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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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. ]
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.