In front of, and behind, the scenes

I’ve long wanted to go to the exquisite Roseland Cottage, but it is a bit out of the way.  In the “quiet corner” of Connecticut, and on a Labor Day Saturday, it took me 90 minutes to get to Woodstock and the house.  Basically, nothing in Connecticut is further away.

Roseland CottageIt is clearly worth the trip though.  What a beauty this house is, with its meticulous care inside and out and its picture-perfect gardens.

Yes, the house is Gothic Revival, not something you see everyday in historic New England.  And like it’s not too distant neighbors in Newport, this house was built as a summer cottage for wealthy New Yorkers.  So why doesn’t Roseland look like a Newport ‘cottage’?

Asymmetrical gardens

One guide today speculated that the association of the Gothic style with cathedrals and religious piety was the driving factor.  Henry Bowen, whose wealth stemmed from silk textiles before turning to insurance, was a Temperance man.  No drinking or smoking for him.  He even had his seven sons sign a Pledge of Temperance before going off to college that they would not only refrain from drinking and smoking, but also avoid gambling, going to the theater and opera, and somewhat peculiarly, boating.  Note, no mention of the fairer sex.  The boys did sign, but were, to the man, known as notorious party-ers.  A bit of rebellion anyone?

Gothic arches.  You can just make out the lincrusta, a textured linoleum made of linseed oil and wood pulp, on the walls. That’s not wallpaper.

Anyhow, the pointed arches of the Gothic style, for the exterior styling and interior windows and doorways, even in the servant areas, suggest that Bowen wanted to remind all householders of aspirational Christian values to inspire each to live a better life.  An intriguing thought.

The stained glass looks like it’s right out of 1960s Pop, but is original to the house’s 1846 origins.

Our guide said that Bowen was an abolitionist, and I asked whether he was bothered by working in textiles and doing business with the South that clearly relied on enslaved labor.  She said he stated, “my goods are for sale, not my conscience.”  Hmmm.  I’m not sure that addresses the issue, if he profited off of the system.

Regardless, the Civil War and the resulting Reconstruction era meant that his Southern clients were unable to pay his bills.  He had to close his business and shifted his energies to insurance, where he built a billion dollar business.  I’m sure that was none too clean either.

But I’m not here to debate the morals of a pious, rich man.  Instead I enjoy his house.

Apparently, it’s always been pink, as you see it, with perhaps a reference to rose color, the rose being his first wife’s favorite flower.  She konked after giving him 10 kids, and he married again, leading to one more son.  By this time, after the Civil War, he was uber-wealthy and attracted U.S. Presidents to visit his hometown of Woodstock and stay with him at the cottage.

Roseland was known for its July 4 celebrations.  Each year, the party was so huge that it spilled out from the house and into the park Bowen built for his entertainments.  Voluminous amounts of bunting decorated the grounds.  Forget the barbecue.  You received your pretty little printed brochure listing all the lectures taking place under the tent and when you could catch the day-time fireworks–a Japanese technology.  You could enjoy a pink lemonade while strolling through what the New York Times called a “fairy garden,” if you were one of the lucky 1000 or so people who began coming, along with the sitting President.  Of course, there were fireworks at night, too.

President Grant, during his 1870 visit also learned a new skill.  Bowling.  The house features a bowling alley completely made of wood.  The ball and pins were made of wood, too.  Grant had never bowled before, and on his first try, he got a strike.  So delighted was he that he broke out a cigar.  Bowen wasn’t having it and shooed the president outside to smoke.

Even the outbuildings (ice house and privies) had Gothic styling

Even the outbuildings (ice house and privies) had Gothic styling


Also outside was a new privy, erected for a presidential visit.  Since you know I’m already familiar with Connecticut’s privies, I can knowledgeably comment that these were pretty high end.  A wall separated the holes, and the president could close the door for some additional, ahem, privy.  These niceties were not available in Roseland’s indoor privies.

Such were the details learned on the behind-the-scenes tour.  We crawled around the cellar, shining our flashlights to see early construction (and a dead mouse) and marveled at the height of the attic rafters and their intricate carpentry.  We slithered down creaky staircases, imagining servants carrying tea trays.  We wondered how the very heavy furniture in the attic got there, other than on the backs of servants up narrow stairways.  We saw how water for baths upstairs had to be pumped up three flights from the cellar cistern.  Sheesh.  Forget “Downton Abbey.” Servant’s lives were impossibly hard.

What they apparently did so well was make the life upstairs beautiful and seemingly effortless.  Perhaps pride (and the privies) were enough reason to stay with the Bowens.  One servant worked for the family for over 50 years!  Imagine…

One thought on “In front of, and behind, the scenes

  1. Of course I love the color and the gothic shape of the house. I had heard about the tin wall”paper” but haven’t seen it. And the garden, wow. Thanks, again, for sharing all this. And a piece of historical info: Grant had his first bowling (a strike) in the house. Not surprised (and glad) you asked about his morals during Civil War!

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