New Canaan homes are steeped in hidden history

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Caroline Grogan, Reporter
@cgrogancourant

Throughout the six years that I’ve lived in Stepping Stones, a mansion-turned Monastic retreat-turned condos, I’ve come to embrace my role as unofficial tour guide for a few curious walker-bys who feel compelled to trek up the driveway and ogle the hulking, Hogwarts-esque building.

The most recent time I recounted the building’s long, winding history, I had to wonder: are there other homes in New Canaan whose walls and creaking floorboards are host to century-old stories?

In a letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Max Perkins described his New Canaan home as having “the face of a Greek temple and the body of a spacious Connecticut farmhouse.” Photo contributed by New Canaan Historical Society

To find out more, I ventured over to the classroom of NCHS Latin teacher David Harvey, a longtime New Canaan resident, to ask if he knew of any houses in town with intriguing histories. He sat in thought for a moment before seizing his keyboard and pulling up the Google Map of a house on Park Street. Mr. Harvey explained that the Greek revival-style house was once the home of Maxwell E. Perkins.

Like many New Canaanites, Mr. Perkins would take the train home from New York City with an overflowing briefcase. Unlike anyone else on the evening train, though, Perkins’ briefcase contained manuscripts and galley proofs for some of the most influential twentieth century American literature; Perkins, a book editor for Scribner’s,  is credited with discovering the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe and championing their works early on in their careers.   

According to a 2009 article written by Timothy Dumas for New Canaan-Darien Magazine, every so often a member of what the current homeowner describes as the “Maxwell Perkins cult” will appear at their doorstep, waiting as if Max Perkins himself were to step out the door at any moment.

Even though I can understand why the current owners don’t indulge these surprise visitors by assuming the role of tour guide/Max Perkins historian, I still feel akin to the house tourists, hopeful to connect to a piece of their history.

When my family first moved into one of the seven units in Stepping Stones, the only “historic” aspect of the house that I was aware of was a (somewhat tacky) full suit of armor lurking in the lobby, a relic from one of the recent inhabitants of the property. I knew the building supposedly had an interesting history, but I only had a hazy image of what that history might be. So, naturally, I turned to Google to do some digging.

In addition to the main building, the Hatfield Estate encompassed a carriage house, greenhouse, pool, meadow, and orchards. Photo contributed by New Canaan Historical Society

At first, my Internet searches turned up many links about Stepping Stones…Stepping Stones Children’s Museum and Stepping Stones Marble & Granite, that is. Finally, though, my searches brought me to a 2015 Facebook post from the New Canaan Historical Society.

The post detailed how the sprawling six-acre property was purchased in 1920 by Abraham Hatfield and his wife Mabel Whitman (of Whitman’s Chocolates). After the original house burned down due to a fire, the couple began construction on the what is the current building and made it completely fireproof. The Hatfields added a bountiful greenhouse in the backyard and a chapel with stained glass windows that still stands today.

After the Hatfields sold their fifty room estate because they deemed it too large for their family, the town of New Canaan briefly considered turning to Hatfield Mansion into a hospital. Over the next few years, the property changed hands a few times before being purchased in 1948 by the Congregation of the Holy Ghost & of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The Holy Ghost Congregation owned the property for over twenty years, where they hosted weekend retreats for prayer and meditation. After they moved to another property in Norwalk, esteemed architect Victor Christ-Janer transformed the building into seven condominiums.

Mike Murphy locates a book that contains the oldest known photo taken of the Maxwell Perkins house, dated 1886. Photo by Jake Neuberger 

Now, when I pass by the former chapel on the way to my unit within Stepping Stones, I can feel a wave of serenity emanating from the stained glass windows, a presence lingering from the days when the Holy Ghost Congregation hosted silent retreats on weekends. As I walk through the backyard, I imagine the spirits of the original owners, Mabel Whitman and Abraham Hatfield, are still strolling down the flower-lined paths.

But where can New Canaanites whose houses weren’t owned by famous book editors or an order of monks quench their thirst for a connection to the past? Since the Historical Society’s Facebook post had such detailed information about Stepping Stones, I took a drive over to the Historical society to speak with their librarian archivist Mike Murphy.

Mr. Murphy said that, though Philip Johnson’s Glass House is the only building in New Canaan that offers regular tours, the Historical Society’s biennial Modern Day House Tour is coming up on October 20th, 2018. Until then, anyone is welcome to observe Gores Pavilion in Irwin Park or schedule an appointment to be guided through the Little Red Schoolhouse by a former student.

 

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