By W.A. Demers
WETHERSFIELD, CONN. Webb House presents an intriguing dual personality — part period tableau of the Eighteenth Century Webb-Deane families and part decorative tribute to another past owner, Wallace Nutting (1861-1941), a leading figure of the Colonial Revival movement of the early Twentieth Century.
On one hand, the “mansion” built in 1752 for a young but affluent merchant trader named Joseph Webb and his new bride is best known as the house where General George Washington stayed for one week in May 1781. Washington was in Wethersfield to plan with Count de Rochambeau, commander of the French forces, the summer campaign that would culminate in the battle of Yorktown and the surrender of Lord Cornwallis’s troops. One-half of the Webb House preserves this moment in time, right down to the original flocked wool wallpaper from the chamber in which Washington stayed that has never been removed.
The other half of the Webb House’s bifurcated history shows the influence of Nutting, who bought the Webb House in 1916 and transformed it into a public tourist destination, reportedly charging visitors 25 cents.
Nutting’s hand-painted murals on the walls of the Yorktown Parlor, where the meeting between Washington and Rochambeau was said to have occurred, as well as his Colonial Revival bedroom and interpretation of the attic, are of equal interest — all the more so when one considers that the murals in the Webb House were covered up from about the mid-1920s until the mid-1990s. An architectural historian brought in at the time to advise on the house’s restoration proclaimed them to be “modern and in bad taste” and more “suitable for a kindergarten.”
Today’s visitor to the Webb House can thank the house’s current stewards, the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in the State of Connecticut (NSCDA-CT), who purchased the Webb House in 1919, for uncovering and reweaving the Nutting thread into the house’s 250-year narrative.
“After more than 10 years of research and planning by the museum staff, the board was convinced that there is public interest in the early Twentieth Century Colonial Revival period, and that by interpreting the Wallace Nutting story in the Webb House we could make an important contribution to this period,” said Judith Rowley, president of the NSCDA-CT.
Like the other two houses in the Webb-Deane-Stevens museum complex, the Webb House features the original foundation constructed of dressed brownstone brought from Portland, Conn. The solid, dressed stone speaks to the pride of historic homes, a pride that is inherent in Wethersfield’s boast of having more than 100 original post-and-beam construction dwellings within the historic district. “We are very conscious of how our face looks to the street,” said Carol Bruce, one of the museum’s eight tour guides.
Just as they have since time immemorial, houses in the colonial period not only provided hearths for cooking and chambers for entertaining, relaxing and sleeping but also served as a public marker for a family’s prominence in local society. The Webb House was built to make such a statement. One of the first three-and-a-half story, center hall Georgian, gambrel-roofed homes built in Connecticut, it was the perfect home for Joseph Webb, a Stamford, Conn., native who had moved to Wethersfield, and his new wife Mehitable, whom he married in 1749. Not only did Webb House feature lofty ceilings and generous-sized rooms, but the gambrel roof provided suitable room for an attic that could accommodate his trade goods and sleeping quarters for the household’s slaves.
When Joseph Webb died in 1761, Mehitable remarried. She and her new husband, Yale-educated Silas Deane, built a house next to Webb House that was even more luxurious [see accompanying story], while the Webb House was inherited by his son, Joseph Jr. Both of Joseph Jr’s brothers, John and Sam, fought in the Revolutionary War, and it was Joseph Jr who hosted Washington’s visit in 1781.
Darker times came. Joseph Jr was imprisoned for debt after the war, and the Webb House was sold to raise funds.
The house had a succession of owners between 1800 and1820, most notably Judge Martin Welles, who bought the house for a bit more than $2,500. Welles made some structural changes, including the addition of a Greek Revival portico, and enlarged the four south rooms. The house remained in his family for nearly 100 years.
In 1916, the house was sold to Nutting, who set about to operate it as a museum. Three years later, he was forced to sell, and the new owners, the Connecticut Colonial Dames, opened it as a public museum and tea room.
Today, the house is shown in basically three different periods. The Washington visit in 1781 commands the downstairs best parlor to the right of the entrance hall as well as the Washington chamber upstairs. On the south side of the house, including the downstairs Yorktown Parlor, an upstairs bedroom and the south end of the attic, are Nutting’s interpretations and influences. The tea room downstairs was set up by the Colonial Dames to match as closely as possible a 1920 photograph, using the space and antique furniture to create a sense of home. What interests today’s visitor is the ability to simultaneously contrast Nutting’s Colonial Revival reinterpretation side-by-side with a more authentic presentation of upper-class life during the colonial period.
Another facet of the Webb House is that it is a house for all seasons. A visitor taking a tour in August will not see the rooms configured in quite the same way when returning in November. In the summer, for example, the Hitchcock chairs will be placed against the wall, the table pulled back toward the center of the room from the fireplace, indicating not only seasonality but the fact that Eighteenth Century houses were furnished in such a way as to be multifunctional. The parlor was for entertaining, conducting social “business,” formal family events, etc, and a premium was placed on being able to reconfigure it quickly. Thus tables were small, often of the tilt-top variety so that they could be stored flat against the wall when not needed.
Those who visit Webb House on September 29 will see it in harvest mode as the museum celebrates its third annual colonial harvest bee and friends appreciation day — in addition to a child-pleasing scarecrow display along Main Street. And visitors in winter will be able to view the landmark bathed in the glow of candlelight on December 20 as the museum hosts a Candlelight Open House to cap its yearlong 250th anniversary celebration. And in February, during Black History Month, the emphasis of the tours is on the lives of the African slaves who lived and worked here.
The Best Parlor
Aside from the beautiful hardwood floor, one of the most striking sights when entering the best parlor off the front entrance is the built-in shell-domed cupboard, called a “beaufat,” on the left side of the fireplace. “Objects in the beaufat would have been intended both for use and display,” according to Donna Keith Baron, the museum’s curator. The display includes tortoise-shell plates, circa 1760, from Staffordshire, England, often associated with the pottery of Thomas Whieldon; silver cann, circa 1780, from France; a porcelain octagonal plate, circa 1740 to 1760, from China, an English creamware sauce boat, circa 1760, an English silver and glass cruet stand, and blown glassware, circa 1760 to 1780. An interesting photograph of the beaufat from behind is used as a visual aid by guides to show how the beaufat was constructed in layers.
The Yorktown Parlor
It was not until 1996 that museum officials stripped off the wallpaper in the Webb House’s southeast parlor to reveal the Yorktown murals that had been painted in 1916. Nutting had commissioned the hand-painted murals on each of the parlor’s four walls as part of his effort to enshrine Washington’s stay at the Webb House and the events leading up to the siege of Yorktown.
One mural shows Washington sitting in the parlor at a conference table surrounded by generals. Another shows the Battle of Yorktown and another depicts the surrender of the British troops. According to museum officials, Nutting commissioned three Hartford artists to paint the murals, and in directing them to include the Washington-Rochambeau conference, specified that the room should look as he had “restored” it. In Nutting’s restoration of the parlor, however, he had attempted to dress up the room, which he thought was too plain, by including an elaborate chimney-breast that he had removed from another structure in Newport, R.I. Nutting’s ever-present blue palette, white paint and rag braided rugs create a perception of colonial furnishings that is quite different than reality.
The murals were executed in oil on paper, in a kind of paint-by-number-looking style that was popular at the time. And although Nutting took great pride in having crafted a historically accurate record, shortly after the Colonial Dames acquired the Webb House the walls were covered up with reproduction wallpaper during a restoration and Nutting’s Newport chimney-breast was removed (It is now said to reside at Winterthur). The murals remained covered for the next 72 years.
In 1995, conceding to growing public interest in Wallace Nutting and the Colonial Revival movement, the Colonial Dames decided that this period of Webb House’s history should be actively interpreted. In the spring of 1996, using a method that had been developed by a professional conservationist, the museum stripped off the wallpaper to reveal the long-hidden murals.
The Washington Bedroom
“We cannot claim anything for its beauty, but, of course, it would not be proper to disturb it.” So wrote Wallace Nutting in 1916, describing the deep red wool flocked wallpaper that had survived a succession of owners and renovations since Washington’s visit to the Webb House in 1781. As a guide’s comparison with an unmounted sample shows, the wallpaper is much darker and less brilliantly crimson than it was when Washington slept here. “We believe the darker color is the result of chemical aging of the glue used to fix it to the wall,” said the tour guide.
Eighteenth Century wallpaper, unlike the rolls of today, was manufactured in individual sheets; these measure 213/4 by 25 inches. The sheets were pasted onto the wall end-to-end, and the flocking was applied after the sheets had been joined together by applying flecks of red wool to the paper. “It’s quite likely that the wallpaper was applied by an English craftsman who came to America to apply this very specialized skill,” said the tour guide.
The room is furnished as to how it might have appeared when Washington stayed there. There is a mahogany bedstead, circa 1765-1780; a dressing table of walnut veneer on pine, circa 1730-1760, probably from eastern Massachusetts; a mahogany chest of drawers thought to be from the area of Middletown, Conn.; a New England gate leg maple table; a mahogany and cherry easy chair; three cherry side chairs, circa 1770-1790, and a walnut veneer on pine looking glass from England.
On the leaf table a 1776 map drawn by Thomas Pownell and engraved by James Turner is spread out with various drafting tools arrayed around it, suggesting a space that Washington may have used to sketch out plans for the Yorktown campaign.
Three other rdf_Descriptions in this room bear mentioning. One is a converted musket said to belong to Joseph Webb that was found in an old workshop behind the Hale House in Wethersfield. Joseph Webb’s name is inscribed on the left side of the stock above the trigger guard. Another plate on top of the stock shoulder bears the date “1775.” The four-foot-long gun, which has a stock of tiger maple, is in poor condition due to the fact that it had been exposed to the elements wedged between the clapboards. Still, it is interesting to speculate that Joseph Webb, Jr, had dropped it off to be repaired by Frederick Hale, a gunsmith, and for some reason had never returned to pick it up.
A silvered brass dress sword, circa 1760-1790, said to belong to Joseph Jr’s brother Samuel, is also displayed in this chamber, as is an oak liquor chest, lined with wallpaper, that was made in France, circa 1740-1760. While museum officials point out that this particular liquor chest did not belong to Washington, tradition has long suggested that he never traveled anywhere without one.
The Colonial Revival Bedroom
Nutting used rooms of the Webb House as a stage on which to mount vignettes displaying textiles from various periods, ancestor portraits and personal effects. “The blowsy flower arrangement atop the high chest of draws is a typical Nutting touch,” noted the tour guide. “In reality, a Colonial bedroom would not have a vase holding flowers that need to be watered perched atop a piece like that.”
Along with the trademark blue wallpaper favored by Nutting, the room’s Colonial Revival furnishings include a maple and pine bedstead, mahogany desk, a lolling chair, blanket chest, side chair, cherry “Tavern” table, candle stand and gold leaf looking glasses.
A highlight of the Colonial Revival bedroom is the oil-on-canvas portrait of Sarah Webb (1752-1832), the daughter of Joseph and Mehitable, whose second marriage was to a Boston merchant, Joseph Barrell. The portrait depicts Sarah in her later years, “a shame,” said the tour guide, “since I like to think of Sarah as a young woman living next door to her mother and stepfather.”
Nearby stands Sarah’s silver tea service, comprising an urn, sugar box and cream ewer. We know it is Sarah’s tea service by the engraving “JB,” Joseph Barrell’s coat of arms, and as a notation in his daybook for December 1784 of the purchase of a silver “sugar urn” and “cream pot.” The urn was made in 1783-84 by Thomas Chowner, London, and the sugar box and cream ewer were made in 1782-84 by Robert Hennell, London.
The Tea Room
The Tea Room in the back of the Webb House was originally set up by the Colonial Dames to help pay the expenses of running the museum, and other than presenting a frozen-in-time view of what a Colonial Revival tea room would look like, it does not have any other thematic ties to the rest of the house.
An Empire drop leaf table, circa 1840, was donated by the widow of the last private owner of the Webb House, Mrs John Welles. Made of walnut, mahogany and poplar, it features glass drawer pulls and was probably made in the Hartford area.
Other furnishings in the tea room include a maple “Butterfly” table, circa 1750; a mahogany and mahogany veneer on pine Federal period lady’s desk from about 1800; and a Sheraton “fancy” side chair with a rush seat and traces of original paint from about 1800 to 1820.
Most of the Webb House tea room dishes no longer survive. Instead, the Colonial Dames have furnished the space with earthenware blue transfer printed dishes that had originally been displayed in their Marlborough, Conn., tavern.
Artwork includes a watercolor painting of a girl with a hand harp, circa 1810-1820, which was done at Miss Rowson’s boarding school in Boston by Laura Webb of Windham. Conn. (no known relationship to the Wethersfield Webbs), and various samplers and embroideries. A notable example is a silk-on-silk embroidery of Mount Vernon, dated 1802.
Especially after viewing the Tea Room, visiting the attic seems like a “real guy’s” experience. A dark, rough-hewn cavern beneath the rafters, the attic, because it shares the main house’s footprint, is the largest space in the house. And the gambrel roof construction further ensures that the space does not seem cramped like most attics. There is, in fact, another narrow stairway leading to an upper attic loft where much of Joseph Webb’s goods were probably stored. “Goods were brought in by means of a crane and pulley system rather than up the stairs,” pointed out the tour guide.
Like the downstairs rooms, the attic, too, is divided, gallery-like, into a colonial side and a Wallace Nutting interpretation side. The “real” attic, on the left, is furnished with a slave’s pallet bed, storage chests, a workbench and an assortment of tools as well as the poignant addition of a fiddle, suggesting a melodic respite at the end of a hard day’s labor.
On one side of the chimney, a smoking oven recalls the use of attics as places to cure hams.
The other side of the attic is set up as Nutting would have reinterpreted it, bristling with a stockade of antique spinning wheels and yarn-winders, a child’s cart, mowing scythes and jugs – all in keeping with Nutting’s observation that “The attic is really a museum of such things as were too good to be thrown away, but too crude for the lower rooms.”
The Colonial Garden
In 1921 the Colonial Dames set about to install a Colonial Revival garden under the direction of landscape architect Amy Cogswell. Such gardens were uncommon then and rarer still were female landscape architects. Cogswell, who graduated from the Lowthorpe School of Landscape Architecture in 1916, designed for the Webb House a garden featuring classic arbors, and a host of old-fashioned flowers, mainly hardy perennials, roses and a few brightly colored annuals.
Revived in April 1999, the new Cogswell garden displays many of the same flowers that bloomed in the 1921 version. Visiting in August one could see garden pinks, gladiolas, hollyhocks, petunias, lavender, veronica, larkspur, baby’s breath and a host of other old-fashioned blooms.
An interesting view from the garden is the herringbone brickwork forming the rear wall of the ell from the main house.
The Weight of History
It is difficult to believe that a house with 250 years of daily wear and tear, reconstruction, restoration, interpretation and reinterpretation could undergo any more. Yet the Colonial Dames acknowledged an engineering analysis performed between 2000 and 2001 revealed some serious structural deficiencies that will have to be corrected as soon as possible. “There were no building codes in 1752,” said Rowley. “Basically, the house was underframed, which means that the weight of the roof and the upper floors came to rest on the interior hallway walls, causing them to sag and buckle.”
Rowley said the museum has applied for funding from the National Park Service to help pay for the project. “We are in the process of evaluating our readiness for pursuing a major fundraising effort to help us improve the rest of the museum campus and better serve a growing a changing audience,” concluded Rowley.