Imminent Demolition of the Elijah Bryan House, c. 1790

Once again, another 18th century home in Milford, Connecticut, is under threat of demolition. This time, it’s the Elijah Bryan House, c. 1790, located at 250 Gulf Street. Unfortunately, this home is not situated in any of Milford’s historic districts, nor listed on the National or State Registers, so it has no legal protections that would potentially bar its destruction.

Image of the Elijah Bryan House, marked for demolition.

The Elijah Bryan House, c. 1790, at 250 Gulf Street, Milford, Connecticut, marked for demolition.

The Bryan House is one of a half-dozen in the city dating back to about the late eighteenth century that feature Dutch-inspired architectural styling, including a dormered half-gambrel roof. The home also has two end chimneys, a substantial rear ell with summer kitchen, and what appears from the street to be another rear addition with a small porch.

Image of the Elijah Bryan House, north elevation.

Among the major architectural nuances of this home are a Dutch-inspired half-gambrel roof, with shed dormers and a “kicker” at the eave.

It’d previously been home to the late Donald and June Poland of Milford, and is now owned by their son, Lance Poland, who’d applied for a demolition permit on June 26th of this year. Milford’s City Historian, Carol LaBrake, imposed a ninety day demolition delay, which means the house will survive until at least September 24th. The purpose of this delay, which the City Historian has a legal right to impose, is to provide time for concerned parties to propose alternatives to a tear down.

Image of the Elijah Bryan House, south elevation.

A view of the south elevation reveals the roof contours, chimneys, and attached rear ell. The ell was most likely added to the house later, probably in the early to mid nineteenth century.

My understanding from colleagues more closely involved in this situation than myself is that the current owner might be willing to consider a reasonable offer for the house, but has not been actively marketing it. Also, despite Mr. Poland’s citing the home’s current condition as justification for its demolition, I’m told the house actually is in relatively good condition; at least, compared to many other historic homes we often find in this situation.

Image of the Elijah Bryan house, plaque and window detailing.

Much of the Elijah Bryan House’s architectural detailing, including twelve-over-twelve sash, louvered shutters, and “rams horn” iron shutter dogs, is quite elegant.

And although I’ve had no opportunity to closely inspect the Elijah Bryan House myself, I’ve seen nothing obvious, from the perspective of the street, to suggest any serious problems: the foundation and masonry work all appear sound, the roofs all seem in good condition, with straight lines, and the exterior walls appear reasonably plumb, except for some slight bowing noticeable at either end. All in all, the Bryan House exhibits exterior characteristics one usually finds in just about any home of this vintage that’s been reasonably maintained.

Image of Elijah Bryan House, south elevation, showing demolition prep work at the site.

This photo illustrates the extent to which the site had been disrupted in preparing for demolition (i.e., the cutting of sewer and utility lines). If resale of a threatened home is to remain a viable alternative to demolition, then house and site should remain completely undisturbed throughout the duration of any imposed demolition delay, and the local building department or official should enforce this.

Of course, the real shame in tearing down the Elijah Bryan House is that an historically significant, and highly visible, example of Milford’s early domestic architecture will be destroyed. This home is one of only six remaining that exhibit late eighteenth century Milford’s apparent penchant for Dutch architecture. Once gone, it’ll be gone forever, and both the city and Gulf Street community will have lost yet another jewel.

Image of Elijah Bryan house, north elevation and ell.

This view of the north elevation shows the depth of the attached ell, and a shed addition, just behind it.

Furthermore, the Elijah Bryan House’s destruction is likely totally unnecessary. It’s condition hardly seems to warrant it, and there are a number of viable alternatives to tearing it down, including:

  1. Aggressively marketing it as an historic home, and eventually selling it, with protections in place, to some new homeowner who’d be willing to keep and maintain the place.
  2. Renovating the rear ell and connecting a new structure to it, so as to create a modern living space, at far less expense than a complete rebuild. In this case, the front house could be preserved as an historic structure, therefore helping to maintain the neighborhood’s historic character, as well as the property values of surrounding homes. This would most likely also enhance the value of any renovated/expanded living space at the rear.
  3. Moving, or dismantling and temporarily storing, the house itself, until some interested historic home buyer is found. While this wouldn’t necessarily be an ideal solution for the City of Milford, nor the Gulf Street community, it’d at least save the house.

What you can do to help

[See Postscript below, however...] To his credit, Mr. Poland has placed his mailing address on a notice outside his home for the purpose of submitting questions to him. Readers interested in saving the Elijah Bryan House should consider writing Mr. Poland a personal and respectful letter expressing their concerns over losing this home, and suggesting any possible alternatives to demolition they might conceive of, including the two I’ve suggested above. Also, any offers to purchase this property should be directed to Mr. Poland, and as soon as possible:

Mr. Lance Poland
117 Judith Drive
Milford, CT 06461

You can also help by joining and/or supporting the Milford Preservation Trust, which is spearheading the effort to save the Elijah Bryan House. Visit the Milford Preservation Trust home page, where you can donate to the Trust, or sign-up online, and even request to be contacted if you want to help out.

Image of intent to demolish sign in front of the Elijah Bryan House.

The sign in the front yard of Elijah Bryan House clearly describes the owner’s intent to demolish the home. Such signage is required by the city’s demolition delay ordinance.

Finally, you should also consider voicing your concerns to Milford’s various municipal officials, such as the Mayor, Board of Alderman, Planning and Zoning Commission, and Building Department. Although Mr. Poland’s legally within his rights to demolish his home, and there’s little or nothing city officials can do to prevent it, they should at least be made well aware of any public objections to this tear down, especially considering the fact that all of this is occurring during Milford’s 375th anniversary year.


Please note that on 19 September 2014, it was announced unequivocally by the owners that demolition of the Elijah Bryan House will proceed as planned, and that no offers to purchase this property will be entertained.


The Elijah Bryan House was finally demolished on 6 October 2014, despite a number of last minute efforts by local preservationists to save it. Two local news articles are posted below.

Related articles

Jill Dion, “Historic house comes down: Preservationists lose battle to save 1790 building“, Milford Mirror, 6 October 2014.

Feroze Dhanoa, “Historical Gulf Street House in Milford Will Be Demolished Today“, Milford CT Patch, 6 October 2014.

Jill Dion, “Permit holds up demolition of historic house“, Milford Mirror, 30 September 2014.

Susan Fitch Antonik, “So many memories growing up in house set to be razed“, Letter to the Editor, Milford Mirror, 25 September 2014.

Feroze Dhanoa, “Historic House in Milford Will be Knocked Down Despite Efforts to Save the Property“, Milford CT Patch, 25 September 2014.

Nancy and Fred Bayers (Wilmington, N.C.), “Don’t demolish historical home in Milford“, Letter to the Editor, New Haven Register, 17 September 2014.

Patricia Perro, “Resident hopes historic Milford House can be saved from demolition“, Letter to the Editor, Milford Mirror, 14 September 2014.

Gwen Bruno, “Family’s history is also that of Milford“, Letter to the Editor, New Haven Register, 9 September 2014.

Michele Kramer, “Two historic homes in jeopardy“, Letter to the Editor, Milford Mirror, 1 September 2014.

Jill Dion, “Preservationists want to save Gulf Street house from demolition“, Milford Mirror, 1 September 2014.

#ThisPlaceMatters #MilfordCT #CTHistory

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Sanford-Bristol House Presentation

The Milford Preservation Trust will be offering a free presentation on Milford’s historic Sanford-Bristol House (c. 1789), at their 2014 Annual Meeting, to be held on Friday, June 20th, 2014, at the DAR Building, 55 Prospect Street, Milford, Connecticut. This meeting is open to the public, and will start at 7:00 PM, with the presentation scheduled for 7:30 PM.

Image of Sanford-Bristol House, Milford, Connecticut.

The Sanford-Bristol House presentation will focus on many of the unique features of this historic homestead, including some interesting discoveries recently made during the initial phases of the home’s rehabilitation. Spectacular architectural images, captured by local photographer Kara Flannery, will be shown and described.

For more information, contact Regina Cahill, at 203-974-3542.

Please Support the Milford Preservation Trust

As many of you are aware, the Milford Preservation Trust incurred significant legal expenses last year in saving the then-threatened Sanford-Bristol House. Any support you could provide, including donations and membership, would be greatly appreciated! Please visit the Milford Preservation Trust’s home page or membership page to donate or sign-up online.

Many thanks, and hope to see you at Milford Preservation Trust’s 2014 Annual Meeting!

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Earth Day 2014 on Building Moxie

Earth Day Logo

Today, April 22, 2014, is Earth Day 2014.

As has become something of a tradition in recent years, I’d been invited again this year to submit an Earth Day article for Building Moxie.

My topic this year is the single serving coffee maker, and an informal assessment of its environmental impact. The upshot of my investigation is that, as long as you eliminate the use of pre-packaged, disposable serving pods, the single serving brewer can be surprisingly environmentally friendly:

Earth Day 2014: How Environmentally Sound is that Single Serve Coffee Maker? :: Hint – Don’t Trade Yours In Just Yet


Please give my article a read, and if you’d like to post comments, please post them on the original article, rather than here.

If you’d like to learn more about Earth Day and this year’s Green Cities Campaign, please visit the Earth Day Network home page.

Happy Earth Day 2014 to everyone!

This Earth Day 2014 Limited Edition Poster, featuring the Green Cities Campaign, and signed by Denis Hayes, is available for purchase on the Earth Day Network home page. (Image Source: Earth Day Network).

This Earth Day 2014 Limited Edition Poster, featuring the Green Cities Campaign, and signed by Denis Hayes, is available for purchase on the Earth Day Network home page. (Image Source: Earth Day Network).

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Preservation Award for Sanford-Bristol House Rescue

The Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation will be presenting their 2014 Merit Awards, this coming Wednesday evening, April 9th, 2014, at the Hall of Flags of the State Capitol, in Hartford. This award recognizes people, organizations, or projects, that have significantly contributed to the conservation of Connecticut’s historic buildings, landmarks, and sites.

Among the recipients to be honored during this ceremony is the Milford Preservation Trust, which is being recognized for rescuing the historic Sanford-Bristol House, of Milford, Connecticut, from imminent demolition last fall. As someone who’d been heavily involved in this effort since early last summer, I’m extremely pleased that the Milford Preservation Trust is being recognized for this outstanding accomplishment.

Front of the Sanford-Bristol House, Milford, CT.

A recent close-up of the Sanford-Bristol House, taken by the author.

Had the Sanford-Bristol House been demolished, a double blow would’ve been dealt to the cause of historic preservation: not only would a unique and highly eclectic gem of early Connecticut domestic architecture have been forever lost, but the very concept of an historic district, and the protections it affords its properties, would’ve been rendered irrelevant, at both the state and national levels, by a single, unprecedented event.

So, many congratulations to the Milford Preservation Trust, for stepping up to this daunting challenge, and for bravely persevering through a stretch of time when success seemed so illusory. The historic preservation world owes you far more than any award can adequately bestow.

Please Consider Making a Donation

The Milford Preservation Trust is a small, non-profit organization, dedicated to preserving Milford’s historic places and properties. The Sanford-Bristol House legal fight incurred the Milford Preservation Trust a significant debt. Yet, they must continue performing their important work. Please consider making a donation, and possibly even becoming a member. Information can be found on the Milford Preservation Trust’s home page, and also on their membership page.

Sources of Additional Information

For complete information on the 2014 Merit Award recipients, see the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation’s Facebook page.

Jill Dion, of the Milford Mirror, recently published this excellent article about the Milford Preservation Trust’s award.

Numerous, recent photo albums of the Sanford-Bristol House can be found on the Milford Preservation Trusts’ Facebook page.

The Sanford-Bristol House community has also launched a Facebook page and Twitter feed.

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Roof Raking Antics

We’ve been having quite a severe winter here in good ol’ southern Connecticut, along with much of the rest of the nation. Heavy and frequent snow fall, along with prolonged low temperatures (well below freezing) for weeks on end, have resulted in prodigious snow accumulations, as well as some of the most insane ice damming I’ve seen on houses around here in quite some time.

I’ve also been taking a brief hiatus from regular writing, as I’ve been a bit burned out from the whole Sanford-Bristol House effort. [The house was finally saved in the end, for anyone who hasn't been keeping up...Hoo-zah!]. But there’s much happening, and much to start writing about again, so here goes with a brief starter post, just to make sure I don’t hurt myself.

Naturally, my infamous bull float roof rake got much exercise these past weeks. You might recall how using a magnesium bull float as a roof rake was a profound revelation that’d struck me several seasons ago, during an equally severe winter. The practical and philosophical underpinnings (and most importantly, the safety precautions) of this adaption were fully documented in a past article of mine, Snow Screeding Fuffy Slabs. And its utility continues to prove itself, as you can see in these photos from just last week (February 16th, 2014):

Accumulated snow on the entry roof of the Old Hawkins House, Derby, Connecticut.

What do you do when much heavy snow has settled in unwanted places, and there’s more snow and rain on the way? (Not to mention a hungry looking buzzard circling overhead…

Magnesium bull float and handle sections.

A magnesium concrete bull float and multiple aluminum extensions does the trick rather nicely, as long as you’re strong enough to get it all aloft and maneuver it safely (oh, and keep it away from any power lines or other electrical sources!).

Assembled bull float in the snow.

“That’s not a roof rake…THIS is a roof rake!”. A strip of rubber pipe insulation or a door brush seal fastened to the bottom edge would probably help prevent shingle damage, but I haven’t bothered trying that (my shingles need replacing, anyway).

The float digs in nicely, and takes deep, crusty snow apart, with no possibility of breaking.

The float digs in nicely, and takes deep, crusty snow apart, with no possibility of breaking.

A cleared front entry roof. top!

The entry roof was now reasonably clear, and no worries about more precipitation.

This week brought a rise in temperatures and quite a bit rain. Much of the snow cover persists, of course, and it will be some time before it significantly recedes. But winter’s back has broken, and it seems like spring is just around the corner now.

[ By the way, did you know we have a Facebook page, too? Please check it out and give us a "like" if you haven't done so already. Thanks, and happy (almost) spring to all! ]

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New Owner For Sanford-Bristol House

A long (and anxiously) awaited press release has just been issued by the Connecticut Trust For Historic Preservation identifying the new owner of Milford’s historic Sanford-Bristol House. Sources say the new owner, Lesley Mills, owner and director of Griswold Home Care in New Haven, Connecticut, has purchased the home strictly for residential use.

Milford's Sanford-Bristol House, under a cover of fresh snow, December 18th, 2013.

Milford’s Sanford-Bristol House, under a cover of fresh snow, December 18th, 2013.

As I’d mentioned in my post of last month, Best Christmas Present Ever, the Connecticut Trust had exercised its option, under a court agreement, to purchase the Sanford-Bristol House from its previous owners, who were intent on demolishing it and replacing it with a modern “replica” home. In this case, the Connecticut Trust had apparently been acting as a straw buyer for the new owner, to whom they would eventually transfer the home.

Rather than attempt to paraphrase further, here’s the press release published yesterday by the Connecticut Trust, in its entirety:


Hope Springs Eternal for the Sanford- Bristol House in Milford, CT
Contact: Erin Marchitto
Phone: 203-562-6312
Milford– A new owner has saved the Sanford-Bristol house on North Street from demolition, giving it a promising future. In October, the Milford Trust for Historic Preservation joined by the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation as co-plantiff, sued under the Connecticut Environmental Protect Act (CEPA) to prevent the demolition of the 1790 house. The CEPA act allows citizens to challenge unreasonable destruction of historic buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In November, the two Trusts reached a settlement with property owners William P. Farrell Sr. and Gwendolyn Farrell allowing the property to be sold to another party. Resolving the third in a recent string of CEPA cases, the sale of the Sanford-Bristol house confirms that selling a historic property to a new owner is a reasonable alternative to demolition.
Connecticut based Griswold Home Care has purchased the Sanford-Bristol House. A press conference will be held at the house located on 111-113 North Street in Milford at 3PM on Friday, January 17, 2014. The new owner, Lesley Mills, will be present to speak about future plans for the property and the house will be open to walk through.
Please confirm your attendance by phone at 203-562-6312 or by email at
Erin Marchitto
Communications Manager
Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation

940 Whitney Avenue
Hamden, CT 06517

Tel: 203-562-6312
Cell: 860-884-5003

Twitter: CT_Trust
### End of Press Release ###


As I’d mentioned in several of my previous articles, the Milford Preservation Trust has incurred considerable legal costs in their fight to save this landmark home from demolition. You can help ensure that the Milford Preservation Trust can continue with their important work by making them a donation, and perhaps even joining them as a member and ongoing supporter. To do so, simply visit the Milford Preservation Trust’s home page, or their membership page, where you can easily donate, or sign-up as a member online.

Image of the John Downs House, Milford, Connecticut.

“In the end, our society will be defined not only by what we create, but by what we refuse to destroy.” – John Sawhill




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Best Christmas Present Ever

“The Spirits have done it all in one night. They can do anything they like. Of course they can. Of course they can.” — Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Well, something like that, anyway. That phrase more or less conveys my current state of mind, with Christmas immediately upon us. And what’s inspiring me specifically is the recent transfer of title of Milford’s Sanford-Bristol House to the Connecticut Trust For Historic Preservation, thereby saving this landmark vintage home from an unreasonable demolitionthat otherwise would’ve taken place in early January.

This was the best Christmas present, ever!

Milford's Sanford-Bristol House, under a cover of fresh snow, December 18th, 2013.

Milford’s Sanford-Bristol House, under a cover of fresh snow, December 18th, 2013.

The Connecticut Trust, but a few days ago, exercised an option they’d been granted to buy the home from its then current owners, under the November court agreement struck between those owners and both the Milford Preservation Trust and the Connecticut Trust, who became a co-plaintiff in the CEPA injunction filed by the Milford Preservation Trust to block the home’s imminent demolition, just this past October.

Now, the Connecticut Trust is acting as a straw buyer for an individual who’ll eventually purchase the home from the Connecticut Trust. But at least the home is finally out of the control of those who would demolish it. When the home’s eventually transferred to a new owner, restoration requirements and restrictions will be in force from that point forward, ensuring it won’t become threatened again.

Image of Connecticut Trust For Historic Preservation Badge

This has been a long and grueling preservation battle, to which nearly all of the credit goes to Milford City Historian Richard Platt, and the Milford Preservation Trust. Were it not for them, this landmark Milford home would’ve been sitting in a landfill this Christmas morning. Many thanks are owed them for their single-minded fight to do the right thing for their city’s history, and preserving what little remains of its eighteenth century historic building stock. And many, many thanks also go to the Connecticut Trust, of course, who’s generous offer to purchase the home made this proxy-buyer arrangement possible, in the end.

In this upcoming new year, the Milford Preservation Trust will be fighting yet another battle — that of defraying the considerable legal costs they’ve incurred in this fight. You can help make this an even better holiday season for the Milford Preservation Trust by making them a donation, and perhaps even joining them as a member and ongoing supporter. To do so, simply visit the Milford Preservation Trust’s home page, or their membership page, where you can easily donate, or sign-up as a member online.

Image of the John Downs House, Milford, Connecticut.


“In the end, our society will be defined not only by what we create, but by what we refuse to destroy.” – John Sawhill



Happy Holidays to all of you! And may the New Year bring all of us much peace, happiness, and prosperity.

Additional Sources of Information

The Milford Mirror was first to announce (as far as I can tell) the transfer of the Sanford-Bristol House to the Connecticut Trust For Historic Preservation, in an article published on December 20th, 2013.

I’ve been maintaining an ongoing page of links to as many online articles on the Sanford-Bristol House as possible, here on A Preservationist’s Technical Notebook, since I’d become involved in this battle. An archive of my own writings on the Sanford Bristol House is automatically maintained on this site, as well.


*Unreasonable demolition is a term used in Connecticut to refer to the planned destruction of a listed historic or environmental resource, in situations where an alternative strategy for remediation of that resource’s current condition has been determined to exist. The Sanford-Bristol House had recently been found by historic restoration professionals to be both structurally sound and amenable to straight-forward physical rehabilitation, in direct contradiction to what its previous owners had claimed. Therefore, its demolition would’ve been unreasonable.

In Connecticut, listed state resources are generally protected under Connecticut’s Environmental Protection Act (CEPA). However, protection is not automatic, and often must be initiated by an advocate for a threatened resource. Under CEPA, any Connecticut citizen or organization can act as such an advocate, by filing an ex parte injunction against the proposed destruction of a listed resource, as long as they have good reason to believe its destruction would be unreasonable.

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Snow at Sanford-Bristol House

The past two days have seen the first significant snow falls of this winter season in our area. Here’s a photo I took this morning of Milford’s Sanford-Bristol House (c. 1789), covered by freshly fallen snow from last night:

Milford's Sanford-Bristol House, under a cover of fresh snow, December 18th, 2013.

Milford’s Sanford-Bristol House, under a cover of fresh snow, December 18th, 2013.

However, this grand old home isn’t quite out of the woods yet, and wouldn’t have even been standing here this morning, in fact, had it not been for the Milford Preservation Trust and their relentless effort to save it from unreasonable demolition.

Needless to say, this preservation fight has resulted in substantial legal costs for the Milford Preservation Trust, and they certainly can use your help. So, in this season of giving, please consider making them a donation, and perhaps showing your support even further by becoming a member.

You can easily donate via PayPal or credit card on the Milford Preservation Trust’s home page, and enroll as a member via their online membership page. Any support you provide will help further the Milford Preservation Trust’s mission to keep Milford’s history alive by preserving is historic places and properties.

And if you’re interested in purchasing the Sanford-Bristol House to prevent its demolition, please note that it’s still on the market, and will be until January 13th, 2014.

Image of the John Downs House, Milford, Connecticut.

John Downs House, Milford, Connecticut



“In the end, our society will be defined not only by what we create, but by what we refuse to destroy”  – John Sawhill



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Urgent Historic Home Sale

SANFORD/BRISTOL HOUSE. Double Dutch gambrel colonial home (c. 1789) for sale. 2388 square feet. 0.3 acre lot included. Located at 111-113 North Street in Milford, Connecticut Historic District. A scenic area with Wepawaug River view, and home values ranging from $500K-$750K. Must be sold as is, with no contingencies, before January 13th, 2014, or will be demolished. $200,000 cash, firm. Home convenient to highways, train, Long Island Sound and beaches. 90 min. to NYC. Excellent opportunity for preservation-minded restorationist-reseller, or home owner willing to reinvest for future returns while residing in a beautiful location.

Contact (860 693-1313) or ASAP for details.

Image of the Sanford-Bristol House.

The Sanford-Bristol House, c. 1789 (Image Credit: Connecticut Trust For Historic Preservation/Greg Farmer)

View of bridge and river from Sanford-Bristol House (taken from public sidewalk).

View of bridge and river from Sanford-Bristol House (taken from public sidewalk).

View of river and park from Sanford-Bristol House (taken from public sidewalk).

View of river and park from Sanford-Bristol House (taken from public sidewalk).

Sanford-Bristol House from directly across North Street.

Sanford-Bristol House from directly across North Street.

Sanford-Bristol House, as viewed from the park, and across North Street.

Sanford-Bristol House, as viewed from the park, and across North Street.

Sanford-Bristol House amid fall colors (Image credit: Tim Chaucer).

Sanford-Bristol House amid fall colors (Image Credit: Tim Chaucer).

#oldhouse #historicbuildings #preservation #thisplacematters #MilfordCT #CTHistory

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Phelps Mansion Remembered

Phelps Mansion (c. 1826) was an impressive, three-story, Greek Revival home, that had once stood proudly at 1738 Elm Street, in Stratford, Connecticut. Unfortunately, the home was torn down in 1972. But as a young lad, I had the rare privilege of actually “touring” this home, just a year or two before its demise, along with my father, and three or four of my schoolmates. But more on that later.

The home was built by General Mattas Nicholl, as a gift to his daughter and son-in-law, Captain George Dowdell, who was about to retire from life at sea. The center hallway of the home, designed by Mrs. Dowdell for her husband, was reminiscent of the main deck of his clipper ship: twelve feet wide, and seventy feet in length, with twin staircases leading to the “upper deck”.

Old drawing of Phelps Mansion on Elm Street, Stratford, Connecticut.

Rendering of Phelps Mansion, from Lippincott’s Magazine of Popular Literature and Science, Vol. XXIV, 1878, p. 34.

Six large chimneys and their fireplaces served the home, with three situated at each end. The front entry was comprised of a classical pediment, supported by four, massive Doric columns, and the interior also featured much fine elaboration, including chandeliers, and finely carved paneling and molded plaster work. All in all, Phelps Mansion had been an exquisite example of the high Greek Revival architecture of its day.

Following the deaths of Mr. and Mrs. Dowdell, the home was sold, in 1849, to Rev. Eliakim Phelps, a Presbyterian minister who moved his family down from Massachusetts. The Phelps family resided there until 1859, when they had sold the home to Moses Beach, founder of The New York Sun. The home was later taken over by Moses’ son, Alfred, who had been a long time editor of The Scientific American, and also ran a private school out of the home, called The Stratford Institute.

Then, in the 1940s, Phelps Mansion was converted into a rest home for the aged, and ultimately became the Restmore Convalescent Home. It was operated as such until the late 1960s, when it was purchased by Alliance Medical Inns, who intended to construct a new hospital on the property, while utilizing the home for office space. But financial problems prevented this from happening, and the home was boarded up and abandoned in 1970. A series of set fires and much other vandalism took a considerable toll on the place, and Phelps Mansion was finally demolished, in March of 1972.

Photo of Phelps Mansion, from Wilcoxon's History of Stratford, Connecticut.

Photo of Phelps Mansion, on Elm Street. From Wilcoxon’s History of Stratford.

Now, those of you familiar with the legend of Phelps Mansion (often referred to as “The Stratford Knockings”) will recall that it was during the Phelps family’s tenure there, in the early spring of 1850, that all the “trouble” began. For it was at this time Rev. Phelps began making claims of other worldly goings-on in his home, which grew over the upcoming months to include stories of continual knockings on walls, objects launching of their own accord and hurtling through the air, windows and furniture being smashed, Phelps children being levitated and carried by unseen forces across rooms, and groups of mysterious effigies formed from the family’s clothing and positioned in ways that appeared to mock Christian mass.

Reports of this activity continued until the end of October of the same year, when Mrs. Phelps and her children left their home to winter in Philadelphia. They returned the following spring, in 1851, and the Phelps family continued to reside at their home on Elm Street, peacefully, for another eight years. But all of this led to Phelps Mansion receiving much notoriety at the time, and, indeed, forever after, as a haunted house. In fact, it’s often cited as one of the worst cases of malevolent poltergeist activity ever recorded, with many contending this haunting to have even been demonic in nature.

Photo of the interior of Phelps Mansion, showing the first floor central hallway and double straircase.

Photo of the interior of Phelps Mansion, showing the first floor central hallway and double staircase. From Wilcoxon’s History of Stratford.

Now, as a committed rationalist and unapologetic disbeliever, I don’t buy these stories; in fact, I categorically deny these events ever happened. As far as I’m concerned, they were fabricated by Rev. Phelps, a man well noted for his fascination with occultism. His family undoubtedly colluded with him in this hoax, and their wild tales were readily received by an enthusiastic public, who in turn were enabled by a press that seemed fully determined to convince its readership of the truth of these fantastic claims.

In fact, if you study the original newspaper and journal articles of the day, you’ll find the reporters relied heavily on hearsay and second-hand testimonies of various “invitrants” to the home, many of whom went unidentified. Profuse and deferential pleadings as to the “high stature” and “unquestionable integrity” of Rev. Phelps, his family, and even the unidentified “eye witnesses”, were used by the reporters to bolster their accounts. This style of reporting is completely at odds, of course, with modern standards for objectivity, accuracy, and independent verification, and hardly would’ve lent itself to piercing the thin veil of a hoax.

Beginning of an article from the Cambridge Chronicle, Vol. V, No. 18, May 2nd, 1850.

Beginning of an article on Phelps Mansion from the Cambridge Chronicle, Vol. V, No. 18, May 2nd, 1850. Note how the article begins with a plea for its own veracity, by claiming the authority of its sources.

But things seemed much different to me, back when I was about ten or eleven, and I was captivated by these supernatural stories. My friends and I often rode our bikes past the boarded-up and vandalized Phelps Mansion, and occasionally stopped there. The front doors were always open, but we could never muster the courage to get beyond the front foyer and into the central hallway.

One day, my dad, clearly intrigued by our quixotic tales of tilting at poltergeists, proposed taking me and my friends there, so we could properly explore the place. So, armed with many flashlights, and my dad, we finally made it into the house, thoroughly investigating the first and second floors. I recall a relatively modern kitchen in the rear, with subway tile and steel sinks. Then we ascended one of the double stairs, and found a number of old steel bed frames and wheelchairs in the various second floor rooms. When we finally reached the third floor, we encountered some squatters up there (all of earthly origin, and smoking weed), and sensing it was time to leave, finally descended the other stairway, and headed out.

The following year or so didn’t bode very well for Phelps Mansion. I recall passing it one day and noticing that one of the large Doric columns had been pulled out of place by vandals, and was left lying on its side, on the stone porch. Reports of flagrant vandalism, fires, and squatters continued, and when it was announced the home would be demolished, a number of local residents fought to save it, but to no avail.

Image of the demolition of Phelps Mansion.

Demolition of Phelps Mansion in 1972. (Image Credit: New England Society For Psychic Research).


In my opinion, the real tragedy here (beyond the demise of the home itself) is that Phelps Mansion will never be remembered as anything other than a haunted house, all because of one nineteenth century owner’s elaborate hoax, and a gullible public who, back then as now, were all too willing to embrace, elaborate upon, and perpetuate that hoax. To this day, the Phelps Mansion hoax continues to be expanded in small increments, in online forums and blog posts, by the dwindling few who remember the place.

Furthermore, the entire corpus of searchable information on this lost Greek Revival mansion is focused exclusively on the paranormal manifestations that were claimed to have taken place there. Nowhere does one find Phelps Mansion mentioned in any of the architectural surveys and inventories of the previous century. Nor did the famed architectural historians of the early twentieth century (J. Frederick Kelly and Norman Isham, in particular) ever visit or record this home (as far as I’m aware) during their visits to Stratford. Did they deliberately avoid it because of its tainted history? Probably not. But it’s still unfortunate that none of them had considered including it in their surveys of historic Stratford homes, because Phelps Mansion would then have had at least some other account of note, beyond its alleged paranormal manifestations.

Did Phelps Mansion’s paranormal reputation hasten its demise? Absolutely. When I was young, and the mansion was still extant, everyone, but everyone, in town knew of it, and knew its story. When the home was finally boarded up and abandoned by Alliance Medical Inns, that highly publicized, paranormal cachet made the place a powerful magnet to all the local vandals and other miscreants who couldn’t resist it. And they managed to completely destroy the home over the course of two years. I know this for fact, because I’d witnessed this history first hand. In the end, this fine home was destroyed by humans and their collective foolishness, and not by poltergeists.

Do I think people should refrain from perpetuating stories of paranormal manifestations in certain historic homes, in the interest of protecting them? Absolutely not. We live in a free society, and people are (and should be) free to express, disseminate, and even embellish these claims, as they please. But by the same token, rational preservationists need to proactively call out the folklore and local myths for what they are, and educate the public that these stories don’t represent the true cultural value, meaning, and histories of these buildings. It’s unfortunate, but the idea of a “haunting” is just one more of those ingrained prejudices that many harbor against old homes, right along with “they’re cold and drafty”, “difficult to maintain”, and “impossible to adapt to the requirements of modern life”.

In a forthcoming article, I’ll walk you through the more prominent of the original, published accounts of “The Stratford Knockings”, and point out the numerous credibility gaps that make these old reports completely collapse under a critical eye. I’ll also take you through some of the more ridiculous embellishments to the earlier tales that have been floated in more recent times.

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