Monday, August 17, 2015

A House with History!

There sits a house on Round Hill Road in Greenwich, 30 Round Hill Road to be exact, with a fascinating history, a house that has been home to many interesting and accomplished residents.
John Henry Twachtman, oil on canvas

Our guide into the history of this house is John E. Nelson, who in March 2014 was interviewed by Constance B. Gibb for the Greenwich Oral History Project.

In the early 1960s there was always a Porsche parked in the driveway of this house, which caught the attention of Porsche-lover John Nelson every time he drove by. Nelson, a former maritime lawyer with Burlingham Underwood & Lord, first laid eyes on the home, known by locals as “the Twachtman House,” somewhere around 1964. As he describes it:

I drove down that dirt path… and looked north to see the
full façade of the house. I felt like I was discovering Atlantis.

It was so beautiful. I can see it in my mind’s eye to this day,
the afternoon sun about four o’clock on an October afternoon
coming across the balustrades, all of the grape arbor with the
Stanford White portico…I was simply blown away.

In fact, Nelson was so taken with the house, at the first opportunity, he bought it.

Situated on a manmade pond, which never would have been brought into existence under Greenwich’s current wetlands regulations, the house has undergone renovations and small expansions over the years, and yet still retains its original character and charm. Beyond the house one could find terraces, pastures, an old barn, a portico and Horseneck Brook—a true playground for the children who have grown up there over the years.

Nelson was not the first to fall in love with this home, which has captivated and housed the likes of Jim Henson[1] and local, late-1800s American Impressionist artist John Henry Twachtman. 

The artist, John Henry Twachtman, courtesy of the National Park Service, Weir Farm

One day, a full eight decades before Mr. Nelson’s excursion down that small dirt path, John Henry Twachtman was out on an excursion of his own, fishing with his son in Horseneck Brook, in what was then known as the Hang Root[2] section of Greenwich. After a short walk through the cut and up a small hill, Twachtman first laid eyes upon the house now addressed at 30 Round Hill Road. “This is it,” he exclaimed, “this is the house.”

Twachtman lived in that house with his wife, Martha Scudder Twachtman, and five children from 1888 until his death in 1902. During his time there, he was an active member of the Cos Cob Impressionist Art Community, painting some notable paintings of the shore and of the Bush-Holley House. It is said though, that some of his best paintings were those he did at and of his own home; his unique ability to capture the light, the trees and the fields just as everything was gives viewers a real sense of the essence of life that surrounded him as he worked.

Other painters in the Cos Cob painting community took inspiration from the house and grounds as well, with other works being painted there by notable artists such as Childe Hassam, J. Alden Weir, and Theodore Robinson.

In 1971, John Nelson and his then wife, Emily, had made plans to move from their home in New York City to Greenwich.  After seeing 50 or 60 homes with their real estate agent, they were finally ready to put in an offer on a nice Colonial in Cos Cob.  But, as fate would have it, something gave John a pause, and after viewing nearly 60 houses, John opened up to his agent and expressed his desire for more unique and artsy, one-of-a-kind type home.

In what can only be described as fate, John and Emily Nelson soon found themselves face to face with Jim and Jane Henson, the then owners of the Twachtman House—or “the Porsche House” as it had always lovingly been referred to by the Nelsons since John’s days of cruising by in the early 60s. After a hilarious mix-up, which involved John Nelson unknowingly trying to kidnap Heather Henson, a six-month old baby whom he believed to be his own six-month old daughter, Heather Nelson, a handshake deal for the home was made and fate was sealed. The Nelsons closed on the house and moved in that October.

As Nelson recounts, when he took over the Twachtman house from Jim Henson, the eccentricities and playful humor of the man (Henson) were reflected in the home which had housed him, his wife and his five children from 1963-1971.   There was a puppet theater in the living room, a swirled mirrored decoration in the bathroom and an above ground pool out back. The upstairs shower leaked water that came through the kitchen ceiling, so one could always find a bucket to catch the water doubling as the centerpiece for the kitchen table as the family of seven gathered around to eat. But even after moving from Round Hill Road, Jim Henson remained connected to the home through his ongoing friendship with the Nelsons.

Connection is a theme that runs throughout the history of this house.  Twachtman felt it that day fishing with his son. John Nelson felt it that perfect autumn afternoon back in October of ’64. Even ten years later at a dinner party in the city, Nelson found himself next to Cora Weir Burlingham, daughter of J. Alden Weir, who vividly recounted her connection to the house through her vivid memories as a young girl playing with the Twachtman children at their home.

Whether it be called the Twachtman House, the Porsche House or simply the house at 30 Round Hill Road, this home has provided shelter, inspiration, and has given its owners a real sense of pride. 

As John Nelson puts it: “I consider that I’m a trustee of this house. It’s just [on] my watch right now.”

[1] Jim Henson  (James Maury Henson, 1936-1990) had a varied career, but possibly is best-known as the creator of the “Muppets”—large puppet characters used in the PBS children’s show “Sesame Street,” which was launched in 1970, and later, the popular TV series for adults, “The Muppet Show.” His best-known Muppets are Kermit the Frog, Big Bird, and Miss Piggy.

[2] Hang Root—Nils Kerschus, a researcher at the Greenwich Historical Society, identifies Hang Root as a small community located between Round Hill Road and Lake Avenue, where Round Hill Road crosses Horseneck Brook. The inhabitants were African-American; most were unskilled day laborers; one operated a small farm. Twachtman (who was white) purchased one of the small houses late in the 19th century, and subsequently rented it to another white man, who, like Twachtman, was an artist. The African-American residents gradually sold their properties, and the black community disappeared.

Prepared by Erin E. Adams, Greenwich Oral History Project volunteer

Constance B. Gibb's interview of John E. Nelson, "The Twachtman House," March 2014, is available through the Greenwich Oral History Project office located on the lower level of the Greenwich library or in the reference area on the first floor.

For additional information pertaining to the early Black settlement in Greenwich known as Hang Root, please contact Nils Kerschus, researcher at the Greenwich Historical Society: