The Mark Twain House – A house with soul in Hartford, Connecticut

Hartford’s historic Asylum Hill section is a priority destination for those who follow the paths of literary genius, for here is the location of author Mark Twain’s primary residence from 1874 to 1891. These were the years of his greatest productivity, when he wrote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and A Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

The National Historic Landmark designed by New York architect Edward T. Potter was built on this park-like setting in 1874. Constructed in the Stick Style, the rambling 19 room mansion is stylistically based on medieval precedents characterized by decorative trusses in the multiple gables, fanciful diagonal and curved porch braces, steeply pitched gabled roofs, and overhanging eaves with exposed rafter ends. The Style popularized by architect Richard Morris Hunt, acts as a bridge between the Gothic Revival and Queen Anne movements.

Decorative brick and stick

The brick and polychromatic slate exterior walls are punctuated by contrast colored stick work, exposed timbers applied in patterns. The brick itself is painted in motifs of crimson, red, and black. A one-story porch or ombra wraps itself around the south and east sides of the house, ending in a port cochere. Its supports, pierced hanging friezes, and characteristic trusses serve as a signature for its architect. Each decorative motif is different. Some represent butterflies and palms alternating with spear points, while others suggest river reeds, and others lightening shafts or driving rain.

The massive marble-floored entryway is neo-Tudor in design with hand carved woodwork by Leon Marcotte of New York and Paris. The walnut paneling is stenciled in silver and is typical of the exotic motifs that Tiffany’s Associated Artists brought to this house in designing the decors for the public first floor rooms. “The front entrance gives us the strongest sense of how important stenciling is to Tiffany design,” affirmed Debra Petke, Deputy Director of the museum. “It’s their primary means of ornamentation; here the paneling is meant to emulate inlaid mother of pearl over walnut.” The pierced brass fireplace surround is typical of the exotic touches in this space, characterized by bright highlights against a deep rust-red background. The original Tiffany windows were removed when the house was sold in 1903, and the design of the one over the entry fireplace is today a mystery. It’s the primary thing that the museum would like to recover for the house.

Tiffany interiors

Silver stenciled designs over salmon pink dominate the Persian inspired drawing room, on wall panels, woodwork, and ceilings. Here, the gleam of silver is underscored by silver plated doorknobs and hinges, brilliant gas chandeliers, and lush salmon pink Aesthetic Movement upholstered furnishings. This is the softest palette of any in the mansion and is in sharp contrast to the more masculine tone of the adjoining dining room.

The dining room is richly papered in a vermillion and gilt embossed wallpaper made to emulate the look of Japanese Leather. Tiffany used a stencil design for the moldings that depicts carp jumping out of water. The same motif is repeated just above the baseboard and coordinating gilt stenciling can be found on the rich red ceiling. This room is dominated by a fireplace with elegantly tiled surround that has the unusual feature of a window above it. Its flue was placed to the right of the window to accommodate this luxury. The room is an envelope of color in red, Mark Twain’s favorite.

The sideboard produced by Boston’s Household Art Company is original to the room. The fanciful piece is studded with ceramic tile panels and variously carved and turned elements. It is enormous and fits exactly into a niche created for it. The sideboard was sold in the Clemens’ 1903 sale and it is fortunate that it was recently recovered for the mansion.

Sounds of splashing water

Most used by the family was the library, a massive room dominated by a floor to ceiling carved fireplace mantel purchased by Sam and Olivia Clemens in Scotland during their 1873 trip. The couple loved rich carvings, and this piece is splendidly baronial. This jewel box of a room is lined with bookshelves, filled with overstuffed ruby velvet upholstered furniture, and an assortment of art objects. The stenciling of the walls and ceiling in this room consists of gilt geometric designs over turquoise. The sound of water playing over a small fountain in the adjoining conservatory is intoxicating today, just as it must have been when first created.

Immediately to the east on this floor is the Mahogany Guest Suite with its original Aesthetic Movement furniture also produced by Household Art Company. The space is quite private and opens onto both the ombra porch and the conservatory. It features a small private sitting room and quite a luxurious bath. A speaking tube runs from this suite to the kitchen. Other speaking tubes in the house run from the girls’ nursery, the billiards room, and the master bedroom to three locations in the kitchen. The kitchen, scullery, and butler’s pantry below stairs are currently undergoing restoration. When finished, the kitchen will boast a coal-fired cast iron stove by Cyrus & Carpenter and Co. It was made in Boston in the late 1870s.

The upper floors

The Clemens’ master bedroom is dominated by a massive bed heavily carved with putti and other baroque elements which the couple bought in Venice in 1878. Twain called this “the most comfortable bedstead that ever was, with space enough in it for a family, and carved angels enough…to bring peace to the sleepers, and pleasant dreams.” He is known to have placed his head at the foot of the bed so that he could admire the carvings. He also loved to read and write in bed, one of his great pleasures.

On this floor also are the nursery, a primary guest room often used by Olivia Clemens’ mother, Mrs. Langdon, and the school room. The latter was originally planned to be used as the author’s study. Its location between the nursery and Mrs. Langdon’s room was discovered to be too noisy, and the upstairs Billiard Room became more congenial to his method of work. The schoolroom is fitted with a built-in settee, his mars Saba, whose original design came from one in a Persian monastery. It is comfortably outfitted with Turkish carpets and pillows and looks out over the grounds and carriage house.

The author’s refuge

At the very top of the house is the Billiards Room, isolated from the daily activities of a busy family household. It opens out to lofty balconies on all three sides (one of which resembles a steamboat deck), and became Mark Twain’s work room. The space is manly, with its ceiling decorations of pipes, cigars, and billiard cues. His oak desk faces away from the windows to avoid distraction and overlooks an enormous billiard table in front of the fireplace. Mark Twain was a prolific writer, often retiring to this room in the early morning and staying there all day. It was not uncommon for him to produce 4,000 words per day. One can almost feel his presence in this room, though the smell of his cigars is long gone.

Mark Twain remains one of America’s most beloved, and one of the most widely read authors of all time. As a humorist, lecturer, social critic, and entrepreneur, he offered a unique window into American life. His immortal characters have become icons for generations of Americans and have helped to shape the America we know today.

The Mark Twain House & Museum Center, 351 Farmington Avenue, Hartford, CT 06105, (860) 247-0998, www.MarkTwainHouse.org. Open 9:30 a.m. - 5:30 p.m.; closed Tuesdays January - April; Cafe.

Written By: Randall Decoteau
Source: New England Antiques Journal