A Hodge-Podge of History
Back in 1694, settler Joseph Hall certainly had no idea that the New England cape-style house he built on Mansfield’s “5th home lot” would become the two-story stone “castle” it is today. History can look to a woman named Louise Ferguson for that.
We can be credited for the bed and breakfast that it has become.
The prevailing history is that the house built by “Deacon” Hall was among Mansfield’s first, advantageously located on a hill as defense against Indian raids. It had many of the features of a classic Colonial Era homestead, some of which can still be seen on the building’s first floor.
In both the dining room and living room, guests can see the massive hand-hewn chestnut beams spanning the length of the building. The original wide-plank floors remain in the dining room, as well, and perhaps the most revealing identifier of the era is the "funeral door" designed to accommodate passage of a casket. Beneath the building's stone veneer are layers of clapboard and its original wide-plank skin.
Mansfield Center, of course, was the home of many families who figured prominently in Connecticut history and whose names are associated with landmarks today: Storrs, Baldwin, Fitch, Barrows, Trumbull.
Their family homesteads were located up and down what is today’s Route 195 or Storrs Road.
Joseph Hall reportedly bought this property from Captain James Fitch of Norwich for £7.10. Fitch apparently got it (part of a much larger tract) from the estate of Joshua Attawauhood Uncas, third son of Uncas, the powerful sachem of the Mohegan tribe. (Another version of this story is that the unscrupulous Fitch made a point of befriending Joshua’s alcoholic brother and then-sachem, Owaneco, and persuaded him to give Fitch his power of attorney and to sign over the rights to a huge tract of land.)
Three of Joseph Hall’s 11 brothers -- William, Benjamin and Gershom – also bought land. And Joseph eventually became town clerk.
In any event, except for a five-year hiatus, the house and some adjoining acreage stayed in the extended Hall family beyond the death of Joseph on May 31, 1716, until 1861 with the death of Joseph’s brother's descendant, Abner Hall, son of Joseph’s nephew Theophilius Hall.
Fast-forward to June 14, 1927, when
Louise Ferguson, a woman short on
stature but big in imagination, acquired
the property from James G. Taylor. By
then the once single-story cape
had gone through several iterations
including becoming a two-story wedding
cake; its original peaked roof removed
and replaced with a second story some-
what smaller in dimension than the one
beneath it. It was clad in white clapboard.
Frank and Louise Ferguson
Ms Ferguson expanded the second floor to match the lower one, and proceeded to encase the entire house and the adjoining cottage in stone. It was quite the undertaking or, depending on your outlook and in the terms of the local press at the time, her “folly…Ferguson’s Folly.”
Louise, the wife of the head of the University of Connecticut Physics Department, Frank Ferguson, was an accomplished mason who stood only 4 feet, 11 inches tall.
Stone Arches today
It was through her efforts and direction that the exterior of the house was clad in stone and some additional architectural elements added – in particular the front porch, ramparts and stone arches for which our bed and breakfast is named.
Louise also built the massive stone
fireplace that gives the living room
its rustic character. It is embedded
with a variety of exotic stones and
two arrow-heads. In the room above
it, in one of the guest rooms, is a
second fireplace made of pink
Living room fireplace c. 1932
Ferguson builds the chimney
But her most interesting bit of masonry perhaps, is the chimney of the European style, post-and-beam cottage across the yard from the main house. Louise had gotten her scaffold and random-rock handiwork about 15 feet off the ground when her husband became concerned for her safety, so he hired a local mason to finish the job.
The mason, however, built his portion of the chimney with the straight and true lines of a professional rather than the jagged and random look Louise was going for. Her grandson, Jack Graham, reports that she was furious..
For 55 years the cottage was the home of popular University of Connecticut anthropology Professor Dennison Nash: conservationist, world traveler, wine connoisseur, and advocate for tourism and mass transit.
The Nash-Zimmer Transportation Center in Storrs Center was named in his memory. Nash died in March, 2012 with no heirs. He left an estimated $3.7 million to the university and his body to the university medical school. Some of his ashes are sprinkled in our yard, or "the estate" as he referred to the property.
Dennison Nash at Benmarl Winery
Nash was good friends with the Liberman family who owned and cared for the property for most of his residence in the cottage. Drs. Alvin and Isabelle Liberman, both respected professors at the University of Connecticut, raised their children here and while they made some renovations of their own during their almost 50 years in residence, near the end the house and grounds began to show serious signs of age and disrepair.
Isabelle, an authority on dyslexia, died in 1990 at age 71. Alvin, a former president and head of research at Haskins Laboratories in New Haven, passed in 2000 at 82. The building stood empty for a year.
In 2001 the next owners went to considerable lengths to bring the building and the grounds back to life; working on the stone veneer, trimming trees, scrubbing and painting, and emptying what remained of the Liberman estate. They subsequently decided to move and rented the property out to families and students for about eight years.
By the time we bought the house in August, 2010, there was still much to be done.
The grounds were overgrown, the roof over the porch had partially collapsed and the stonework itself was failing. The barn was infested with hundreds of bats, and the well -- a shallow one down the hill by a stream -- was inhabited by frogs.
Upstairs, the casement-style windows were cloudy and hard to operate. Many of the older sash windows appeared to have been chewed on by a dog. At least 23 flying squirrels were living in the attic. We know because we trapped them one at a time and released them five miles away.
The greenhouse, once a bright room where the Libermans gathered, was now devoid of plant life and being used as a place to put the garbage before collection day. The skylights were foggy and leaking.
We started our renovations by re-roofing the barn, since the main house was still and would be inhabited by tenants for many months. Over the subsequent span of six years, however, we replaced all the windows and ceilings upstairs and added three bathrooms. We re-roofed the main house, installed a new boiler and almost all new plumbing, updated the electrical system, drilled a new 400 + foot well.
We also refinished the floors, installed central air conditioning upstairs, reconfigured the bedrooms, including sound dampening in the 8-inch thick walls between the guest rooms, added propane service and two on-demand water heaters, and replaced the decks outside the kitchen and back doors.
We hired a mason with expertise in restoration to re-point and repair the crumbling stone face of the porch. And, perhaps most significantly, we converted the green house to a kitchen.
We also resurfaced and expanded the driveway, brought electrical service to the barn and added numerous outdoor lights. We took down dozens of dead trees and erected a chicken coop and yard.
The second floor back balcony was rebuilt after falling trees during Hurricane Sandy ripped off the old one. We were able to make it a little wider, adding wrought iron railings and outdoor lights.
In short, we have done our best to preserve and protect the house Joseph Hall built so it can provide shelter and comfort to others for years to come.