About the Gridley-Case Cottages
A Place to Hang Our Hat
Cottages, 138 (at right) and 140 Main Street.
The small white cottage
138 Main Street, home to the Farmington
Historical Society, and its neighbor at 140
Main Street, are time travelers in a sense
-- unique 18th-century workmen's cottages
that provide a view into the town's past.
The cottages, which were built in the late 1700s as a shop and housing for
workmen, were donated to the historical society in 1998, by the town and the Hartford
Foundation for Public Giving. After restoring the cottages, the society moved
into 138 Main Street in 2003. The smaller cottage next door, a hat shop in the
18th century, is now rented out as
"These are possibly the last surviving houses of their type,''
Ron Bernard, former president of the Historical Society, said in an interview in
the Hartford Courant in November 1998. ``In the 18th century, they were
Bernard said that the houses may have survived in part because of their
simplicity; they were small and modest enough to be overlooked. "The history of
the house in this century is one of being saved from the wrecking ball,'' he
said. "These little cottages have survived intact because they weren't worth
anything. Our commitment here is to preserve and protect these
The cottages show "the town the way it always was,'' the society's vice
president, Peg Yung, said in the Courant. The town "wasn't all big
mansions," she said.
The cottages are named after John Case and Alexander Gridley.
Case built the cottages on land he bought from Samuel Deming in 1771, according
to Dudley Prentice, who wrote
History of Farmington Houses (an
unpublished manuscript) in 1974. The
land, a total of 7 acres, also included the property at 144 Main Street.
Not much is known about Alexander Gridley
except that he owned a half-acre plot of land and a dwelling, probably the
smaller cottage, for several years until he sold them to John's son, Coral Case, in
Coral Case was a hat manufacturer, and his father assisted him
in the business. The
shop was in the smaller of the two cottages, 140 Main Street, and the
workmen's housing at 138 Main Street. Hatter's Lane, across the street from the cottage,
probably owes its name to the former shop.
John Case and his wife, Mary, didn't live in either one of the cottages, but at
the family homestead at 144 Main Street. In 1787, John is listed as owning land
extending from the homestead to the north to 130 Main Street.
John Case died in 1791 at age 62.
His gravestone in the "Memento Mori" cemetery indicates that he fought with "Capt.Whittlesey's
Co." in the French and Indian War. John's son, Coral, died in 1800 at age 37.
Cowles, who lived down the block in the house called "Oldgate" at 148
Main Street, wrote in a letter in March 1800 that "Mr. Case "declines fast -- he is going to have his freedom clothes
made -- a cambrick shirt to be buried in." Case briefly recovered, but by August
of 1800 Julia was writing that he had "had some more fits."
After Coral Case's death, his estate was divided among his
widow, Polly; daughter, Betsy (Case) Beach; and son, John M. Case. Betsy inherited the family
homestead at 144 Main Street. The distribution of the estate also mentions that
one of the cottages was then occupied by a tenant, Chauncey Sweet.
In 1810, Betsy Beach, a minor (though married to Platt Beach),
sold the house and cottages under the direction of her guardian, John Mix.
Richard Cowles bought "6 acres and 2 roads with
houses, barn, and other buildings" for $3,500. Like John Case,
Cowles lived at 144 Main and probably rented out the cottages.
Cowles, the son of Isaac and Lucinda Cowles, married Fanny
Deming in 1811; served in the military from 1815 to 1824; was town treasurer
from 1832 to 1839; and was elected to the state legislature in 1834.
died in 1845, he left 144 Main Street and the cottages to his two nephews, the
sons of his brother Solomon. Edward Cowles became the owner of the main house at
144 Main Street. Samuel Cowles inherited the property "on the
northeast corner ... on which are 2 small dwelling houses with 2
to each." At the time, the cottages were occupied by Chauncey Hills and Giles Stillman,
who might have been workmen on the property.
In an 1850 census, Hannah Prince, identified as "black," is listed as living in
one of the cottages with several children. Hannah's husband, Charles, was a
barber, and two of their children, William and George, also became barbers. One of
the cottages may have been used as a barbershop at this time.
Princes lived in several houses on Main Street over the years, including one
near Tunxis Street in 1840. Hannah, who worked as a domestic, may have
moved to live near her employers.
New England barber pole.
In 1860, after the children were grown, Hannah lived with
abolitionists Samuel and Catherine Deming at 66 Main Street. Deming owned a
store on Main Street (later moved to 2 Mill Lane) where the Amistad Africans
lived on the second floor for two months in 1841. The Mendians later moved to a
dormitory built for them next to Austin Williams' house on Main Street, near the
Samuel Cowles mortgaged the cottages in 1855, when they were occupied by
"Levi Risley and Mrs. Prince."
cottages, February 2006.
Not long after, the bank foreclosed on the former Case
homestead and the cottages. The main house at 144 Main Street was sold to Henry
W. Barbour, a farmer, according to the
Architectural Resource Survey of
Farmington (1985-1986). Accounts differ on the cottages' history at this
point, but they passed through a succession of owners. They were sold
to Ira Hadsell, then William Francis, and then Barbour's mother, Annie Sedgewick.
In 1871, After Sedgewick's death, Barbour inherited the cottages.
Barbour lived at 144 Main Street and used the cottages to house
his farm workers. Two employees, Fred H. Hotchkiss and his son Charles, are listed as residents in
Farmington, Connecticut: The Village of Beautiful Homes (published in
in Farmington "Green Book," 1906.
In 1915, after Henry Barbour died in a car accident on Diamond
Glen Road, his widow and daughter, Harriet and Anne Barbour, sold the house at
144 Main Street and the Gridley-Case cottages to Winchell Smith, a Broadway actor, playwright and director. Among
the plays written by Smith are Brewster's
Millions (1906), The Fortune Hunter (1909), The Boomerang
(1915), and Lightnin' (1918), which was for a time the longest-running play in
American theatrical history, with 1,291 performances.
Smith's monument at Riverside Cemetery.
Smith lived in a Georgian mansion at 188 Garden Street, the other end of
his extensive property
that then included the cottages. The mansion was built overlooking a bend of the
Farmington River, at its junction with the Pequabuck River. Smith's grave
monument can be seen at Riverside Cemetery in Farmington. Also there is the
gravestone of his uncle, William Gillette, the actor, dramatist and creator of
Smith wrote and produced the silent film classic "Way Down
East," and it was he who brought Lillian Gish to Farmington to star in the film
in 1919. Smith owned the grist mill by the river at the time, which was used in
a scene in the movie. The scene shows Gish crossing the river in the winter by
jumping from ice floe to ice floe.
Winchell Smith estate, seen from the Meadows.
At the time when Smith owned the cottages,
John Alsop and Marie Bissell ran an antiques shop in the smaller one at 140 Main
Dudley Prentice wrote in his History of
Farmington Houses: "The owners' tastes in antiques were very good, and their
stock was well chosen, but in spite of this the shop did not prosper, and the
business was given up after a few years."
One of the customers of the shop was Wilmarth
Sheldon Lewis, who lived across Meadow Road at 154 Main Street. Lewis devoted
his life to collecting the letters, prints and drawings of Horace Walpole, an
eighteenth-century English politician and man of letters, and Lewis' home is now the Lewis Walpole Library.
Lewis wrote in his autobiography, One Man's
Education, about John Alsop:
"He lived in the family's large
1840 house in Middletown that was filled with family possessions, but he was
hampered by an inadequate income. During [my] first year in Farmington he
rented a cottage there to economize and to run a small antique shop that he
and Marie Bissell had just opened. Both had excellent taste -- they were
among the first to rediscover Victorian ornaments -- but the Bissells were
building a new house, John couldn't be bothered with routine, and the shop
languished after the first buying sprees. He never 'did' anything in the
usual meaning of the word, yet although he died forty years ago his effect
upon [me] was so profound that even now I may ask myself, 'What would John
Alsop do?' and then I try to do it. Gerald Murphy once told how he asked
John if he thought a certain man was 'happy.' 'Yes,' said John promptly.
'How do you know?' 'Because,' John replied, 'he's unselfish.'"
An employee of Winchell Smith's, William Hopkinson,
and his wife lived in the larger cottage for a time, and Prentice wrote that
Mrs. Hopkinson often looked after the antiques shop while the owners were away on
After Alsop and Bissell closed the shop, the cottage
at 140 Main Street was again used as housing for workmen, with some of
Smith's employees living there.
Winchell Smith died in 1931, and it is at this point that
the former Case homestead at 144 Main and the neighboring cottages parted ways. The
cottages were sold in
1935 to Raymond and Genevieve Bien, and the main house at 144 Main Street was
bought by Oliver Harrison Smith in 1937.
The Biens, who'd met on a hike in
Massachusetts, moved to Farmington from New York City when they bought the
cottages. Raymond Bien worked at Aetna Life and Casualty until 1960, when he
retired. They then divided their time between Farmington and Florida.
In 1970, the Biens sold the cottages to James McArthur Thomson, a
neighbor who lived across Winchell Smith Drive at 130 Main Street, an imposing Federal-style
house with 30-foot columns, built in 1802 by General Solomon Cowles.
General Solomon Cowles house, 130
Thomson, an architect who had apprenticed with Frank
Lloyd Wright, bought the cottages to protect them from "further deterioration
and possible doom," said Ron Bernard, the former president of the Historical
Society. The cottages, especially the smaller one, had fallen into neglect, and
Smith sought to bring back their their original character. He restored them with
the help of Richard Butterfield, a retired architect. He also improved the grounds, trimming the overgrown trees and
Thomson, who served as chairman of the Historic
District Commission, was also active in the Historical Society, the Stanley
Whitman House and the Hill-Stead Museum. It was Thomson who donated the first
piece of property to the Farmington Land Trust -- the
Canal Aqueduct Path, a former towpath for barges that runs from Route 10 to the Farmington River.
After Thomson died in 1993, his house at 130 Main
Street and the cottages were left to the town. Thomson said in his will that he
wanted his house to be given to a nonprofit historical organization. The
Antiquarian and Landmarks Society of Hartford sought to move into the house, but
the proposal was rejected by the town in 1996 after residents opposed it.
In 1998, the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving
endorsed donating the cottages to the Farmington Historical Society. When the
society received them, it vowed to continue Thomson's restoration work.
For the renovations, the society raised $265,000 in
a fund-raising campaign by the end of 2002, with the help of grants from the
Hartford Foundation for Public Giving and the Connecticut Historic Restoration
Fund, and donations from the Farmington Savings Bank, United Technologies,
society members and many others.
Like Smith, the society sought to preserve the buildings' unique character and
charm in the restoration work. Through the centuries, the cottages have retained many of their original features,
including the twelve-over-eight windows, named for the number of
A stone chimney in one cottage is original, too. Chestnut beams, with the bark
still on them, have survived the centuries; they're hidden under plaster strengthened with animal hair. The cottages
also have their original wall paneling and pegged wooden floorboards. One
section of the lath and plaster wall has been left exposed upstairs at 138 Main
Street for students of architecture.
and plaster wall, 138 Main Street.
The bay window in the society's headquarters was added nearly 100 years ago, and
a brick chimney was built in the early 19th century.
138 Main Street
To help in the renovations,
the Historical Society hired architect Roger Clarke; architectural historian Anne Grady, of the Society for the
Preservation of New England Antiquities; and landscape planner and historian
Sarah la Cour. East-West
Builders, which worked on the restoration of the Butler-McCook House in Hartford
in 2002, was contracted to
do carpentry work and hire subcontractors.
gate, Gridley-Case cottages.
One of the first projects the society completed was
renovating the wrought-iron fence around the cottages. The society also
installed new cedar-shingle roofs; added copper gutters; repaired and
painted the walls, windows, ceilings; restored the brickwork; added storm windows;
fixed the plumbing; repaired the eroding foundations; installed new heating and
air-conditioning systems; brought the
electrical systems up to code; and added a new garden with a stone wall around
it, brick pathways, lighting and a fountain at the center. The society is
currently working on adding plantings in the garden.
The Historical Society now has a permanent home in the heart of Farmington
village. The headquarters is used for meetings, exhibits, research, storing historical records, and other programs
related to preserving and
sharing the town's heritage.
see: Gridley Case Cottage Garden
Gridley is listed as mortgaging a
"1/2-acre piece of land with a small
dwelling house" for 40 pounds to Hosea
Gridley of Watertown, CT, in 1787. In 1794, the mortgage was
released, and in 1797 Gridley sold the
property to Coral
Case. The deed listed "a house, shop and
other buildings standing."
who wrote the History of Farmington Houses,
an unpublished manuscript, in 1974, differs
on the dates of the deaths of John and Coral Case, saying the
son died before his father, at age 37 in
Prentice also refers to Coral's wife, Polly,
as John's wife, and to Coral's daughter, Betsy, as John Case's
the son of Isaac and Lucinda Cowles wasn't a
member of Julia's immediate family, but
belonged to another branch of the Cowles
family. Julia, who died in 1803 at age 18,
was the daughter of Zenas and Mary Cowles.
"The Diaries of Julia Cowles" was published
4. There are conflicting accounts of the
ownership of the cottages and 144 Main
Street. The Connecticut Historical
Commission conducted the
Historic and Architectural Resource Survey
of Farmington in 1985 and 1986. Its
findings differ in parts from those of Dudley
Prentice in his unpublished History of
History of Gridley-Case cottages and
photos (except where noted)
Brooke E. Martin. Copyright 2006, 2007, 2008
cottages, looking south toward 144
138 Main Street, by
John Hyland (Copyright
2008, John Hyland),
painted from photograph by Brooke Martin.
The Farmington Historical Society, P.O. Box 1645, Farmington, CT 06034
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