Wooded Path

O ne of the more curious spots on Yale’s campus is a little park known as Sachem’s Wood, which is barely wooded at all. A few trees cast shade over a lawn converted to patchwork by ongoing construction. But the name dates back to a time when the rise tucked between Yale’s science buildings was the sloping yard of a mansion on 30 wooded acres.

The land belonged to one of New Haven’s most influential citizens, James Hillhouse, nicknamed “the Old Sachem.” “His imposing stature, his grave and dignified bearing and dark skin, won for him the sobriquet of ‘Sachem’ which he accepted, and with whimsical humor placed a hatchet on his desk,” writes Hillhouse biographer Chester Braman. “It was in reference to this that his favorite toast was, ‘Let us bury the hatchet.’” Cultural insensitivity notwithstanding, Hillhouse was famed as a Connecticut delegate to the Constitutional Convention, a US congressman, a US senator, one of the men to secure New Haven’s city charter, a treasurer of Yale College and planter of New Haven’s once beloved American Elm trees.

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Hillhouse sold the land to his son, the poet James A. Hillhouse, for a dollar in 1823. The younger Hillhouse then commissioned renowned architects Alexander Jackson Davis and Ithiel Town—who are also credited with several nearby mansions, some of which are still standing—to build him a Federal-style house there. Known as Highwood, the younger Hillhouse’s elegant home was built between 1828 and 1830. With its tall, columned porch and mature oak trees, it stood prominently over modern-day Sachem Street at the head of Hillhouse Avenue. Surrounding it was a wooded expanse bordered today by Edwards Street to the north, Prospect to the west, Sachem to the south and Whitney Avenue to the east.

Here, the elder Hillhouse lived with his son until his death in 1832. The younger Hillhouse later changed the name of the estate to Sachem’s Wood, using a volume of poems to make the announcement. Later in the 19th century, writer Ellen Strong Bartlett described the spot as the idyllic “keystone” of Hillhouse Avenue, with trees casting “flickering shadows on the turf” and flowers both planted and wild. “Best of all,” Bartlett writes, “the gate stands open to all who wish to enter and enjoy the sylvan retreat. In spring the children seek there the early wild flowers, and in winter the snowballs fly with merry shouts among the trees. Strangers drive there without rebuff, and the contemplative may sit on the grassy slope and muse away an hour…”

The estate passed from the poet to his daughter, Isaphene. When she died in 1905, her will provided for a cousin, another James Hillhouse, to live in the mansion if he wished and for the rest of the estate to be broken into parcels, with roads cutting through the property. The vision provoked a public outcry, according to a newspaper clipping of the time in the Arnold Guyot Dana scrapbooks at the New Haven Museum’s Whitney Library. “It will not be long before the beautiful Hillhouse estate, where so many of New Haven’s boys and girls have coasted down hill in the winter, and romped during the summer, will be cut into building lots,” lamented one account.

Instead, Yale alumni purchased the property for the university, and the cousin James Hillhouse moved into the mansion on its remaining three acres with his wife, Hildegarde. The house survived another 38 years while Yale began constructing its science complex around it. After Hildegarde died in 1942, her will honored Isaphene’s intention to have the mansion destroyed, and she donated the remainder of the land to Yale. “There is no more melancholy spectacle than to see a fine old house fall to decay, or pass into the hands of strangers who have no interest in it,” Isaphene had written in a letter to James.

The last Mrs. Hillhouse provided for the protection of two old oak trees, to “be cared for and kept so long as [they are] in sufficiently good condition to be a thing of beauty and not an eyesore.” The trees, like the house, are gone now, but one final request of Hildegarde Hillhouse continues to be honored: that the name Sachem’s Wood be forever attached to the site. Type “Sachem’s Wood” into a Google Maps search today, and, sure enough, the red marker lands on that little patch of green crossed by footpaths.

A new Science Pavilion is now rising almost precisely on the site of the Hillhouse mansion, while the front slope stands behind a perimeter of chain link, its trees wrapped in protective fencing. Plans for the project show a grassy, treed site remaining. There hasn’t been wildflower picking there for a long time, but for the foreseeable future, anyway, it seems the last scrap of the Hillhouse family estate will remain Sachem’s Wood.

Sachem’s Wood
Sachem Street at Hillhouse Avenue (map)

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 1, from the Manuscripts and Archives collections of the Yale University Library, features Highwood and its front lawn circa 1942. Images 2-4, featuring various angles of the construction site on Sachem’s Wood, photographed by Dan Mims.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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