Mabel P. Stivers’ Resurrection of the Mansfield House

The Reverend Richard Mansfield House would not have survived to the present day, had it not been for the efforts of Mabel P. Stivers, a local historian and preservationist from Ansonia, Connecticut.

When Saint Joseph Parish purchased the Mansfield property in 1925 with the intent of building a church and school, the Mansfield House was slated for demolition. Mrs. Stivers interceded, and convinced the church to give her the house, on condition she move it to another location. Together with a few other committed individuals, she formed the Mansfield House Association, a non-profit organization that took legal ownership of the house, raised funds to acquire a small lot on the opposite side of Jewett Street, moved the house, and subsequently restored it.

Mansfield House at its original location

The view looking up Jewett Street, sometime prior to 1925-1926, when the Mansfield House was still situated at its original home site. The land where the house had stood constituted the former Mansfield “Glebe”, and is now the location of St. Joseph Church and School. Today, the Mansfield House sits on the opposite side of Jewett Street, behind the small stone wall just beyond the two individuals in the foreground. The path curving off to the left just before the stone wall is modern day Root Avenue. Central Avenue (now Danielczuk) similarly diverges off to the bottom right of the photograph.

Mrs. Stivers wrote extensively about the events of those days, and also researched and wrote much about the earlier histories of the Mansfield House and family. Two articles of hers, in particular, I’ve found critical in furthering my understanding of the material history of my home.

Cows on Jewett Street

Cows being driven up Jewett Street and past the Mansfield House, probably some time in the early 1900s.

The first, entitled simply “The Mansfield House”, was published in the October 16, 1924 edition of the old Evening Sentinel, of which today’s Valley Independent Sentinel is a spiritual successor. This was most likely about one year before the Mansfield House was moved. Mrs. Stivers cited the house’s location as the junction of Capital and Jewett, although I believe this was just an approximation, as the first photo above suggests the home was farther up the hill on Jewett, right where St. Joseph’s main parking lot is located today.

The Mansfield House in the early 1920s

The Mansfield House in a highly moribund state, likewise just prior to its 1925-26 move and restoration.

She recounted Joseph Smith as being the first known owner of the house, while stating there was no record of him being the original owner or builder. Smith then sold the house to Enos Gunn in 1736, a point I find personally interesting, as Enos Gunn was a grandson of Joseph Hawkins. Enos, who died in 1739, had sold the house at some point to Jonathan Hitchcock. It was from Hitchcock that the committee of Episcopal families purchased the land and house for their new minister, Rev. Richard Mansfield, in 1747.

Rear of the Mansfield House

The rear of the Mansfield House, at some point during the period leading up to 1925-26. Most of the clapboards are loose or falling off. The small attached outbuilding toward the left of the photo no longer exists. The extreme chimney sag is also obvious.

In the years leading up to 1925, the Mansfield House was not only under threat from encroaching development, but from time and neglect, as well. Photos from this period reveal a home that appears abandoned. It’s consumed by ivy and sporting many broken window panes. The massive chimney column had sagged to one side, pulling the frame about twenty-one degrees out of plumb, according to a later account by Mrs. Stivers. Mrs. Stivers described the house as being blackened by age, having never been painted. By contrast, an earlier photo, taken only in 1894, shows the Mansfield House and grounds in almost pristine condition:

Photo of the Mansfield House in 1894

A photo of the Mansfield House situated at its original location in 1894. From the Bradley Glass Slide Collection (photo courtesy of the Derby Historical Society).

A second article by Mrs. Stivers, published in the Evening Sentinel on February 12, 1926, and entitled “A New Lease of Life for the Mansfield House”, provides a fascinating and technically informative first-hand account of her effort to save and restore the home.

She reported how the house was straightened and set upon new sills, the former ones having rotted away. A small lot across the street, a remnant of the former Hotchkiss homestead and Hulls farm, was acquired, and a raised foundation and retaining wall built. Local mason Joseph Spinello carefully deconstructed the chimney column and fireplaces, making detailed drawings and cataloging all components for the painstaking reconstruction process that would take place later.

Mansfield House severely out of plumb

This old photo shows how severely racked the Mansfield House frame was by its sagging chimney column. Today, the carefully reconstructed chimney column stands atop a solid concrete footing and slab.

The entire house, without windows or doors, was then moved across the road and set on its new foundation, by veteran house mover Thomas Penders. Shortly thereafter, a severe storm hit the area, and a number of clapboards were torn from the Mansfield House exterior. This inspired the restoration team to weatherize the shell by by caulking and face-nailing all of the clapboards shut.

[ You might recall how, in a previous article of mine, "Water Can Be An Evil Enemy", I pondered who did this, and noted with some dismay that the clapboards hadn't been "stickered". Well, now I have my answer as to whom, and when. And I'm now more than happy to forgive the sticker oversight. They did a great job stabilizing and preserving my home. And concepts like back-ventilation and drainage plains weren't completely understood in those days, so I've no right to criticize what had been done. ]

Face nailed clapboards

Face nailed, but non-stickered, clapboards on the rear exterior wall.

Mrs. Stivers also answered my question about the origin of the first floor windows. In every photograph of the Mansfield House taken before its 1925-26 restoration, nearly all the first floor windows had 2/2 sashes, which had become popular in the late nineteenth century, as glass makers were than capable of creating larger panes. But the post-restoration Mansfield House consistently has 12/12 lights (save for the 6/6 attic and north garret windows) throughout.

As reported by Mrs. Stivers, Frank Barberi, a local electrician who wired the Mansfield House for the first time, as well as owner of the Josiah Smith House, on Main Street, was willing to supply his original 12/12 sashes to the Mansfield House, in exchange for newer windows (whether by “newer”, she meant the existing 2/2′s, is not clear). So the present day second floor 12/12s are original to the Mansfield House, while the first floor 12/12s are from the Smith House. My guess is the four 12/12 sashes I discovered stored in the Mansfield House attic came from the Smith House as well. They are in positively pristine condition.

Linen Single Drawback Festoons

Several of the first floor 12/12 sashes that had been acquired from the Josiah Smith House, Ansonia, Connecticut

Also noted by Mrs. Stivers was Emidio Natali, a local master carpenter and artist, who undertook the restoration of the entire interior of the Mansfield house. In this capacity, he carefully restored and refinished all of the original, 18th century woodwork and trim, choosing period-accurate colors for the final finishing. His selections of Indian red and gray green as primitive colors for much of the interior still persist today, albeit augmented in certain rooms with federal blue and forest green.

The Mansfield House restoration effort received considerable support and attention from those of its day. Many donated money and antique furnishings and treatments for use in the house, which was opened to the public as a museum, later that summer. The Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, known today as Historic New England (an organization of which I’m a member, and which has benefited me considerably in terms of restoration knowledge), donated $1000 to the Mansfield House Association, a considerable sum of money, especially back then.

Mansfield House at its new site on Jewett Street

Following its move and extensive restoration in 1925-26, the Mansfield House was in its best shape ever. Here, the house proudly sits at its new home site, finally with a coat of paint, restored windows, above-grade foundation, and a straightened frame and chimney, overlooking Jewett Street and its former Glebe.

Famed preservation architect J. Frederick Kelly, AIA, of New Haven, Connecticut, and author of numerous books on the architecture of early Connecticut homes, also visited the Mansfield House while the restoration effort was underway, and, in particular, lauded the efforts of mason Joseph Spinello and master carpenter Emidio Natali. According to Mrs. Stivers, he had proclaimed the entire project “a very fine piece of work.”

Epilogue

They say it takes a village to raise a child. In similar fashion, it usually takes an entire community to save one threatened historic structure. And often, that community is inspired to action by the efforts of a single, committed individual. This is precisely what happened in the case of Mabel P. Stivers and her resurrection of the Mansfield House, which otherwise surely would’ve been lost forever.

I personally owe a great debt of gratitude to her and her colleagues for what they accomplished, as should anyone else who considers Derby-Ansonia history a significant part of their heritage. Mabel was a hands-on, stand-up, preservationist-activist-author, and not simply an armchair historian. She’s a great inspiration to me in my own efforts — a model of how historic preservation ought to be done.

I believe a dedication to her memory deserves to be made, and permanently recorded at the Mansfield House. While precise details still need to be worked out, I’m currently targeting this for some time later this year — this year being the 86th anniversary of completion of the Mansfield House move and restoration.

Acknowledgement

Once again, many thanks go to my good friend Randal Ritter of the Derby Historical Society, for making me aware of the History Room at the Ansonia Public Library, and their extensive folder of Mansfield House photos, newspaper articles, and other written accounts.

About John Poole

My interests include historic homes, architectural preservation and restoration, improving the energy performance of old houses, and traditional timber frames.
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6 Responses to Mabel P. Stivers’ Resurrection of the Mansfield House

  1. John Poole says:

    I’d meant to include in this article the fact that, according to Mrs. Stivers, it was during the rebuilding of the chimney that the year “1672″ was discovered inscribed on one of the large beams somewhere in the vicinity of the chimney bay. This had lead some to claim that the Mansfield House was built in 1672. But 1672 is perhaps just a bit too early from the standpoint of the evolution of colonial architecture — saltboxes began to emerge more or less in the very late 1600s and early 1700′s, initially as conversions of older English-style homes. We know the house existed in 1736. Mrs. Stivers herself speculated the Mansfield House might’ve been built around 1720, an estimate that I agree with, from a purely architectural standpoint. Whether the Mansfield House is a conversion of an older, English-style home, or perhaps just incorporates some components from an older home, remains to be determined. All the more reason to get a dendrochronological survey done. Hopefully, sometime before the end of this year!

    • Stevie Romano says:

      Hi John…..from time to time I Google my great grandmother, just to see what comes up. Mabel Purdy Stivers is my mothers’, fathers’ mother. I have been trying to find out where she lived in Ansonia.It’s all so interesting.hope to hear from you.

      • John Poole says:

        Hi Stevie,

        I’m very glad you found the article and commented on it. It’s truly a privilege to hear from you!

        Your great grandmother lived in the David Humphreys House for several years prior to her death in 1930, according to this page on the Derby Historical Society’s website.

        I also recall seeing somewhere that she’d lived on North Street in Ansonia, but I don’t recall exactly where I’d read this. It might’ve been in one of the old Evening Sentinel articles.

        Although all of this was long before my time, I know a few people who knew your great grandmother, and others who didn’t know her personally, but still know a great deal about her life and historical contributions.

        So, if you have any questions, please feel free to post them here, or email them to me (see my contact page). And I’ll try to get answers for you.

        Best regards,
        John

        • Stevie Romano says:

          Thank you so much John…I will be back in touch with you….so very exciting……we do have many records on Mabel and her husband Francis…..sons Hobart and Edwin……have fun in your house…..

          • John Poole says:

            You’re very welcome, Stevie.

            Why don’t you set yourself up for an email subscription to this blog? That way, you’ll find out whenever something new is published.

            In the near future, I’ll be publishing quite a bit more about Mrs. Stivers and the Mansfield House.

            There’s a box near the top of the right hand column where you can subscribe by entering your email address, if you want to do so.

            ~John

  2. Stevie Romano says:

    I subscribed to the e-mail up dates and I would love to get in touch with people who knew her or knew of her life…….stay well with all this horrible weather….so looking forward to all of this information…..my daughter and I are planning a trip to Stonington, to gather more family info…We do have alot of documentation, but you can’t ever have enough….the life stories are so interesting……..talk to you soon…I don’t mind giving you my phone number and e-mail for any communication….

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