Visitors to Mark Twain’s restored home in Hartford, Connecticut, are often taken aback by its grandeur – they have a mental image of the simple, white clapboard house where the author lived as a child in Missouri, and which he imprinted on the American imagination by description in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
But here in Hartford is a wonderful chimera of a house, surmounted by Elizabethan chimneys and dotted with balconies. Visitors on tour approach the entry via a long porch decorated in the stick style – meaning the railings and other décor are simple and sticklike. They pass terracotta-colored and black brick patterns in the wall, and then gather under a porte-cochere with gingerbread highlights before entering through a massive door. When it was built in 1874, it was nothing like the Italianate houses of its era in Hartford — “goods-box” houses, as a Twain biographer called them.
When the author first visited the city in January 1868, it was on a business trip to see about the publication of The Innocents Abroad, his Mediterranean and Holy Land travel book. The leafy neighborhood where he stayed, Nook Farm, was full of compatible folk, including friends of the young woman he was starting to court, Olivia Langdon of Elmira, New York. He was mightily impressed by the city – the insurance companies “whose gorgeous chromo-lithographic show cards it has been my delight to study,” the massive Colt Arms Company, the veneration of the past and the Charter Oak, of which he made glorious fun. (He was shown “a walking stick, a needlecase, a dog-collar, a three-legged stool, a boot-jack, a dinner-table, a ten-pen alley, a tooth-pick” all allegedly made of its wood.) On a later trip he wrote: “I have seen a New England forest in October, and so I suppose I have looked upon almost the fairest vision the earth affords.”
By the fall of 1871 his circumstances had changed considerably. He had married Livy Langdon. Her father, Jervis Langdon, a wealthy coal and timber magnate of Elmira, had given the newlyweds a house in Buffalo. But a combination of tragic events – the deaths of Jervis, and then of a friend of Livy’s – and a general dissatisfaction with Buffalo got the couple thinking of Hartford.
They arrived in November and rented a house from John and Isabella Hooker, friends of the Langdons, but intended to build – and Livy set herself the task of figuring out exactly where and how, with friend Elizabeth Gillette Warner. (See “Livy’s Windows: How the Hartford House Began” for more detail). Livy and Mark enlisted architect Edward Tuckerman Potter to build the unconventional structure, and in the fall of 1874 they moved in.
Visitors today see a house restored to the condition of a somewhat later period, for in 1881 the Clemenses altered the construction of the house, extending the kitchen wing, and hired the design firm Associated Artists to decorate it. The partnership included Louis Tiffany, a scion of the New York jewelry family and not yet involved in the glass work which his name evokes.
Tours enter the house from the porte-cochere into a darkish entry hall whose lighting, meant to imitate the subtlety of gaslight, reflects a profusion of silvery stencil on the walls – a careful reproduction of Tiffany’s and his crew’s décor. The faux mother-of-pearl or silver tones are reminiscent of the way plain wood was also given a gold finish in Twain’s era – gilding, that is, the process Mark and his neighbor Charles Dudley Warner had in mind when they chose the name “The Gilded Age” for their joint novel.
A painting of an Arab scene and a shadowbox of the Alhambra on the wall reflect a fascination with Orientalism that is not only Victorian but also wholly Twainian. A bronze bust of Mark himself, executed by family friend and protégé Karl Gerhardt, peers without a hint of a smile from a corner of the room.
The historical interpreter leading the tour tells of the welcome a visitor would get from butler George Griffin, then moves into the drawing room, where in the 1880s a guest who hadn’t been turned away might await his or her hosts. A Steinway dominates the room along with a glass window above the fireplace that one contemporary called “a large plate glass suggesting Alice’s Adventures.” This room is light, and the Associated Artists stencils here are silver paisley patterns. The tour moves on to the dining room, with molded paper wallpaper made to resemble tooled leather, and a table set for the appropriate season, or to resemble one of the meals described by acquaintances in period letters.
Entertaining was a major part of the Clemenses’ Hartford life. At the head of the table Mark would preside with his wealth of anecdote strengthened by his famous significant pauses; guests included local pals such as Harriet Beecher Stowe and traveling notables such as Henry Stanley. A bonus for daughters Susy, Clara and later Jean: If you crouched on a certain step on the staircase to the second floor, you could watch the whole performance when your parents thought you were in bed. And this is the opportunity to talk about the people who lit the fires, made and served the meals, and cleaned the house, all for a yearly salary comparable to a week’s cost of the Clemenses’ entertaining, with room and board provided.
Through the dining room to the library, one of the hearts of the house, with volumes of history, novels, illustrated works, and children’s books arrayed on ornately carved shelves – works that guides explain performed the function that glowing screens do today. The long room, with its plant-filled glass conservatory at one end, is overlooked by a vast carved chimneypiece Here the Clemenses would enjoy a light supper after a trip to New York, or play with the kids, or read quietly. Or, as daughter Susy described, Papa would read his manuscripts aloud and Mama took the opportunity to “expergate” them; or, as daughter Clara described, Papa would make up tales using the bric-a-brac on the mantel.
Then the “mahogany room,” the elegant guestroom where one guest felt as though she was Beauty left in a castle suite by the Beast; and upstairs to the living quarters – master bedroom, Susy’s room, guest room, nursery, schoolroom. And in that master bedroom the great carved bed the Clemenses purchased in Venice in 1879, whose corner angel finials could be removed for the girls to play with, and whose headboard angels, viewed from the pillows placed at the foot of the bed, “bring peace to the sleepers, and pleasant dreams.”
At last to the third floor, where George’s room provides opportunity to describe the tale of this once-enslaved man who found his way to the Union lines and finally to Hartford where, Mark writes, he came to wash the windows and stayed eighteen years. And adjacent to this is the billiard room, the place where Mark Twain’s creativity flowed.
Guides are careful to point out the mass of work he did in the summer in Elmira, in the private hilltop study his sister-in-law Susan Crane built for him there; a picture of the study is on the wall as a visual aid. Mark said he could write ten chapters there for every one in Hartford, where, he said, “I work at work.” This meant wrangles with publishers and plumbers and such, but also the composition of dozens of articles and platform lectures, swaths of his best-known novels and travel works, and the business of revising, tearing up pages, rewriting and honing again. He stuffed manuscripts into a pigeonhole shelf to be picked up again, perhaps years afterward. And the billiard table provided a break from work, or even a workplace, where pages of handwritten Twain prose could be arranged and rearranged as he honed.
From there down the back stairs to the kitchen, with its great iron stove and its pass-through to a little gem of a butler’s pantry, where Griffin received the plated dishes from the cook. He carried these out to family and guests at the table, bringing us full circle back to the ornate dining room. The door through which he entered was shielded by a screen, in Victorian style – the divider between the family’s world and that of the people who kept things running under Livy’s supervision.
The Clemenses lived for sixteen good years in the house. In A Family Sketch, Mark’s memoir of the house and those who lived and worked in it, “the usual and formidable multitude of unconscious and unintentional trainers, such as servants, friends, visitors, books, dogs, cats, horses, cows, accidents, travel, joys, sorrows, lies, slanders, oppositions, persuasions, good and evil beguilements, treacheries, fidelities, the tireless and everlasting impact of character-forming exterior influences which begin their strenuous assault at the cradle and only end it at the grave.”
In the 1890s a bout with near-bankruptcy forced them out and to Europe, where living was cheaper and Mark’s celebrity would help recoup their income. They thought they’d be back, but that was not to be. On a visit back to Hartford in 1895 Mark was struck by a furious nostalgia, as he wrote Livy: “As soon as I entered this front door I was seized with a furious desire to have us all in this house again & right away, & never go outside the grounds any more forever…it seemed as if I had burst awake out of a hellish dream, & had never been away, & that you would come drifting down out of those dainty upper regions with the little children tagging after you.”
A year later daughter Susy died in the house while her parents were abroad. By 1903 Mark, who had called it “the loveliest home that ever was,” was urging his Hartford agent: “For the Lord Jesus H. Christ’s sake sell — or rent– that God damned house.”
As the Clemenses lived out the balance of their lives – Livy died in 1903, Mark in 1910 – the house fell into other hands: first, that of an insurance executive and his wife, who covered the Tiffany stencils with grass wallpaper, then leased it to a boys’ school. Then came owners who divided it into apartments, where many of the rooms now restored to their 1880s appearance had mini-kitchens and bathrooms added. In 1929 an effort by a group headed by neighbor Katharine Seymour Day, Stowe’s grandniece, rescued the house from demolition, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that a new generation of Twainians drawn from Hartford’s new elite – architects, lawyers, an academic, a diplomat – set themselves the goal of restoring the house to the Clemenses’ era. The group followed a rigorous program of research, with the idea that the building was a “text” to be reconstructed as precisely as the Dead Sea scrolls. The Tiffany stencils were painstakingly dug out of the walls, preserved, and covered with canvas on which imitative stencils were laid by craftsmen. In 1974, a century after the Clemenses’ arrival, a citywide celebration surrounded the official opening of the restoration.
In the nearly fifty years since, the house has undergone more research, restoration, and re-restoration, As the 21st century began, a sizeable visitors’ center was placed nearby, carefully dug into the side of a hill behind the house to keep it from dominating the view – the visitors’ view of this chimera of a house, beloved of a great American author and his family.
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.
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)