House of Repute

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A few blocks from the Guilford Town Green, stately houses line quiet streets. Most have wide, sprawling lawns. Some have barns behind them, long since converted into garages or sheds. Many are quite old, from the Victorian era or earlier.

The Henry Whitfield House has all of those things—the lawn, the barn, the history. It just has more of them. The lawn is wide and sprawling, rolling across 10 acres. The shingle-sided, white-trimmed barn is now the neat, cheerful visitor’s center of the Henry Whitfield State Museum, which manages the property. And the gray granite house at the center of it all is far older than the others around it. Indeed, it’s the oldest house in all of Connecticut, constructed in 1639.

“For many, many years, people used to think it was the oldest house in the country,” says Michael McBride (pictured second), who’s been the curator of the museum for 28 years. That turned out not to be the case. “Until we really started to do surveys in the 1950s, nobody knew” better, he says. A number of Pueblo Native American dwellings in the Southwest were found to be hundreds of years older, while a house in Massachusetts beat the Whitfield’s construction by two years. Still, the Whitfield House’s false “first” status gained it a real one: The site was designated Connecticut’s first state museum in 1899, becoming a significant attraction for history-obsessed Nutmeggers in the early 20th century.

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During my 21st-century visit, the property was quiet—people-wise, anyway. Cicadas were buzzing loudly and chipmunks were darting through the nooks and crannies of the short stone wall surrounding the house. The wall itself, though mossy and ancient-looking, was only built in the 1930s as part of a WPA project designed by notable landscape architect Beatrix Farrand.

Both the building and the property have gone through a number of renovations and restorations over the years, reflecting changing times. In the early days of historical preservation, McBride tells me, places were saved based on their connections to famous people or events. With the Whitfield House, on the other hand, the decision to preserve it came largely from its architectural uniqueness. It’s the oldest stone house in New England, and, conceived by Puritan separatists fearful of interference from the British Crown, it was intended as a lookout point and fortress, based on fortified stone houses in northern England. Out of the four stone houses built around Guilford for similar purposes, the Whitfield is the only survivor, and even the houses that inspired it are mostly in ruins now, making it unusual not just locally, regionally and nationally but also globally.

While the house is the star, that’s not to imply Whitfield the man wasn’t important. According to McBride, he was—but only in Connecticut. “Henry, while he’s one of the founders of Guilford and a minister, he’s a local figure,” McBride says. “In his time, he had very important regional connections within the Puritan movement. But to the larger audience outside of Guilford, you wouldn’t recognize his name.” The family would remain in Puritan circles for decades, and, as an odd footnote, one of Whitfield’s granddaughters was one of the accused witches of Salem, Massachusetts.

The Whitfield House is 3,000 square feet, with three stories and five rooms plus a basement added by a later owner. Remarkably, its basic shape hasn’t changed in 378 years, though many other outbuildings were moved around or razed. The biggest rooms are the great hall and the attic, and exhibits of Connecticut artifacts are arranged throughout—like the clock that once topped America’s first clock tower, installed in Guilford in 1727, and various items kept by the house’s owners over the centuries.

McBride says the house was built with local stone from down the street. He shows me what “restorations” were made decades ago, whose planners acted more out of romanticism than respect for historical accuracy. In the great hall, an add-on second fireplace leaves McBride shaking his head, while, on the ceiling, an enormous hinged panel called a “baffle” was installed, ostensibly to let out smoke. As with the second fireplace, the original house almost certainly didn’t have one, McBride says. “Their main interest,” McBride says of those renovators, “was making the good old days look good.”

The story of the site, according to McBride, is as much about the adjustment of the historical narrative for accuracy over the years as it is about the history itself. Some oft-repeated chestnuts simply aren’t true, he says, like the supposed threat Native Americans posed to early Guilfordians. McBride notes that due to disease and past conflicts, nine out of ten coastal natives in New England were dead before the Pilgrims even arrived in 1620. The Menunkatuck, Guilford’s earlier residents, had fewer than three dozen members when Whitfield built his house in 1639.

Outside on the grounds, McBride points to a displayed cannon and tells me he’d like to move it, putting a statue of Shaumpishuh, the under-acknowledged female leader of the Menunkatuck, in its place. That way, she’d be facing the statue of Henry Whitfield, to whom she sold the land that would become Guilford, including the site of the museum, and visitors would have a clearer idea of who and what came before.

Like the Whitfield House itself, the facts of its history are set in stone. Some of them have just had to wait longer to be known.

Henry Whitfield State Museum
248 Old Whitfield St, Guilford (map)
Wed-Sun 10am-4:30pm (May-Oct)
(203) 453-2457
Adults $8, seniors $6, children (6-17) $5, kids 5 and under free
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Written by Anne Ewbank. Photos 1 and 6, taken in 2014, by Dan Mims. Photos 2-5, taken in 2017, by Anne Ewbank.

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A California native and world traveler, Anne came to New Haven for graduate school and discovered that New England is as cold as everyone said it was. She loves reading books, playing guitar, exploring new towns and taking road trips but only as long as she gets to pick the music.

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