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Monday, October 15, 2012

The House that Twain Built

Even for late-19th century Victorian times, the Mark Twain house on Farmington Avenue in Hartford, Connecticut,  was an odd architectural creature.
If you had lived near Hartford, Connecticut around 1903, you might have seen this ad in the local paper: "One of the most beautiful and valuable residences in this city, located on Farmington Avenue, with a frontage of about 800 feet on the Avenue. Large house with 19 rooms conveniently arranged and beautifully decorated; brick barn with tenement for coachman; green-house. This is a rare opportunity to purchase a magnificent home in the best residential section of the city." The house had been built in 1874, the work of architect, Edward Potter. But that's misleading in that the real designer and builder was perhaps the most famous writer in American history--the fabled Mark Twain--Samuel Clemens. To describe it, one might cite it as a classic piece of General Grant Victorian architecture with all the chimneys, porches, gables, balconies, and verandas of a medieval cloister and more cornices and curlicues than a Swiss cuckoo clock. Others have referred to it as "steamboat Gothic," whatever that means. More accurately, it was the architectural embodiment of the man, and for Clemens, selling it was like selling a piece of his soul.

Referred to as the "Tom Sawyer House," it was
this one or one very similar from which the young
Samuel Clemens emerged shortly before the Civil
War to conquer the written word.
Clemens had come a long way from Hannibal, Missouri on the banks of the Mississippi; and Hartford was a long way from either there or the mining towns of the wild West where Mark Twain had become synonymous with the boisterous best of frontier literary humor. He was well into his thirties when he married Olivia Langdon of Elmira, New York, and there started raising a family of three daughters and a dog. And, just as in his writing, Clemens intended to strive for perfection in building his dream home. He wrote: "It is likely, that if more time had been taken, in the first place, the world would have been made right and this ceaseless improving and repairing would not be necessary now. But if you hurry a world or a house, you are nearly sure to find...that you have left out a towhead, or a and there which has got to be supplied no matter how much expense or vexation it may cost." Clemens intended to be more careful than had the Lord.

The conservatory, fountain and all.
Hartford was a move up for both Sam and Livy. Harriet Beecher Stowe lived just across the street. His publisher and several other literary friends were nearby. The multihued red brick house he and Potter conceived was quite far beyond the typical "box form" of architecture of his neighbors. By the time the Clemenses moved into their fanciful architectural creation in 1874, the cost had ballooned to more than $125,000, a not inconsiderable sum even for a writer of Clemens' ballooning popularity at the time. The house had several nooks and crannies designed as ideal writing retreats, a porch not unlike a steamboat pilot house, a lovely conservatory with flowers and fountains, and a rich, dark library. But Clemens' favorite retreat, where he eventually wrote Tom Sawyer, Life on the Mississippi, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, was instead, the billiard room, located in what could only be called the attic. Of course, in later years, he took to doing most of his writing in bed.

The first floor library, rich, dark, warm...Clemens preferred writing in the attic, or in bed.
Though his popularity with the American public easily afforded him a considerable income, the house just as easily drained it away. Often the family found it cheaper to travel to Europe and live there for extended periods than to maintain the huge house and its staff of seven. Numerous bad investments, including his financial backing of the three-ton Paige typesetter also gobbled up his fortune to the point where, by 1894, he was bankrupt. A vigorous lecture tour here and in Europe eventually paid off all his debts, but it was while on one of these tours in 1896 that his eldest daughter, Susy, just 24 years old at the time and still living at their home back in Hartford, died of meningitis. By then, they could neither afford the Hartford house, nor could they bring themselves to ever make it their home again.

The Twain House third floor billiards room, the writer's favorite retreat.
A Hartford family purchased the house and lived there for a few years before it became a boys' school and later apartments. During the 1920s, a real estate speculator purchased the property and threatened to raze the house in an attempt to get the highest possible price for his holdings. A group of local citizens pooled their resources, and with the help of the state, managed to purchase the Clemens home for use as a library and museum. Rent from apartments on the second, third, and fourth floors was used to pay off the mortgage, but not until 1955. Free of debt, the Mark Twain Memorial and Library Commission begin restoration work on the place. That project has been an ongoing effort ever since. As a result, today, in the second floor master bedroom, we can see the huge, dark, Victorian bed where Twain did some of his best writing, and where he and Livy slept with their pillows at the foot of the bed so they could best see and admire the ornately carved headboard.
The Twain House, ground floor.

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