I n the year 1725, Benjamin Franklin was a spry 16-year-old, George Washington hadn’t yet been born and, along the southern edge of the Connecticut Colony, a man named Ebenezer Clark finished building a house.
Clark sold the house to his sister Rebecca and her husband John Humphreville. It was a classic design—two rooms on the first floor and two rooms above them—and sturdily built. But the Humphreville family left the home suddenly in 1788.
“They were loyalists,” Connie Sacco explains. Sacco is a retired librarian and former chairwoman of the Ward-Heitmann Museum, which celebrates the long history of the house Clark built—now perhaps the oldest structure in West Haven. The evidence that the Clarks and Humphrevilles were sympathetic to the British crown is fairly damning, according to Sacco. For example, although the British invaded West Haven, they never touched the family’s property. And, years after the redcoats had been rousted, flints from Dover, England, were found hidden under the floorboards. “Unused British flints,” Sacco says knowingly. “So really they were holding weapons for the British.”
Thomas and Martha Ward bought the house the year the Humphrevilles left, and their descendant Louisa Ward went on to marry a Danish sea captain named Adrian Heitmann. The Ward-Heitmann house, as it’s now known, takes its name from their union. The marriage itself, however, was not quite a romance for the ages. As Sacco tells it, Heitmann was living in the West Indies when he boarded a Ward family ship bound for New Haven. When he arrived, he wanted to maintain his connection with the Wards, who were already making a name for themselves in West Haven’s shipyards. Out of six children Louisa was “the only girl. So he married her.” Louisa would go on to become an unusually independent woman, playing the stock market and investing in the shipping industry.
The house stood placidly as our country passed from one trauma to the next. The structure that survived the Revolutionary War became the home of Adrian Heitmann II, a Union soldier who was wounded in the Battle of Gettysburg. The preeminent Civil War photographer Matthew Brady took the only surviving photograph of Heitmann II, of which the museum has a copy.
Other colorful members of the Ward-Heitmann family include William Wallace Ward, who built an eponymous schooner, helped found the New Haven and West Haven Horse Rail Road Company and remained a bachelor throughout his life. He eventually moved back home to live with his canny sister Louisa, who charged him rent. Louisa’s daughter Henrietta Heitmann “remained a spinster,” Sacco says, and added a wing onto the house where she ran a schoolroom for local children until 1906.
After passing out of the Ward-Heitmann ownership, the house was inhabited throughout the twentieth century, most recently by Dr. Nicola and Anna Milano. In 1996, the house that had witnessed more than 270 years of American history became all about history and turned into a museum.
Last week, Sacco and other board members were preparing for their annual open house. The museum, which is usually only viewable by appointment, will be decorated for the holidays and set up for self-guided tours with cider and cookies. The floorboards will squeak underfoot once more and the rooms—each of which is decorated in accordance with a different historical era—will be full of life again.
One of the centerpieces of the open house is a series of dioramas. Made by Thompson School students in 1935 to celebrate Connecticut’s tercentenary, they chart the evolution of the house, room by room, with surprising and loving attention to detail. You can see the living room, for example, develop from a rough-hewn settler’s cabin (complete with an endearingly miniature bear pelt cut out of brown carpet) into a plush space with upholstered sofas and hand-detailed wallpaper.
The impulse to record and celebrate Ward-Heitmann’s history is still alive in the hearts of the museum’s board members, many of whom fell in love with the house before they ever stepped over the threshold. Barbara Wendelowski remembers being a young bride, living “around the corner. This house was painted red,” she says. “It belonged to Dr. Milano at the time, and I would drive by it and think, ‘That is the coolest house around.’” Another board member, William Lang, says that when he was a boy he was always curious about the house. “I always thought, ‘Gee I wonder who lives there, what it’s like inside,’” he says.
Today the house is spacious, elegant and, most of the time, quiet. Dark wood beams against soft white walls give the rooms a classic look, while period details like a rope net bed and a functioning spinning wheel offer a window into past lives. The floorboards tilt at slight angles, the narrow staircases are treacherous and the rooms are drafty. If you step on a certain floorboard, the attic door flies open.
Nobody said stepping into history would be uneventful.
Written and photographed by Sorrel Westbrook.