This beautiful New England homestead was built by Elijah Phelps in 1820. To fully understand the family who lived here and some aspects of the house itself, however, it is necessary to know something about Elijah Phelps' father, Noah. It was Noah who owned this land, and gave it to his son to build on. He also gave him a legacy of patriotism and public service that stemmed from his own role in building the new republic.
Noah was a Yale graduate, a lawyer and a judge, and served in the Continental Congress. He was a friend of, and fought under, George Washington in the Revolutionary War. Most important, he was a war hero. His heroism was connected with the battle of Fort Ticonderoga. The British were holding the fort, and the colonists needed to know how heavily protected it was in order to a plan their attack. Noah Phelps, a Major General, disguised himself as a peddler, and was admitted to the fort. He observed how many soldiers were in the fort, how well armed they were, etc., and reported back to General Ethan Allen. Using this information, Allen and his men were able to take the fort and win the day. The family's pride in this heroism nurtured a strong sense of patriotism that motivated much of the family's interests and even the architecture of their home.
When Elijah built his house, he was, like his father, a Yale graduate, a lawyer and a judge, and he served in Congress as well. The house took 3 years to build, and was an imposing building for its rural location. Placed on a rise on the main road through town, an American eagle was painted over the front door, a symbol of the patriotic family who lived there. The first four consisted of the center hall with two rooms on either side. (Today's 101, the library, the inn-keeper's office, and the entrance hall.) At the end of the center hall stood a one-story kitchen. The second floor had the same configuration of the center hall and two rooms on each side. It was a simple floor plan, in keeping with the architecture of the time, but the richly detailed woodwork, numerous fireplaces, generous use of decorative glass around the entrance were unmistakable signs of wealth.
Elijah and his wife, Lucy, had three children: Mary, John and Lucy. John moved to Missouri and later became its governor as well as a United States Senator. Mary married a man named John Allen, and his son later served as United States Senator as well. Lucy was married to Amos Eno, a Simsbury boy who began in the dry goods business in Hartford, then moved to New York City where he made a handsome fortune in banking and real estate.
He and Lucy lived in New York, but they and their ten children came back to Simsbury every summer. It was during one of these summer visits that Gifford Pinchot, a grandchild, was born in the house. Gifford Pinchot later became the founder of Yale School of Forestry and an important part of Teddy Roosevelt's administration, where he organizes the formation of the U.S. Forestry Department. In addition, he served as Governor of Pennsylvania three times. The tradition of public service was still an important part of family life.
In 1890, when Amos Eno was 80, he retired from business and decided to go back to the family home in Simsbury. His wife was deceased, and, not wanting to be alone, he built a large extension on the house to accommodate his children and their families for long visits. The downstairs bedroom was converted into a new entrance hall, the north porch modified, and the porte cochere added. The old kitchen became a spacious dining room extending the full width of the house, with a new kitchen and other service areas behind it. A multitude of bedrooms were added on the second and third floors of the building, bringing the total number of rooms in the house to 30. At this point, the building looked very much as it does today.
When Amos died in 1898, the house passed a one of his daughters. Antoinette Eno Wood, who was a young widow with no children. She was a wealthy woman, having inherited money from her father and husband, and she spent a great deal of it on adding her own improvements to the house. First of all, she gave it and name -- Eaglewood. The Eagle stood for the American Eagle, symbol of United States, and the Wood, obviously for her name. Colonial Revival was a popular architectural style around the turn-of-the-century, but it was more than fashion that motivated her decisions in altering the appearance of the house. She was very conscious of the famous patriotic heritage and wanted to express it in every way.
She changes the plain peaked roof line of the original building to a gambrel roof, added a Colonial Revival cornice, and inserted palladium windows on each side of the gable ends. Inside, she added Colonial Revival cornices in most of the rooms of the original building. It is possible that she may have had put a palladium window and a fan light in the carriage house, surely elegant details for such a utilitarian building. She also contacted the Frederick Olmstead landscaping firm to develop a plan for the grounds.
Frederick Olmstead had designed Central Park in New York City, among many other famous parks. But this time (1903) he was dead, but his business was carried on by his son and stepson. We have the plans that Olmstead submitted, but whether they were carried out as described, is not known. However, photographs in this period show the grounds with naturalistic plantings, garden walks, etc., -- similar to areas of Central Park. It is not known whether Amos Eno or his daughter built the large greenhouse which stood where the new Simsbury Public Library stands now, although very likely it was Eno. There were also beds for cut flowers, a rose garden, and vegetables growing on that part of the property.
In keeping with the Eagle symbolism, Mrs. Wood commissioned rugs with eagles woven into the pattern, and hung a large bas relief panel depicting eagles in flight on the mantle in what is the present parlor. Outside, on either side of the walk leading to the front door, were gateposts topped with life-sized bronze eagles, and, of course, there is our one remaining Eagle carved on the parlor mantle.
Mrs. Wood spent only her summers in Simsbury. Winters were spent in Washington DC, where she acted as hostess for her cousin, Senator McLean. But Eaglewood was a busy place during her summers here. Besides family members, guests arrived from all over the world, sometimes overflowing the house and causing the guest house (now the Bank of Boston on the corner) to be pressed into service. A large area the third floor (rooms 301, 302, 303) was assigned to storing the guest trunks.
From the standpoint of the Simsbury 1820 House today, probably are most important legacy in terms of patriotism is the ritual of the Fourth of July Ice Cream Social. Each year Mrs. Wood entertained the entire town of Simsbury with a party celebrating our country's birthday. It was the social event of the season for the town, especially for the children. The grounds were decorated with bunting, there was band music and dancing, and unlimited ice cream for everyone. Ice cream was a much bigger treat then than it is today, and, at our own Fourth of July Ice Cream Socials we are often visited by some old timer who delights in describing the excitement of those occasions.
In 1933, Mrs. Wood died, and the property passed to a nephew, was not yet of age, who lived in another state. All through the 1930's the empty house was kept cleaned and heated by the remnants of Mrs. Wood's staff. The nephew served in World War II, and after that, decided to sell the property. In 1948, it was bought by a group of Simsbury businessmen, who were concerned about its future, and leased to a restaurant operator, who named it The Simsbury House. It remained in business until 1960, when a developer bought the property, about 200 acres at that point, and built Heritage Glen behind the house. His plans the house itself were unknown, but it looked ominous when he held a tag sale at which mantelpieces, marble sinks, and other parts of a house were sold. The alarmed Town of Simsbury quickly moved to buy the house to save it from an uncertain future
Unfortunately, the town could never decide what to do with the building, and so nothing was done. Some public spirited citizens dismantled the greenhouse, which was being vandalized, numbered all the pieces, and stored them in the house. Unfortunately, the pieces and the house, continued to be vandalized. In 1976, as part of the town's Bi-Centennial celebration, the exterior of the house was painted, but nothing else was done, and deterioration continued. In 1985, Simsbury House Associates was formed and made a proposal to the town to buy and renovate the building.
The proposal was accepted at a town meeting, in the fashion of Simsbury's traditional New England form of government, and the renovation began. Since the house had already been listed on the National Register of Historic Places, great care was taken to make sure that all the work complied with the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for listed properties. Craftsmen were located to duplicate missing architectural woodwork and replace and renew the decorative glass in the entrances and windows. Original doors and window sills were stripped of more than a century's accumulation of paint. When the wooden mantle in the innkeeper's office was removed for repairs, the initials EP and the date 1822 were discovered scratched in the stonework of the chimney. (And subsequently covered again when the mantle was replaced.)
Great care was taken to make the interior, furnished with a mixture of antiques, reproductions, modern textiles, approximate the setting that the family enjoyed when they were here. And now, everyone is welcome to enjoy this house which has stood watching over Hopmeadow Street through good times and bad and still feels like home.
[Information article provided by the Simsbury 1820 House]
Simsbury 1820 House
731 Hopmeadow Street
Simsbury, CT 06070
Phone: (860) 658-7658
Toll Free: 1-800-TRY-1820
Fax: (860) 651-0724