Seaside Mansions of Glory– from More Connecticut Lore – out late summer 2016!
Waterford and Groton
Branford House at UConn Avery Point
Branford House, on the campus of University of Connecticut’s Avery Point branch in Groton, and Eolia, the mansion at Harkness State Park in Waterford, are stately timeless testaments to the wealth of their previous owners. The word “impressive” is an understatement in describing these two mansions both of which would seem at home along Newport’s Ocean Avenue. The splendid palaces look if as they had been kept up meticulously since their use as private summer homes. This is not the case, for both were left in various states of disuse for years, with the Branford House eventually in need of serious repair. Luckily, both architectural gems escaped from the shadow of the wrecking ball. Today they are used for venues such as weddings and other receptions and what venues they are, with a glimpse of the high life, at least for one evening. The story of Branford House and Eolia involve two families, unfathomably wealthy through industry during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but whose legacy lives on in the philanthropic work that the families endowed, as well as their grand summer abodes that can now be enjoyed by the public.
Eolia Mansion at Harkness State Park
Harkness State Park is named for Edward and Mary Harkness, the couple whose summer retreat they called Eolia, named for Aeolus, the Greek god of the winds’ island home, Aeolia. Harkness is truly a 230 acre paradise by the sea. Being a part of the Connecticut State Park system, access to the grounds is granted for a nominal fee during summer. Harkness is a park that can be explored for hours. Although the mansion was the center of the Harknesses’ lives, it is not the focal point of the state park. After parking the car, a wide expanse of lawn greets the visitor. Perfect for kite flying and family picnics, this area can be loud and full of revelers. Long Island Sound was literally in the Harkness family’s front yard. From the lawn, watch the ferries, sailboats, and other watercraft coming and going out of the New London harbor. Past the wide swath of green lawn, dirt roads lead to entryways. The one on the right hand side is a boardwalk which crosses over sand dunes that leads to the beach. This beach, although small compared to nearby Westerly, Rhode Island beaches, is a perfect place to dip your feet in the water. Swimming is not permitted, but wading in for a quick cool-down is more than allowed. The left side of the beach is noted for its large boulders and on the right is an inlet. Notice when looking on the right a spire rising above the horizon; this is the tower of the former Seaside Sanitarium. Harkness has many nooks and crannies to explore. Although I had been going here ever since I can remember, as the years rolled on, I discovered more and more facets of the property that I was previously unaware of. On the eastern edge of the property is an amphitheater, hidden behind shrubbery and with a direct view over the marsh to Long Island Sound. Close to this spot is a path which traverses the marshland of Harkness. Even when the parking lot is full of cars and the smell of barbecues is overwhelming, certain spots in the park, like the marsh path will be deserted. It is truly an explorer’s delight. Closer to the mansion, shaded behind tall trees is a former water tower which used to have a windmill attached to the top. Also on the grounds are acres of former farmland, with roads and paths which wind around, towards the western end of the property. Due west though is Camp Harkness, which, through Mary Harkness’s philanthropic legacy, is a camp for children with special needs that has its own facilities, including a beach with ramps which make it wheelchair accessible. In addition to the impressive gardens that flank the mansion itself, other gardens pop up in unexpected places, close to greenhouses which are tucked away on the property. The four bay carriage house contains a small gift shop which is open seasonally; in most places, this building would be the centerpiece! I even discovered in the shade of an ancient looking tree with twisted branches, a small burial plot, seemingly for family pets. Speaking of pets, dogs are most certainly allowed at Harkness!
The inside of the Eolia Mansion
The area of land where the mansion was built is called Goshen Point. In my early years going to Harkness, I remember vividly the gardens on the grounds being in full bloom. Equipped with Asian themed and gnome statuary, they were stunning. Unfortunately, for many years they were not tended to, and the mansion itself was looking a bit forlorn. Thankfully, those days are long gone. The mansion and gardens are kept up meticulously today. The gardens, designed by famed landscape architect Beatrix Jones Farrand, ever changing with the season, are lined with paths. Some paths are geometrically traceable, and others meander here and there. Highlights are an Alpine rock garden and an Oriental garden featuring a statue of Buddha. It is simply a taste of Europe, as the visitor is allowed to linger on the stone benches in the pergola supported by stunning columns with vines snaking above and alongside the trellis. Just like the park’s grounds, the gardens harbor splendid little corners that veer off the beaten path.
Eolia Mansion, built in 1906, designed by the firm of Lord and Hewlett, and bought a year later by the Harknesses, is simply stunning. Eolia was built in Second Renaissance Revival style, equipped with a Spanish hip roof. Looking north at the mansion from Long Island Sound, the Italian inspired palazzo is flanked on one side by the breakfast room. With large glass windows, the room is adorned with stenciled flowers and leaves, climbing and snaking alongside its cathedral style archways. On the other side is another pergola, which is utilized as a porch. Inside the mansion, a grand staircase gracefully descends from the second floor to the first, directly to the glass doors facing the ocean. Sparsely decorated, although years ago the walls were adorned with prints of birds, the rooms spring to life during events as personal accouterments are on display. Nighttime festivities are lavishly bathed in candlelight, which suits the mansion perfectly. The interior is colonial revival and other features of the house include balustrades, Palladian windows, and chimneys. During its heyday, the grounds included a squash court, a billiard room, and a bowling alley. Even the current rest room facility and the guard booth were once part of the estate. Sixty-one buildings encompass the entire property (including Camp Harkness to which the public is not granted access).
Jackie at Harkness
Edward and Mary Harkness were originally from Ohio, and Edward was the heir to his father’s fortune. His father had been a silent partner of John D. Rockefeller, investing in Standard Oil. In a poll in 1918, Edward was ranked the sixth richest man in the United States. Incredibly philanthropically driven, the Harkness name appears on buildings throughout the country including the Harkness Tower at Yale and the Harkness Chapel at Connecticut College. Generous donations have been made to other other colleges, including Harvard, Brown, and Columbia. The Harknesses’ year round home was another fine mansion on New York City’s Fifth Avenue. Another remarkable Harkness gift is the Temple of Perneb to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This is the immense Egyptian temple which one can actually walk into as part of the museum’s extensive Egyptian collection. In total, the Harkness family, which included Edward’s philanthropic mother, Anna, contributed upwards of one to two hundred million dollars to worthy causes. The final gift that Edward and Mary left was their estate to the state of Connecticut, to be enjoyed by all for posterity.
Camp Harkness was created by Mary Harkness as a summer camp for children who were stricken with polio. In 1920, she welcomed 30 children from New York City to spend the summer on their estate and created the basis for what would become Camp Harkness. This lasted for years and eventually when the state attained the land in 1952, Camp Harkness itself was founded as a state park accessed by individuals with special needs. Facilities include a dining hall, a beach, cottages, tent sites, and horseback riding. Also located on site was a working farm, where the family raised its prized Guernsey cows, grew their own vegetables, and produced their own milk and eggs. The food would be utilized at the summer home, but also eaten year round in the New York estate.
Harkness State Park is located on Great Neck Road in Waterford, just down the street from the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. In the summer, the lawn plays host to music, much of it classical in nature, but national names like James Taylor and Spyro Gyra have graced its stage.
If Harkness is close to the western border where the Thames River meets Long Island Sound, then another phenomenal estate, the Branford House, serves as a guardhouse to the eastern shore. This manor, today also used for functions, is on the campus of UCONN Avery Point. Although it has a similar backstory to Harkness (wealthy businessman, or heir to one, buys elaborate summer home on the shores of Long Island Sound), its popularity has only blossomed since complete renovation of the site in 2006. The Branford House, summer retreat of Morton Freeman Plant, a railroad and steamboat magnate, was named after Plant’s hometown of Branford, Connecticut. This is an imposing seaside estate designed in the Tudor style which no longer has the accompanying lavish gardens that it once had as Harkness does, but similarly has an unspoiled view of the sound. The estate was built by craftsmen and artisans employed from Italy and Germany. If Eolia resembles a grand Italian villa, the Branford House’s reference point would be a castle or grand English countryside estate. Just like Harkness, the estate held the family’s cow barn and gardens in which they grew their own produce. Although Avery Point lacks a beach like Harkness, it does have a wide expansive lawn and its rocky coast is popular with fishermen. Mr. Plant was also a generous benefactor of many institutions including a hospital in Clearwater, Florida which bears his name.
The lighthouse at Avery Point
Although the estate was given over to the state of Connecticut, it spent years as an outpost for the United States Coast Guard. The Coast Guard built barracks and other unsightly buildings on campus and unfortunately left the gorgeous Branford House in a state of decay. When UCONN Avery Point opened its doors in the late 1960s, the school was confounded as to what to do with the former glorious mansion. After being hit by Hurricane Gloria, and after years of continuous neglect, its fate was uncertain. Luckily the beautiful building has been refurbished and now is a very popular wedding venue. Other former estate buildings are now utilized by the campus, case in point, the police station. The stone cottage containing the police department is as ornate and stunning as its larger counterpart, albeit on a much smaller scale. One highlight of the estate’s time under Coast Guard control is the lighthouse which was completed in 1943. Its concrete block design is accentuated by an octagonal lantern. It served as a beacon to the New London harbor for 25 years and is now listed (along with the house, and Eolia for that matter) on the National Register of Historic Places.
The public is encouraged to enjoy today’s Avery Point. Its pathway is a favorite of dog walkers and is unparalleled at sundown. Both of these estates are hidden jewels of Connecticut. They are uber-popular wedding venues, with good reason. (Given my affinity for Harkness, this is where my wife and I were married, and it simply was the perfect venue). Often overlooked in favor of the weirder (Gillette Castle), the celebrity occupied (Mark Twain House), or those located near the New York metropolitan area (Lockwood-Matthews House), these two most certainly are worth investigating. Harkness is perfect for an afternoon of exploration, the beach, a picnic, and of course a dog walk, but just in time for sunset, drive two towns further east and enjoy the view at Groton’s Avery Point.
While You’re There: Literally, you will be there if you visit the Branford House, since Project Oceanology is also located on the campus of Avery Point. This environmental study group was founded to educate area children about the seascape around them. Although they often take out groups of school children or campers on ocean study trips, they do offer public outings as well. Their tours include a marine biology oriented oceanographic cruise, a lighthouse cruise (Ledge Light is located just offshore), and a seal watching cruise. The trips are fun and educational! Visit www.oceanology.org for more information.