The General William Hart House
Built more than two centuries ago in 1767 for his bride, Esther Buckingham, the General William Hart house is one of the earliest houses in Saybrook, the first settlement on the southern shore of Connecticut.
William Hart was a prosperous merchant engaged in the West Indies trade. The Harts were noted for entertaining frequently and quite lavishly. During the Revolution, he led the First Regiment of Connecticut Light Horse Militia to Danbury to take part in Tryon’s raid. Hart and his brothers armed their merchant ships and served this country in numerous privateering forays against the British. From a second floor chamber in his house he could have seen the Hart fleet of ships when in port, off the Hart dock at the entrance to the North Cove.
General Hart’s home was typical of the residences of the well-to-do New England settlers. It contains many Georgian features and architectural influences more common to Williamsburg, Virginia, and even to Dutch Pennsylvania than to other New England houses. The U.S. Department of the Interior has listed the house on the National Register of Historic Places. It is one of only three houses in Old Saybrook to merit this distinction. (The other two are not open to the public.)
When you visit the General William Hart house, several points of information may make your tour more rewarding. From the outside, for example, note the nine-window façade with 12 over 12 panes, the molded cornices, wide corner boards which act as pilasters topped with capitals. Note also the rather unusual fact that the clapboards at the top actually are wider, which gives the street-level viewer the impression of geometric perfection. The clapboards also are special because they are each marked with a decorative line of beading. At the bottom of the clapboards, there is a water board, designed to deflect rain-water from the foundation. These are architectural features found only on the finest homes.
Various features inside the house attest to the wealth and sophistication of the original owner. Especially interesting are the eight corner fireplaces, which preserve the wall space for windows and permitted passage of air throughout the house in summer.
Wainscoting, paneling, bolection molding, corner cupboards, and Dutch tiles surrounding one fireplace are further features that demonstrate that the owner was well traveled and well read, and certainly familiar with architectural vogues generally found well south of New England.
Inside, the rooms are characterized by the wide pine boards. There are four large rooms—each with a corner fireplace, and a kitchen or “keeping” room—a separate structure joined to the house after it was built. Four bedrooms—again with corner fireplaces and a slaves’ room over the kitchen are the second floor. The attic or third floor is divided into five rooms used as dormitory facilities during the 19th Century when the house served as a girls’ boarding school.
The Hart House Gardens
April 26, 2016
Dear members and gardeners,
Bonnie Penders, our new herbalist, is redesigning one of the Hart House garden sections for a teaching garden. It will be directed toward school age children and will contain common plants important in colonial times.
We are asking you to look in your own garden to see if you might have one or two specimens to share, (See below list).
Bonnie and I will be happy to come to your house to dig them if you wish, or you can drop them off near the Childress garden shed this week.
If you have any questions, please call the Society's master gardener Linda Kinsella at 860-399-6263
The list of needed plants follows:
Bergamot - bee balm
Comfrey - boneset
Foxglove - digitalis
Mullein - verbascum
Queen Anne's lace - wild carrot
Sea holly - eryngium Yarrow - achillea
Yarrow - achillea
The General William Hart House provides a lovely, authentic setting for our colonial period garden. Although no landscape plans have been discovered for the property, from old records, we have deduced that the land in the rear of the house was cleared all the way to the river. It may have been an orchard, as fruit was an important crop for the settlers. It also allowed the Hart family to view ship activity on the river.
The original garden, could have been manor style, which was favored by prominent landowning, statesmen like Washington, Madison and Jefferson. We can safely assume there were no hog pens or animal barnyards near this house.
Esther Buckingham Hart, the first wife of wealthy, ship builder and businessman, William Hart, would have wanted the garden to produce a variety of flowers, both for visual pleasure and deodorizing purposes. Recall, these were the days before regular bathing and flowers provided a naturally pleasant scent. Flowers were also important for medicinal purposes as well as attracting birds, butterflies and bees for pollination.
A kitchen vegetable garden, close to the rear door, was essential for culinary herbs, dyeing herbs and most importantly medicinal herbs. There were few if any physicians or druggists, in the early communities. It was the responsibility of the lady of the house, to be familiar with herbs and plants needed to treat sickness, heal injuries and aid in everything from childbirth to the burial coffin.
Poultices and decoctions from herbs, flowers, bark and roots were the 17th & 18th century medical supplies. The ‘prudent’ housewife also had a collection of recipes for disguising the “off” taste of foods (sometimes quite strong before the days of refrigeration). She would have formulas for dyes to color the flax and wool woven by in her household and knowledge of tanning stuff for preparing animal hide.
Our present day Hart House garden contains a sampling of plants that were familiar and available during the 1635 to 1850 period. Look around the herb section and you will find Valerian, Woad, Blessed Thistle, Chamomile, Foxglove, Sweet Woodruff, Pot marigolds, Marsh Mallow, Lady’s Bedstraw, Thyme, Agrimony, Yarrow, Rosemary, Soapwort, Feverfew, Tansy, Primrose and many others tucked in.
The volunteers who garden here are very loyal. Joan Wendler, who as a young herbalist helped design the original herb section, still tends the kitchen garden herbs.
The award winning Woodland, Wildflower and Ferns shade garden, planted back in the late 90’s by Marianne Pfeiffer is still cared for by her. This wildflower garden is spectacular in the springtime, when the white Trillium and Virginia Bluebells are blooming. Spring, summer, or fall the Hart House gardens have flowers blooming in every season. Many events take place on our lovely campus, so we want the garden to always look well tended.
Visitors are invited to freely walk in the garden. The teak benches and chairs provide a restful spot for bird watching or daydreaming. This seating was donated by a descendant of Robert Chapman, one of the original Saybrook Colony founders. History is alive in the garden. Hart House gardeners welcome new volunteers. We are a hardy group who love this colonial garden and maintain it for the enjoyment of all. Come by 9 to noon on Thursdays, to say, “hello and perhaps bring a trowel to help weed. L.K