Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Big Old Houses: History, with a Capital "H"

Big Old Houses: History, with a Capital "H"
by John Foreman

"Behind every great fortune, there is a great crime," goes the famous line from Balzac's Pere Goriot. Liberal hearts quail at the truth behind construction of the exquisite old house in these images, called Linden Place and built in Bristol, Rhode Island in 1810. The builder was General (in the state militia) George de Wolf (1778-1844), seventh child of a rich and prominent Rhode Island merchant named Charles de Wolf (1745-1820).

Why was Charles de Wolf so rich? Because he was a slaver — not actually the master of a slave ship himself, but rather the owner of particularly notorious ones. The highly respected, church-going, refined de Wolfs of Bristol transported more African slaves — and made more money doing it — than any other family in America.

This beautiful Federal house was owned by different branches of their rambunctious family for almost two centuries. All manner of alterations were made along the way, for example, the delicious Gothic conservatory appended to the south facade in 1840.
Undeterred by passage in 1807 of federal law forbidding importation of slaves to the United States, General de Wolf continued and expanded the family business, adding to it a vast Cuban sugar plantation which he named, with disconcerting humor, "Noah's Ark." As I read this tale, a bulb suddenly lit up my brain; here was the infamous "Triangle Trade" I'd learned about in high school.

The de Wolf ships, laden with Cuban sugar, sailed first to the de Wolf distilleries on the Bristol waterfront. There they offloaded sugar to be made into rum, and crammed their empty holds with rum already made.

Across the Atlantic to Africa they sailed, where rum was traded — admittedly with full complicity of African princes and warlords — for hapless future slaves.

These unfortunates were stacked in the ships like firewood and transported back to the New World. Those who survived were sold on the block and put to work raising more sugar. The empty ships then returned to Noah's Ark where the process began again.

Does any of this make General de Wolf's mansion, designed by noted Rhode Island architect Russell Warren, any the less beautiful? That would be a "no," but it does explain where he got the $60,000 — very big money in 1810 — to build it.

General de Wolf, judging from his career and his house, was a high roller who thrived on risk. In 1825, not without a few red flags I'll bet, his financial world went up in flames. The Caribbean sugar crop failed, he lost shiploads of slaves at sea and a slew of English bank flyers went south. The general began defaulting; notes began to be called.

Esteemed locally for his supposed financial prowess, de Wolf had become the Bernie Madoff of Bristol. Instead of facing the proverbial music, he packed his family into a coach on the snowy night of December 6, 1825, and did a runner. The following day, la famille de Wolf was aboard a schooner bound for the Cuban plantation.
General de Wolf's failure bankrupted not just his friends and family, but the city of Bristol as well. On December 8th, shocked by news of the general's flight, an irate citizenry descended upon his Hope Street mansion and, while a local custom's collector sat by the door and made a list of who took what, stripped the place bare. Did de Wolf pay for his sins, you may ask?

Actually, he didn't. He lived out his life in comfort on his plantation, sent his daughters to finishing schools in the U.S. and died in Massachusetts in 1844.

After the general skipped town, his brother James stepped in and adopted the abandoned mansion. James de Wolf didn't live in it, but secured it from vandals and paid the mortgage. In 1834 he sold it to his son, William Henry de Wolf, who cleaned it up, filled it with good furniture, and entertained the likes of President Andrew Jackson, all at considerable cost. During the 1840s young de Wolf hired the original architect, Russell Warren, to add the aforementioned conservatory facing Hope Street, plus two wings visible in the image below. The one on the south (left) housed a new kitchen and servants' quarters; the one on the right held a diminutive ballroom.
Wisely, as it turned out, de Wolf put title to the house in his wife Sarah's name, since by the end of the decade he too had become a bankrupt. Sarah de Wolf died in 1865, having spent the final decade-plus of her life in a 3rd floor bedsit, while the rest of her mansion was filled with roomers, and her conservatory was rented to the local barber. An auction after her death brought a new owner, whose seeming anonymity was soon dispelled.
The alterations of 1840 eventually relocated the entrance to the house from front to back. We're inside the relocated front door now, gazing down the traditional center hall towards Hope Street. Seeing my hostess, Joan Roth, standing in this hall reminds me of how high ceilings were in 1810 when people were so small, and how much lower they've got today when people are so big.
The purchaser in 1865 was a man named Edward Colt, nephew of millionaire Connecticut arms manufacturer and Colt 45 inventor, Samuel Colt. Back in 1825, Edward Colt's mother, Theodora, had been a wee girl of five. She would never forget a certain snowy night, huddled with her parents in the back of the family coach as it flew across frozen roads on the run from her beloved home. Forty years later, with the aid of firearms money and her eldest son, the former Theodora de Wolf reclaimed that childhood home.
The story got around town pretty quickly, assuming the Colts even tried to hide it, which they probably didn't. Mrs. Colt poured a great deal of money into the house, in furniture, maintenance and landscaping. She planted linden trees in front and rechristened it Linden Place. Title apparently migrated amongst her children until 1873, when 21-year-old son Samuel Pomeroy Colt bought out his siblings and became sole owner. For the next 48 years, Linden Place would be his home.
For me, the predictable floor plans of Federal period houses aren't very interesting. What makes these interiors remarkable are Pomeroy Colt's early 20th century alterations. Colt used his middle name through life — shortened to Pom by the family — so as not to be confused with his Uncle Samuel. The predictable double parlors flanking the north side of the center hall were not on his improvement list.
General George de Wolf was reputed to be a handsome man, but you wouldn't guess it from this painting.
The second parlor is pretty much a mirror of the first. The door to the right of the fireplace leads to a small porch, which in turn gives access to the so-called ballroom.
Pomeroy Colt converted this to a billiard room. It's the Linden Place museum shop today, the original billiard table almost invisible under all the merchandise. I have it on authority that this room was indeed built as a ballroom, however, I can't imagine it accommodating much of a ball.
Let's return to the back parlor and continue through to the main hall. Interesting to note: doors on the main floor at Linden Place are not made of expected mahogany, but of dark stained pine instead.
At age 23, Pomeroy Colt became aide-de-camp to Rhode Island Governor Henry Lippitt, a job that brought with it the rank of colonel in the state militia. I'm going to skip the lengthy — and, OK, intimidating — list of Colonel Colt's lifetime achievements, and boil them down to MIT, Columbia Law, Rhode Island AG, banker, corporate director of dozens of firms, and president of the United States Rubber Company. It was in this latter capacity that he prospered most. Some of that prosperity went to the purchase of this over-scaled dining room chandelier, whose borderline vulgarity is excused because it came from Buckingham Palace.
The doors on the main floor might not be mahogany, but all the flooring is, thanks to Colt's post 1901 replacement of the original pine. The dining table is mahogany too, custom made from mahogany packing crates (who knew such things existed?) used in the transport of rubber from U.S. Rubber's Brazilian plantations.
The Gothic conservatory of 1840, having been a past venue for potted plants and haircuts, became Colonel Colt's in-house law office. The early 20th century sinks speak to the latter use, as do strongboxes formerly filled with client documents, and still stowed on purpose built shelves.
To call the old serving pantry "really cool" is admittedly cliched, but that's exactly what it is. Marble doors on an under-sink cabinet is something I've never seen.
In 1810 the kitchen was in the basement. In 1840 it was supposedly moved into the southerly of the rear additions and accessed via this corridor. At some point during the first decade of the 20th century, a grand Edwardian kitchen was installed, but since this part of the house is now a caretaker's apartment it was off limits on my tour.
Time to go upstairs.
Until she died in 1901 Theodora Colt lived with her son and, after 1881, with his wife, Elizabeth. I'm pretty certain this bedroom and boudoir suite belonged to the senior Mrs. Colt. It has the best layout and a southern exposure, and Theodora Colt was queen under this roof. After her death, her daughter-in-law moved in for a while, but given the fact that the mother-in-law didn't die until 1901, and the daughter-in-law stopped living with her husband in 1902, Elizabeth Colt couldn't have slept here for long.
With mother and wife both gone, the colonel went on a renovation spree. In 1903 he moved his barn to the northern property line, converted the back yard into lawns and gardens, and built a yellow brick carriage house with fashionable Colonial Revival details. In 1905 he installed seven perfectly fabulous — and entirely intact — bathrooms in the house itself. I've never seen bathrooms from this period with mirrored walls.
Across the hall from old Mrs. Colt's suite is a pair of connecting bedrooms, each with bath, which I assume were originally used by the colonel and his wife. The skinny bathroom between them, upgraded in 1905, may once have been the only one on the second floor. The colonel's desk has been on the same spot for over a century.
To my eye, this bathroom is a work of industrial art.
Stepping blithely over the "No Admittance" sign, Joan and I climbed to the third floor. Here I found more bedrooms filled with "stuff," more fab bathrooms filled with even more "stuff," and one of those marble walled showers with half a dozen perforated rings that shoot water at you from every direction.
In General de Wolf's day, house slaves reportedly slept in the attic — all too believable given the family's history.
Linden Place sits on a two-acre parcel that is sufficiently spacious to accommodate lawns, gardens and extensive outbuildings. The view below looks west towards the present front door and vehicular entrance. The 1903 carriage house is on the right. Colonel Colt's mother was arguably Bristol's grandest dame and in time her son became her male analog, a gentleman of the old school, blessed with breeding and money, prominent in business, society and Rhode Island politics. Interesting footnote: in 1909 Colt's son Russell married the celebrated (and much affianced) actress Ethel Barrymore, sister of John and Lionel.
The barn that once sat in the middle of the back lawn now hugs the northern property line, sandwiched between the carriage house and a later garage building. The barn itself today houses the Bristol Art Museum.
Linden Place literature describes the carriage house as another ballroom, despite the fact that its architecture and details are clearly consistent with vehicular storage. However, carriages being already on the way out by 1903, it was probably used for big entertainments almost as soon as it was built, including the colonel's famous centennial bash of 1910 celebrating his home's 100th birthday. Indeed, the galas continue to this day, albeit not on the colonel's scale.
The newer garage building fits seemlessly with barn and carriage house. On display inside is the de Wolf coach — and if I'm not mistaken, that's the actual getaway vehicle of December, 1825.
Colonel Colt died in the summer of 1921 from what the New York Times confusingly described as "paralysis." He was 69 years old and left an estate estimated at between five and six million dollars. This ain't chump change today, and in 1921 it was a considerable fortune. The will, dated 4 years before the colonel's death, was extremely generous to everyone. He left Ethel Barrymore a quarter million in cash just for herself, fifty grand to every one of his grandchildren, and valuable trusts to his sons. He was barely in the ground, however, before those sons were in court claiming the will was a product of an "unsound mind." No comment.
Linden Place stayed in the family — as a vacation house, not a full-time residence — until Elizabeth Colt Stansfield put it on the market in the mid-1980s. In 1989, the Friends of Linden Place, armed with a million and half dollars raised from a state bond issue, bought it with the majority of its furniture, and opened it to visitors in 1990. Linden Place and the little city of Bristol, charming and historic as they are, can't compete with the high voltage glamour of adjacent Newport. However, if you're anywhere near, make a detour. The link is www.lindenplace.org.
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