A Conn. home with a passion for justice
One in a series on National Historic Landmarks in New England.
HARTFORD — When she moved to Hartford's Nook Farm neighborhood of writers, actors, reformers, and politicians in 1873, Harriet Beecher Stowe had already made her mark on history. Her 14-room Victorian Gothic cottage was "modest for her wealth and stature," says Maura Hallisey, who gives tours of the home, now part of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center.
Stowe was nearing retirement when she settled in Hartford, and was far better known than her neighbor Mark Twain, who purchased the 25-room flamboyant Gothic house next door in 1874 and had it decorated by Louis Comfort Tiffany. Although she penned more than 30 books, Stowe is remembered primarily for her debut novel, "Uncle Tom's Cabin," serialized in the National Era, an abolitionist newspaper, in 1851-52 and issued as a book in 1852.
"It was one of the first books of its time to put a human face on the horrors of slavery," says Hallisey.
Its publication was an international sensation. "Uncle Tom's Cabin" sold 10,000 copies the first week it rolled off the presses. In the first year, it sold 300,000 copies in the United States. In Britain, it sold 1.5 million in a single year. It was translated into 48 languages before Stowe's death at 85 in 1896.
"She was a rock star figure at the time," says Hallisey. "This is the home of the woman whose words changed the world."
Fittingly, the house tour focuses more on Stowe's achievements and sense of social justice than on the decorative arts and architecture of the Gilded Age — even though Stowe and her sister Catharine Beecher co-authored "The American Woman's Home," which, among other things, laid out a theory of scientific housekeeping and kitchen design. But the tour, ultimately, amounts to a journey through the rooms of a woman whose "family values" (in the best sense of that often abused phrase) were the lodestone of her moral compass.
The dining room is set for a family meal for four: Stowe, her husband, Calvin, and their adult twin daughters, Hattie and Eliza, who lived in the house until Stowe's death. Hallisey uses the setting to paint a picture of Harriet's own upbringing. Her father, famed evangelist Lyman Beecher, encouraged a lively discussion of the issues of the day at the family table. (It was easier when none of the kids had soccer games or tae kwon do classes.)
He wanted his children "to take up a cause and fight for it," says Hallisey. Harriet wasn't the only one to take up her father's charge. Brother Henry Ward Beecher became a prominent abolitionist and temperance advocate. Older sister Catharine Beecher founded women's colleges. Younger half-sister Isabella Beecher Hooker became a leader of the American suffragist movement .
The back parlor, with its modest piano and tufted Victorian couch, was where the family would relax. "It's like our living room, but without a television, so they had to talk to each other," Hallisey says. The front parlor, set up these days for roundtable discussions, "was where they would entertain company for conversations."
The upstairs reveals a more personal side of Stowe and her family. In the small room that served as her theologian husband's study stands a dropleaf table where Stowe wrote portions of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" when she and Calvin lived in Brunswick, Maine. She wrote all her works longhand with a flowing, urgent penmanship. Of the estimated 900 pages of original manuscript of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," only 14 survive — nine in various libraries and five in the collections of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center.
The adjoining master bedroom, filled with heavy Empire furniture, has a coal fireplace. A desk is arranged as if Stowe had just stepped away. It's a wonderfully messy vignette, complete with large wastebasket full of crumpled, rejected drafts.
Photos of Stowe's children (there were seven) are lined up neatly on the mantel over the fireplace. As Hallisey puts it, her entire life was constructed around "the overarching theme of families trying to keep themselves together."
HARRIET BEECHER STOWE CENTER 77 Forest St., Hartford, Conn., 860-522-9258, www.harrietbeecherstowecenter.org. Open April through December Mon-Sat 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m., Sun noon-5 p.m.; January-March closed Tue. Adults $10, seniors and students $9, children ages 5-16 $7.