Monday, July 8, 2013

“A Time Quite as Great as Ours”: The Joshua Hempsted House in the Twentieth Century

“Outside was the headlong, bewildered twentieth century, crushing down all that stood in its way. Here, in this garden and house, was a fragment, an islet, of a time quite as great as ours, with thoughts as deep and hopes as high.”[1] 
– Odell Shepard, 1953

In December 1953, Odell Shepard’s “Hempstead House: It Needs Our Help” was published in the Connecticut Antiquarian. His argument – brief but persuasive – urged the increasingly indifferent community of New London to take back ownership of its important built heritage. The city’s old Hempsted House on Jay Street was falling into disrepair, desperately in need of the public’s help to “protect it as best we can from all change.”[2] 

Shepard’s article was consciously tying into the slow-growing but passionate movement in twentieth-century American culture known as historic preservation. Largely mobilized by local citizen groups who valued the cultural, historic and patriotic sites in their communities, the will to conserve and preserve old structures such as Hempsted House was driven by passionate instigators at the local level.

In this, the old Hempsted home had an ally: Anna Hempsted Branch (1875–1937), the last family member to live in the house and a dedicated steward of its preservation. Anna was the daughter of Mary Lydia Bolles Branch (1840–1922) and John Locke Branch (1842–1909), both active abolitionists who lived in the house in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Anna and her mother were not only interested in tracing their genealogy, collecting antiques and studying colonial times, but in effect became some of the earliest figures in Connecticut to embrace what is now known as the Colonial Revival movement.

Image: Anna Hempsted Branch (left), and Mary Lydia Bolles Branch, ca. 1875 (right)

Colonial Revivalism was a national expression of early American culture, primarily celebrating the built and artistic heritage of East Coast architecture and the decorative arts. In its heyday from 1880 to 1940, proponents of the movement attempted to emulate the values of democracy, patriotism, good taste, and moral superiority through their built surroundings – all qualities which expressed, to many, the visions of the country’s earliest settlers. Writers such as Elsie de Wolfe and Edith Wharton urged homeowners to simplify their interiors and present a more harmonious unity with the architectural background. Authenticity of ornament and an accurate understanding of historical styles resulted in homes such as Hempsted House, where Anna saw to it that “no unseemly innovations were introduced into her family’s ancient homestead. [3] Early photographs of the house’s interiors exemplify this ethos of colonial simplicity: the seventeenth-century hall of Joshua Hempsted I, for instance, retained its early colonial furniture and feel, as did most other rooms in the house. 

Image: The seventeenth-century hall of Hempsted House, ca. 1920
Anna never married, dying in 1937 and leaving the building to the Antiquarian & Landmarks Society (now known as Connecticut Landmarks). The house became the Society’s first property, officially opening to the public in its new guise as an historic house museum on May 15, 1958. Surely, Anna and the long line of Hempsted ancestors preceding her would be proud to know that their family home remains a monument in New London to this day.

[1] Odell Shepard, “Hempstead House: It Needs Our Help,” The Connecticut Antiquarian, 5 (1953): 14.  
[2] Ibid.  
[3] Hempsted House Tour Guide.

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 Israel Sack, Inc., Archives Fellow in the department of American Decorative Arts.

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