I’m beginning to think that the little blurb explaining this column might as well say something like, “Exploring the things you drive past that don’t look significant, but are.” In this edition, the condo building at 50 Rope Ferry Road.
It must have looked huge, once, surrounded as it was by sprawling farmland, dotted with sheds and barns, and beyond that, possibly, more open space. It must have been the most imposing structure on either side of the road for hundreds and hundreds of acres.
Now it’s eclipsed by the larger, modern buildings around it. They are purposeful buildings like the Waterford Public Library and Waterford High School, much more noticeable – as they should be - than the putty-colored condominiums in their midst.
But if it hadn’t been for that house, those other buildings would not be there at all. They, and the land they stand on, were carved from the farm that had, as its center, the structure that was a once grand mansion.
The farm would eventually grow to cover 300 acres, but wealthy New London merchant and ship owner Nathaniel Shaw bought just 14 acres in 1762. (The land included a house, built between 1714 and 1734, by the grandson of George Chapple, whose own 1664 dwelling on the property was the first documented house in West Farms. It stood where the condo building at 54 Rope Ferry Road is now.) Shaw’s grandson, lawyer Thomas Shaw Perkins, inherited the land and in 1820 built what would be the Nevis Mansion for his wife, Marian Griswold, whose father (and grandfather and three other relatives) had been Governor of Connecticut.
The mansion was Greek Revival, quite a new style at the time. Later, it acquired a Victorian 2-story ell, a Southern Georgian Revival façade, and attic rooms for the family’s Irish servants. (One curiosity of the house was a double closet door hiding a safe which hung over a cistern, poised to drop to safety in case of a fire.)
One of the eleven children of Thomas Shaw Perkins and Marian Griswold, Cornelia Leonard Perkins, married banker David H. Nevins. (Some say David Hubbard Nevins and some say David Henry Nevins; I’m siding with the lazy and/or un-confrontational writers who just go with H.) He purchased the house where his wife had been born, and the surrounding farm, in 1854. The family moved in permanently in 1860.
Their daughter, Marian Griswold Nevins (the consistency with which the family recycled names could drive all but the most dedicated genealogists mad; there’s a tangle of stemmata on the back of my research for this that looks like a New York subway map) was married in the library of the mansion in 1884. Her husband was acclaimed composer Edward MacDowell. They had met in Germany, where Marian went to study piano with Clara Schumann but ended up with MacDowell for a teacher instead. The couple went on to found the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire in 1906. America’s first artists’ retreat started as an idea of Edward’s, but it was Marian who ran the Colony for many years after her husband’s death, traveling the country giving piano recitals to raise funds.
The house on Rope Ferry Road stayed in the Shaw-Perkins-Nevins family until 1958, when Anna Nevins, sister of Marian Nevins MacDowell, died at the age of 96. It’s described, in the list of buildings that make up the Jordan Village Historic District, as a “large, rambling, 2-story, eclectic frame house.” The families that occupied it are large and rambling too, branching out in all directions like the newer additions to the building, while keeping within their refined circles. I could probably have written this many words or more on any one of these inordinately accomplished people.
But I’m starting to think that I could do this with even the less pedigreed houses. I could close my eyes and touch a house on a street map, pick a name at random from its past, and be led into an entirely unexpected world.