Friday, March 8, 2013

A Place to Call Home

Three-hundred and thirty-five years is a long time – especially for an historic structure.

But that is precisely how long the Joshua Hempsted House of New London, Connecticut has quietly stood on a grassy slope of land facing what was originally Bream Cove. Clad in a restored timber-frame skin with diamond-pane windows and a steep gable roof, the building now resembles itself in its adolescence, a late seventeenth-century medieval-style home representing several hundred years of history.

The family who built Hempsted House traces their lineage back even further, to the year 1645, when Robert Hempsted (ca. 1600–1654), an English émigré, secured a 14-acre land grant for the present property. His son Joshua I (1649–1687) developed the land, constructing a permanent family dwelling on the plot just a few hundred yards from the center of town. Family ownership over the next 292 years saw the property evolve from farmland in the seventeenth century to a residential district in the eighteenth, with buildings added such as the 1759 stone “Huguenot” house on the front corner of the lot.

Despite the passage of time and drastic demographic and social changes, the wood frame structure of Joshua I remained at the heart of its New London neighborhood. When built in 1678, the house resembled an English medieval structure, its side gable roof, massive central chimney and counterpane casement windows constructed largely from local materials. The earliest iteration of the three-story building contained one room on each floor, including a dormered garret above and a stone cellar below.[1] The first floor featured a hall, used interchangeably for entertaining, cooking, eating and sleeping; above this was a chamber, used as a sleeping room and work space by the home’s eleven inhabitants.

By the eighteenth century the building held two family units – that of Joshua II (1678–1758), son of Joshua I, and his son, Nathaniel I (1700–1729) along with his family. Even by colonial standards the house was uncomfortably overcrowded, prompting Nathaniel to add an addition to the existing building in 1728. Nathaniel’s extension provided his young family with a first-floor parlor and kitchen, upstairs bedchamber and garret. Also added to the home sometime before 1711 was a kitchen lean-to.

The period 1711–1758 is the best documented era of the house’s history due to the now famous diary kept by Joshua II, which documents the mundane but edifying details of a colonial family’s life. The figure of Adam Jackson, who served as a slave at the house from the late 1720s until Joshua’s death in 1758, looms large in this chapter of the building’s history.

As Hempsted House grew into middle age in the nineteenth century, the narrative of the building and its inhabitants shifted. From a seat of manual labor – farming and carpentry being the primary occupations of previous antecedents – came a stronghold of enlightenment. The ninth generation of Hempsteds believed in education and civil liberties, running a school out of the wooden house from roughly 1817 to 1855. Additionally, the Hempsteds were active abolitionists, producing anti-slavery letters, petitions, and even an abolitionist newspaper in the mid-1800s.

By the twentieth century, however, Hempsted House – now nearing its 250th birthday – had lost some of its prominence in the community. The tenth generation and final family member to live in the home, Anna Hempsted Branch (1875–1937), was an author and poetess who strove to preserve her family homestead against impending winds of change. Upon her death in 1937, the building passed to the Antiquarian & Landmarks Society, now known as Connecticut Landmarks. The house became the Society’s first property, and by the 1950s preservation was under way. The Joshua Hempsted House officially opened to the public in its new guise as an historic house museum on May 15, 1958.

In retrospect, 335 years is a lengthy and commendable span of time for any building to exist, especially considering the social, political and economic changes occurring in many American communities. The Joshua Hempsted House now faces a new chapter in its history: one of change, growth, and – potentially – rebirth.

What really matters now, therefore – is what happens next.

[1] Allegra di Bonaventura, “This Little World: Family and Slavery in Old New England, 1678-1764” (PhD diss., Yale University, 2008), 283.

Louisa Brouwer is a material culture scholar who has recently written a revised four-period furnishing plan for the Joshua Hempsted House in New London, Connecticut. She currently works at the Yale University Art Gallery as the Sack Archives Fellow in the department of American Decorative Arts.

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