Daniel Emberley, August 2006
My sister-in-law Karen and I independently found the “Connecticut Art Trail” brochure, and each wanted to try it out. We teamed up for a weekend run of about half the sites. Karen is a painter with a lust for all things Impressionist, so we targeted museums with Impressionist works by both European and American painters. Her daughter Samantha is a teenager with good museum manners and a curiosity about art. They were a pleasure to travel with.
The two biggest art destinations in Connecticut are the Wadsworth Atheneum, in Hartford, and the art museums at Yale University, in New Haven. Michael and I had seen these on previous trips, so Karen and Sam graciously postponed these for the future. If you’re doing an art tour of the state, include them at the top of your list.
I took Amtrak up to Massachusetts and we drove down to Connecticut from their place near Worcester. Michael drove up the next day and met us late on Friday. There’s enough in this one small state to fill a week’s adventures; we’ve made notes of places to check out on future runs. Many of these cities are served by Amtrak and/or bus, but you really need a car, as most of the sites themselves are not in downtowns.
Friday, August 25
Connecticut is small enough that you can get anywhere in under three hours. If you cluster what you want to see, places are often minutes apart, even if you use back roads instead of the Interstate. Roads are often poorly marked and circuitous. The Interstates have lots of foolish left hand exits and an absence of clover leafs, so if you miss an exit and get off at the next to circle back, you could be in for a 15 minute “country adventure”. There seems to be a state law against billboards for anything except local contractors: while you can easily find a store to sell you plate glass, you will be hard pressed to find a Motel 6 or Howard Johnson’s. They’re there, but not advertised. How elitist <smile>. If you plan on winging it for overnight accommodations, get a list of motel locations in Connecticut before you hit the road.
First stop was New London. I showed Karen and Sam around the old downtown, with the Soldiers and Sailors Monument and H.H. Richardson train station. New London’s economy has been tied to the ocean its entire life. It is not in flush economic times, but is squeaking by with the help of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. Across the street from the Academy (marked during this orientation weekend by pairs of cadets at all corners pointing folks to the entrance) is the Lyman Allyn Art Museum. This would turn out to be the second-most-lame offering of the tour, but we didn’t know that at the time. It’s a not-bad smallish collection, with some good American furniture and Impressionist painting. A few contemporary shows, but nothing worth recording.
We took I-95 across the Thames to the Connecticut River, Old Lyme, and the Florence Griswold Museum. In 1890, Ms Griswold was a matron whose ship captain father had left her a big house near the water but little else. Old Lyme’s economy was well behind it with the whaling fleets. Being of a social standing that did not allow her to go out to work, she took in boarders. Her fortune was to be doing this at a time when New Yorkers were looking for vacation spots with Ye Olde Colonial Charme, and to attract two schools of American painters. The first, the Tonalists, were mainly trained in Germany, and painted in a range of muddy browns. The second, the Impressionists, were led by Childe Hassam, and carried the torch of French color and light to the Connecticut shore. Miss Florence grew so successful that she subdivided the house into a warren of rooms, and built studios in the grounds for an additional weekly rental. She never became affluent, but got by, and turned Old Lyme into a center of Impressionist painting in America. The main museum is a new building toward the back of the farm; it had two temporary exhibits, one by a deaf painter of Colonial primitive portraits, and another of landscapes interpreted through the writings of a Connecticut poet. Building great, but shows a yawn. Lovely gardens take you up to the main house, which is a gem: a center hall Colonial mansion with doors and panels throughout painted by the artists who took up residence each summer. The dining room, with panels by over thirty artists, is a revelation. Off to the side of the parking lot is the studio used by William Chadwick, a painter we discovered in the Griswold collection that Karen fell in love with. If you go up the stairs to the loft (against the rules), beware that the descent is not meant for people six-foot high.
We had lunch in Old Lyme in the Hideaway Restaurant, at the rear of a shopping court. It didn’t look promising, but we were hungry. To our delight, it had second floor windows overlooking a salt marsh filled with wild birds, two kinds of chowder, and clam roll.
We hit Connecticut Route 9 northwest. The New Britain Museum of American Art just opened a new building last month. The modern structure functions well, and looks beautiful, its cladding picking up the stone color from the original home (currently under renovation). The collection is a knock-out: Copley’s to contemporary, Thomas Hart Benton’s Whitney Museum murals, extensive illustration and sculpture collections. The Museum is nestled into the side of Walnut Hill Park, Olmsted-designed, with some of the steepest slopes I’ve ever seen. Park is not in the best shape, but well worth a walk around.
We then set off to find a hotel for the evening. We had a frustrating drive north and east to Hartford on back roads, found nada. Did discover Albany Street on the west side of Hartford: lovely big ol’ houses like we’ve seen in St. Louis and Chevy Chase. I gave up and called David, who went to Hotels.com and pointed us to a Days Inn in East Hartford. Michael met up with us there, and we all went out for dinner at a decent Mexican place across the street, Margherita’s, where we drank up the same.
Saturday, August 26
Thanks to I-84, we weren’t that far from our first stop, the Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington. Farmington is most famous as the home of Miss Porter’s, a school for upper class women since 1843. Jackie Kennedy and Agnes Gund were both alumnae. Lovely little campus, hook a left at the main building and you’re on the country road up to Hill-Stead. Theodate Pope Riddle was the daughter of nouveau riche iron money out of Cleveland. She fell in love with Connecticut while attending Miss Porter’s, and designed Hill-Stead as a country estate for herself and her parents. She hired McKim, Mead and White for technical help, and together they created one of the grandest and best Colonial Revival estates in America. Father Pope had presciently collected Impressionist paintings, and Theodate created special spaces for particular paintings in the house. Outstanding collection, great docent, wonderful house. Since the grounds open early we started off with a hiking trail through woods and marshes, then did the house, grounds, and garden.
The docent suggested lunch in downtown Farmington at The Grist Mill. A terrific recommendation; the mill stands next to rapids on the Farmington River, and the food was gentile, good, and not overpriced. Rhode Island-style calamari, Italian panini, liver and onions, finished off with chocolate mocha cake. Delicious.
Bristol is only about 20 minutes from Farmington by country roads, home of the New England Carousel Museum. A good collection of merry-go-round animals, telling the history of carousels. Did you know there are three schools of carousel animals: Philadelphia, Coney Island, and country fair? Lame, but fun, and who knew a museum like that even existed?
Karen and Sam headed back from Bristol, a straight shot up I-84 to Worcester. Michael and I went the opposite direction and pulled off the freeway in Waterbury for the Mattatuck Museum of Arts and History. Downtown Waterbury is charming, the museum a former Masonic Temple with a Cesar Pelli addition. This was the best place we saw to learn the history of these near-cities in Connecticut. The first floor has recreations telling the story of Waterbury and the state, from native settlement through Colonial farming, Industrial Revolution (brass foundries, in Waterbury), the Labor Movement, and recent decline and rebirth as New York City suburbs. The second floor has a minor collection of American painting. I would say skip this, except that Alexander Calder had his studio nearby in Roxbury, and worked with the metal industries of Waterbury to create his large sculptures and mobiles. The museum holds several drawings, maquettes, and sculptures that Calder gave to the workmen who helped him. The top floor is a tribute to Waterbury’s former claim to fame as the world’s largest creator of brass buttons: a room hung floor to ceiling with more buttons than you could hope (or want) to absorb.
That took us up to 4PM, meaning there was insufficient time to see anything else, so we headed for the Tappan Zee Bridge and home.
Potential places for future visits up the I-95 corridor:
Aldrich Museum, Ridgefield, CT
Bush-Holley Historic Site, Cos Cob, CT
Gillette Castle, East Haddam, CT
Lockwood-Mathews Mansion, Norwalk, CT
Roseland Cottage, Woodstock, CT
Weir Farm National Historic Site, Wilton, CT
Neuberger Museum of Art, SUNY, Purchase, NY
Pepsi Cola Headquarters sculpture collection (Edward Durrell Stone bldgs, Russell Page gardens), Purchase, NY
Liberty Hall Museum, Union, NJ
Mills of Clinton, NJ
Montclair Art Museum, Montclair, NJ
State Capitol Complex, Trenton, NJ
Wildwoods, NJ, for the googie architecture
Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ