On Sunday, Sept. 27, the Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society will host tours of “Seven Gables,” an 8,700 square foot home on Orchard Road, as a fundraiser for the museum.
Who knew that West Hartford has its own “House of Seven Gables”?
The mansion at 48 Orchard Road was built in 1931 in the Tudor style, an American take on the old European estate. This house has the look of old Europe, with weathered brick and a terracotta tile roof, but was built with the modern conveniences Americans had come to expect, like electricity, indoor plumbing, and central heating.
Seven Gables was built for the widow of a successful industrialist, Ida Hamilton Roberts. Mrs. Roberts’ late husband, George Roberts, had been president of the Hartford Carpet Corporation, a family business whose signature product was “axminster” carpet – a type of tufted, pile carpet. The Roberts lived on Washington Street in Hartford, but when Mr. Roberts passed away in 1921, Ida Hamilton Roberts began contemplating moving to West Hartford.
The movement of Hartford’s elite to West Hartford began in the mid-to-late 1800s, when the city started to become more crowded with surges of new immigrants. The first area of settlement was in West Hartford’s east end – closest to the Hartford border along Prospect Avenue.
The houses on Prospect Avenue – once called Prospect Hill – were not only large and elegant, but could also boast a stunning view of the Hartford skyline. But by the 1920s, with the popularity of the trolley and the advent of the automobile, people had begun to move further afield.
In the 1920s, the Orchard Road area, approximately 3 miles west of the Center, was nothing more than a series of farms located on Mountain Road. The land in the high elevations had yet to be developed.
One of the earliest owners of the land was Jason G. Shepard, who operated a 250-acre milk farm there in the 1850s. Financial woes forced Shepard to abandon the property, and the land changed hands several times. In 1913, a man named J. Scofield Rowe, vice-president of Aetna’s accident and liability department, purchased the property that, besides the dairy, also had a functioning orchard that yielded as many as 1,000 barrels of apples per year. Rowe called the farm Rosemere Orchards.
In 1925, Rowe sold the land to developers Dewing & Dewing, who converted 95 acres of pasture land into 17 lots with winding roads and a common use recreational park with a pond. A private pumping station was built in 1929 to supply water to the plots. The development, called Rosemere Orchards, offered prestige six-acre building lots with hitherto unparalleled views of the Hartford skyline.
The house at 48 Orchard Road was designed by architect firm Ebbets & Frid for Ida Hamilton Roberts and her unmarried daughter, Louise. With six acres to choose from, the architects situated the house perfectly to maximize the view. According to the 1940 U.S. Census, the house was worth $70,000, about $1.2 million today.
Ida Roberts passed away in 1940 and the house was sold to its second owners: Rev. George G. Guinness and his wife, Catherine Spencer Guinness.
Rev. Guinness had served in the Navy during World War I, transporting troops to France, and then as a captain in the Merchant Marines. In 1930, Rev. Guinness became a minister and moved from Rhode Island to Connecticut, where he took a position as rector of West Hartford’s St. James’s Episcopal Church in April 1931. There he met the widow Catherine Spencer, whose husband had died in 1928.
Mrs. Spencer’s late husband, Ira Hobart Spencer, was the founder of a successful company called Spencer Turbine. Spencer Turbine manufactured “turbine vacuum cleaners,” basically, central cleaning systems for large buildings, installed when the building was constructed. The system sent all the dust and dirt from each floor to a central receiver in the basement.
Spencer Turbine was an extremely successful business – in 1918, its annual sales were $2 million – with impressive structures like the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings as clients.
Rev. Guinness and Catherine Spencer married in 1931 and they purchased Seven Gables 10 years later. Together, they made improvements to the house with the help of architect Walter Crabtree, Jr., including the addition of a ballroom in 1947.
Catherine Spencer Guinness was a patron of the arts and hosted many events with musicians, dancers, and opera singers. Rev. Guinness passed away in 1950 and Mrs. Guinness remained at 48 Orchard Road until her own death in 1969.
Tour the house and grounds
On Sunday, Sept. 27, 2020, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., guests are invited to see Seven Gables for themselves!
The mansion is being opened to the public exclusively as a fundraiser for the Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society thanks to the generosity of Shalini Madara of Silver Pine Realty. Guests will learn more about the architectural detail, the development of Orchard Road, and the Roberts and Guinness families, by exploring the mansion, a bonus guest cottage, and the magnificent grounds.
Tickets are $20 in advance ($15 for museum members) or $25 after Sept. 25 and at the door. For safety, there will be timed entry with small groups (10-12 people) allowed at each time slot. Reserve your time slot at https://noahwebster.yapsody.com/.
Because parking onsite is extremely limited, the museum will be offering a shuttle bus to Seven Gables. Please park at Braeburn School (45 Braeburn Rd., West Hartford) 15 minutes prior to your ticket time. The shuttle will take a small number of guests up to Seven Gables at a time. After your tour, the shuttle will bring you back to the Braeburn parking lot.
Please note our special COVID-19 safety precautions:
- Timed entry to Seven Gables
- Maximum 12 people per tour
- Masks required
- Socially distancing maintained
- Maximum 12 people on shuttle bus
(one-half of normal capacity)
- Sanitization products provided
This event is made possible by the financial support of sponsors, including Presenting Sponsor The Miale Team, and gold sponsors J.P. Carroll Construction and The Spencer Group. If you are interested in learning more about Seven Gables, please contact Shalini Madara of Silver Pine Real Estate at 203-451-6622 or [email protected].
The Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society is a not-for-profit museum and cultural destination where citizens can learn to understand and appreciate the past. The museum preserves the birthplace of Noah Webster, the founding father, educator, author and lexicographer who taught generations of Americans what it means to be American. This National Historic Landmark is also a repository for the history of West Hartford, the community that molded Webster’s future and is still thriving 250-plus years later. The historic house and exhibit spaces are open daily 1-4 p.m. For information on the museum’s extensive school and public programs, visit www.noahwebsterhouse.org or call 860-521-5362.
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