Steve Courtney Writes About The Beginnings of the Hartford House

Editor’s Note: One of the Center for Mark Twain Studies most important strategic goals is service to the general public. One way that CMTS fulfills this endeavor is the creation of Mark Twain related resource pages for students, teachers, and enthusiasts who are interested in learning more about Mark Twain and his world. CMTS asks Mark Twain Studies scholars to provide information about a specific topic, often consisting of concise summary, related images, and suggestions for further reading. If you are a scholar who is interested and participating in this act of public service and creating a resource page for CMTS, please contact Director Joseph Lemak at [email protected].

For this resource page, CMTS asked Steve Courtney of the Mark Twain House and Museum (Hartford, CT.) to create a resource page about the iconic Hartford House. Make sure to visit the Mark Twain House and Museum’s website for information on how to tour the house, upcoming lectures, and other cultural events.

Steve Courtney in the Hartford House Library

Steve Courtney is the author of Joseph Hopkins Twichell: The Life and Times of Mark Twain’s Closest Friend (Georgia, 2008) and co-editor (with Peter Messent and Hal Bush) of The Letters of Mark Twain and Joseph Hopkins Twichell (Georgia, 2017). He was a writer and editor at the Hartford Courant for many years before joining The Mark Twain House & Museum, where he has worked in the publicity and curatorial areas.

Steve Courtney has given a number of lectures for the Center for Mark Twain Studies through the years. You can listen to them here:

  • Steve Courtney, “The Loveliest Home That Ever Was’: The Story of the Mark Twain House in Hartford” (October 2, 2013 – Quarry Farm Barn)
  • Steve Courtney, “‘This Damned Fool’s Example’: The Rifts Between Mark Twain and Joe Twichell” (May 13, 2009 – Quarry Farm Barn)
  • Steve Courtney, “How Mark Twain’s Good Friend and Confidant Handled Three Tough Years in the Army of the Potomac” (May 17, 2006 – Quarry Farm Barn)

Livy’s Windows: How the Hartford House Began

“I think I have about decided what we shall do about building,” Olivia Langdon Clemens wrote to her husband, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, in December 1871. He was on a multi-state lecture tour, two months after the couple had moved to Hartford, Connecticut, with their infant son. “I have decided so you will not have to decide you see, Dear Heart…I can not and I WILL NOT think about your being away from me this way every year, it is not half living—if in order to sustain our present mode of living you are obliged to do that, then we will change our mode of living.”[1]

They were renting in Hartford, a house too large for their taste – and “shabby,” as Samuel Clemens later called it. Livy wrote: “We need now the comfort of a convenient home, while our babies are young and needing care.” She told him she had sketched out a plan for a house.[2]

Samuel had betrayed his longing for a home even in his mining and reporting days out West nearly a decade earlier. In the very first article he signed “Mark Twain,” in February 1863, he waxed lyrical, with a funny twist: “If there’s one thing more grateful to my feelings to another, it is a new house – a large house, with its ceilings embellished with snowy moldings; its floors glowing with warm tinted carpets; with cushioned chairs and sofas to sit on, and a piano to listen to…and above all, mirrors.”[3]

Now there was land for sale near Mark’s and Livy’s rental, and Livy had gone over the ground almost immediately upon arriving in Hartford. Her friend Elizabeth Warner, “Lilly,” whose family had co-founded the neighborhood of high-minded folk called Nook Farm, became her partner in planning and a strong advocate for getting the Clemenses into the mix. “They would be charming neighbors for us, at least she would,” Lilly wrote to her husband, George, whose business travels have provided us with the couple’s massive correspondence and commentary on local doings.[4]

The property for sale was in an area they called “the grove,” fronting on the road to Farmington, at the top of a steep slope that led down to a meandering stream. On a November day in 1871 Livy asked Lilly to have a look at it with her: “It looked so pleasant from the street she would like to go into it,” Lilly wrote. It was a cold, dull November day, but “she seemed to think it very pleasant notwithstanding & to see what it might be in good weather.” Lilly thought the property “rather narrow for the length but really large enough” for the family’s needs.[5]

The purchase sat on the back burner for more than a year – a year punctuated by the birth of Susy Clemens in March, and then the death, in June, of 18-month-old Langdon Clemens. Two days after he died Lilly took Livy to the grove – “she loves woods,” Lilly told her husband – and the  two friends climbed down to the river “to gather flowers and ferns for little Langdon.”[6] 

Not until January 16, 1873, did Samuel Clemens buy the narrow plot.  “Mr. Clemens seems to glory in his sense of possession,” Livy wrote to her sister Susan Crane in Elmira; “he goes daily into the lot, has had several falls trying to lay off the land by sliding around on his feet.”[7]

But Mark did not glory in planning the house – the arrangement of the rooms, the placement of the windows for views and light, the direction it would face. Again, Livy was the one to sketch things out. Just before the purchase, Livy visited Lilly “to show me her plan – drawn roughly because ‘Mr. Clemens knew nothing about houses on paper & she must talk with somebody about it as she went along.’”[8]

Lilly examined Livy’s layout, confiding to George that it “didn’t look that attractive somehow” and   “wasn’t making the most of the situation.” Livy had located the front door to the west, on the side of the property that sloped steeply down to the river: “That strikes me as queer & not the thing.” But an eastern entrance would have the utilitarian side of the house – kitchen, dressing rooms – facing the attractive western view towards fields and mountains. The two women puzzled over this dilemma, but agreed that the important thing was “to get the right windows in the right rooms.” Lilly finally recommended that Livy talk the issue over with an architect, “for an architect could see at once how to do it & would make suggestions which she would not ever think of, being so unused to the business.”[9]

Lilly and George, continuing their sponsorship of Mark’s and Livy’s project, had by then found an architect to suit. “I want immensely to get that house for Potter,” George had written to Lilly seven months before; Lilly wrote back promptly: “I’ll do all in my power, I assure you, to get the house for Mr. P.”[10]

“Mr. P” was a family friend who was designing the Warners a home neighboring the grove. Edward Tuckerman Potter was a church architect with buildings up and down the East Coast, a gentle man with a good singing voice and a love of fine food and literature. By the time the Clemenses bought the land Lilly could report that they “preferred Mr. Potter.” They had retained him by April 1874 and in May – not long after Mark finished writing The Gilded Age with George Warner’s brother Charles – they  had Potter’s sketch of a proposed house to show. Lilly no longer found it unattractive. “It will be the house of all Hartford for beauty,” she wrote.[11]

Potter provided sketches of the house, oriented toward the east, solving problems with a narrow, sloping site (Courtesy of The Mark Twain House & Museum, Hartford, Connecticut)

Over the course of construction over the next two years, observers commented on the oddness of the building, “a radical and even frenzied departure,” as Samuel Clemens’s first biographer called it. The exterior had multicolored bricks in intricate patterns – “a small brick-kiln gone crazy,” an Elmira newspaper reported, “the outside ginger breaded with woodwork, as a baker sugar-ornaments the top and side of a fruit loaf.” Along with the massive brick chimneys, a nod to Shakespeare’s era, there were unusual, asymmetrical elements, including a long porch stretching to the south; balconies, no two alike; and curious medieval details – exterior windows following a staircase’s route from the first to the second floor of the kitchen wing, a medieval turret atop the master bedroom’s balcony. A Hartford paper reported that it was “one of the oddest-looking buildings in the state, if not in the whole country.” [12]

Potter, it seems, had solved Livy’s and Lilly’s dilemma about which way the house should face. The kitchen and servants’ rooms had been set off kitty-corner to the house’s main mass: This would allow for western views over the fields and hills from the rooms where family and visitors would gather. Livy could still have her windows.

As construction got under way, the Clemenses promptly departed on a European trip. When they returned, the family stayed in Hartford only a few months before departing for a summer in Elmira, where daughter Clara was born in June.

Back in Hartford, the construction project became an object of pilgrimage. Schoolgirls “ran about the place examining every nook and cranny from cellar to garret,” one of the builders recalled.  At least two visitors reported conversations with Potter on-site: Mary Mason Fairbanks, a mentor to Samuel Clemens from the 1867 voyage that led to The Innocents Abroad, and Willard Glazier, a popular writer of Civil War memoirs and travelogues. Fairbanks got a tour of the house from the architect himself, describing it as “an attractive combination of dark red brick, set off by light graceful woodwork about the windows and balconies. It is planted as it were upon the bank of a dell at just the right angle to take on through its broad windows the loveliest views of river, meadow, glen and woodland.” Glazier reported:

“Mark’s” house is at the end of Farmington avenue, on a little eminence, at the foot of which flows a nameless stream. Its style of construction is so unlike the average house that it has won for itself the characteristic title of “The None Such.”…The plat of ground on which the house and adjacent buildings stand was selected and purchased by Mrs. “Twain”–so said the gentlemanly architect who replied to our inquiries. …Taking it all in all, I have nowhere seen a more curious study in architecture, and hope, for the satisfaction of its eccentric owner, that it will quite meet his expectations.[13]

Potter’s comment to Glazier about “Mrs. ‘Twain’” was accurate: After his return from overseas in early 1874, Mark had transferred title to the land from himself to Livy. This move has traditionally been seen as relating to Livy’s wealthy Elmira family’s financial role in the project. But in any case, the role of Livy Clemens, supported throughout by her close friend Lilly Warner, in the planning and construction of what is now known as the Mark Twain House was key. In January Livy and Lilly toured the house they had envisioned in the grove: “I like it all,” wrote Lilly,” as I see it my mind furnished with soft carpets and lovely things.”[14]

In September the family – now with the addition of baby Clara – moved into the house, beginning a period of 16 years that both Mark and Livy considered their happiest, and the world in general sees as Mark Twain’s most productive. Life there has been recorded by the author himself in his lively memoir “A Family Sketch” and in multiple pages of his autobiography.

After the family’s departure from the house in 1890, and sale of it in 1903, it has been been through many roles – school, apartment house, library, house restoration and museum — but still has its visitors, as Mark described it from a porch outside his third-floor billiard room: “the customary Sunday assemblage of strangers is gathered together in the grounds discussing the house.”[15]

Now that the house was off paper and onto the ground, Mark could revel in it:

Small processions of people continue to rove through the house all the time. You may look at the house or the grounds from any point of view, you choose, & they are simply exquisite. It is a quiet, murmurous, enchanting poem done in the solid elements of nature. The house & the barn do not seem to have been set up on the grassy slopes & levels by laws & plans & specifications—it seems as if they grew up out of the ground & were part & parcel of nature’s handiwork. The harmony of size, shape, color—everything —is harmonious. It is a home—& the word never had so much meaning before.[16]


  • [1]Olivia Langdon Clemens [OLC] to Samuel Langhorne Clemens [SLC], 2-3 September 1871 
  • [2] Elizabeth Gillette Warner [EGW] to George Henry Warner [GHW], 19 November 1871; SLC to Franklin Whitmore, between 10 and 13 September 1896; OLC to SLC, 2-3 September 1871
  • [3] Clemens, Samuel, “Letter from Carson City,” Territorial Enterprise (Virginia City, Nevada), Feb. 3, 1863; (http://www.twainquotes.com/18630203t.html; accessed 10 June 2022)
  • [4] EGW to GHW, 14 November 1871
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] EGW to GHW, 3 June 1872
  • [7] Schwinn, Walter, Mark Twain’s Hartford House. Unpublished manuscript in the Mark Twain House & Museum Archive, p. 7; OLC to SLC, January 1873
  • [8] EGW to GHW, 14 January 1873
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] GHW to EGW 27 May 1872; EGW to GHW 29 May 1872
  • [11] Schwinn, op. cit., p. 12; EGW to GHW, 14 January 1873; EGW to GHW, 17 May 1873
  • [12] Paine, Albert Bigelow, Mark Twain: A Biography. New York and London: Harper and Brothers, 1915, p. 481; “Mark Twain’s House,” Elmira Advertiser, 30 Jan 74, reprinting the Titusville Herald of unknown date; in Frank, Michael, and Smith, Harriet Elinor, Mark Twain’s Letters Volume 6, 1874-75. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988, pp. 29-30, n. 3; The Hartford Times, March 23, 1874; in Schwinn, op, cit., p. 29
  • [13] Gammell, Serreno  B., “Twain Mansion Drew Attention from Beginning,” The Hartford Times, 1 November 1935; Willard Glazier, Peculiarities of American Cities, 1886, Philadelphia, Hubbard Brothers, 1886, p. 208
  • [14] EGW to GHW, 8 January 1874
  • [15] OLC and SLC to Olivia Lewis Langdon and family, 18? October 1874
  • [16] SLC to OLC, 3 July 1874

SUGGESTED READING

Andrews‚ Kenneth R. Nook Farm: Mark Twain’s Hartford Circle. Cambridge: Harvard University Press‚ 1950.

Chafee, Richard. “Edward Tuckerman Potter and Samuel Clemens: An Architect and His Client.” Unpublished M.A. thesis, Yale University, 1966.

Clemens‚ Clara. My Father‚ Mark Twain. New York: Harper & Brothers‚ 1931.

Clemens, Samuel L. Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volumes 1-3 (ed. The Mark Twain Project). Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.

 — A Family Sketch and Other Private Writings (ed. Benjamin Griffin). Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014

Courtney, Steve. The Loveliest Home That Ever Was: The Story of the Mark Twain House in Hartford. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications, 2011.

— Mark Twain’s Hartford. Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2016

— “Layer by Layer: The Restoration of Mark Twain’s Hartford House.” Mark Twain Journal, Vol. 58, No. 2, Fall 2020

Driscoll, Kerry. “Mark Twain’s Music Box” in Cosmopolitan Twain (ed. Anne M. Ryan and Joseph B. McCullough). Columbia, Missouri, and London: University of Missouri Press, 2008.

Faude, Wilson H. The Renaissance of Mark Twain’s House: Handbook for Restoration. Larchmont, N.Y.: Queens House, 1978.

Howells‚ William Dean. My Mark Twain. Mineola‚ N.Y.: Dover‚ 1997 (reprint of 1910 edition). 144

Landau, Sarah Bradford. Edward T. and William A. Potter: American Victorian Architects. New York: Garland Publishing, 1979.

Schwinn, Walter K. Mark Twain’s Hartford House. Unpublished manuscript in The Mark Twain House & Museum Archive, 1986.