Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Whittemore House - 45 Grove Street

Samuel Whittemore was a successful manufacturer of textile equipment as well as an important property holder when he chose the bucolic site for his home in the village of Greenwich in 1830.  Whittemore moved his family of nine into the two-story brick residence along with two "free colored persons."  The house reflected his wealth -- the rich sculptured plaster ceiling moldings, woodwork of burl walnut and fine Federal detailing.  The grounds included a stables and greenhouse.

The family lived at 45 Grove until 1851 when Whittemore sold the property that, before long, became a boarding house.  It was here in 1865 that actor Samuel K. Chester was living as the Civil War was coming to an end.  Early that year there was a knock on Chester's door that could have changed American history.

When Samuel Chester opened his door that evening John Wilkes Booth stood before him.  Booth visited the actor, in Chester's words, to enlist his help with a "conspiracy to take over the government."  This included kidnapping the President.

Chester refused to cooperate; however he notified no one.  In April of that year John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln.

Later that same year in an odd twist of fate, Louisa Lee Schuyler, the great-granddaughter of Alexander Hamilton who would become famous as a leader in American charity work, transformed 45 Grove into The Lincoln Home, a hospital for wounded soldiers.  According to The New York Times on October 8, 1865 "This institution, which is now in operation at No. 45, Grove-street, is doing a good work in caring for disabled soldiers and seamen, about sixty of whom are now under its charge."

The brick was painted in the late 19th century.  photo NYPL Collection

The Whittemore house, despite is varied uses, remained essentially intact until 1871 when Elisha Bloomer hired Bejamin G. Wells to add two stories to the house, converting it into apartments.  Uncharacteristic of the period, the architect continued the original Federal details rather than Victorianizing the entire structure.  He duplicated the then out-of-fashion windows and lintels and preserved most of the interior detailing; the most noticeable alteration being the enlarging of the parlor floor windows.

By 1921 there was a theater in the lower level.  On February 19 that year a marionette production of Edna St. Vincent Millay's Two Slatterns & A King was staged.  The following week the audience saw Chickasaw Indian, advertised as "What the American Indian has accomplished in Art and Literature.  Assisted by a company of Indian Artists.  Interpretative Dances, Tom Tom Music, etc."

In 1923 writer Hart Crane was renting a room on the second floor and struggling to make a living.

Despite the passage of nearly 200 years the Whittemore House escaped the worst of renovations.  In 1937 the Department of Buildings ordered that the striking original interior doors be replaced with metal ones.  The owners protested in writing, insisting that the doors were "highly ornamental" and integral to the integrity of the now-landmarked building.  The Department of Buildings rejected the request.  The wooden doors remain in place, however, to this day.

Flanking the stone steps that lead to the wide Federal doorway, two cast iron lamp posts now support matching Victorian-style lamps.  Originally, in all probability, a wrought-iron scrolled arch would have joined them with a single lantern hanging from the center.

Much of he original first floor architectural details remain, including the intricate plasterwork and Federal-style woodwork.  Luckily, the present owners are accutely aware of the rich history of this property.  The beautiful country home that Samuel Whittemore built for his family in 1830 should survive for generations.

photographs by the author

1 comment:

  1. I've been a fan of the house for some time, and new something of its history.

    However, I never knew of the Wilkes-Booth connection. Many thanks.