks Society in Hartford. "It's got character. We love it here. Do we wish its character was saved? Of course."

The home, which was transformed in the 20th century into a private school, apartment building and library, was purchased in 1929 by the Friends of Hartford who prevented its demolition and opened it to the public. It drew 54,000 visitors last year.

Architectural jewel

In its prime, the mansion was one of many jewels in the crown of Hartford, which was among the wealthiest cities in the United States.

The building rivals many of the nation's architectural treasures, Hosley says.

"It's off the charts," he says. "It's one of the most extraordinary houses of its generation."

The house, designed by Edward Tuckerman Potter, is adorned by porches enclosed by elaborate ornamental railings, silver-stenciled interior paneling and decorative exterior brickwork.

In addition, bay windows extend upward to form turrets topped by more porches offering Clemens and his guests spectacular views of what was once a bucolic scene.

The top floor, with the study that is dominated by a billiards table and was used by the insomniac Clemens to write, was solely his territory, off-limits to all but cleaning staff.

The room also was a draw for men's-only entertainment featuring cigars and liquor.

"There ought to be a room in this house to swear in," Clemens once said. "It's dangerous to have to repress an emotion like that."

For the children, there was a nursery and playroom-classroom. And the plants that filled the conservatory were an imaginary jungle where Clemens pretended to be an elephant in mock safaris with the children.

The author's home also boasted a library with an elaborately carved wood and marble mantle piece brought back from a trip by Clemens to Scotland.

Burns says he was haunted by Clemens' spirit during the three years he planned and filmed his documentary.

"I've never been in a house in which ghosts are so palpable," he says.

"It's almost like you're on the landing and you see him disappearing upstairs."

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