The Butler Did it – Or Maybe it was the McCook…
Hartford (Google Maps Location)
December 7, 2006
With contribution from EdHill
[Note: The Scott mentioned below has become a friend. He was only doing his job.]
The Butler Did It. Or maybe the McCook. Or… Or perhaps uninsured 21-year-old Kia Sportage driver Wilfredo Sanchez. Yup, it was definitely Willy Sanchez. You see, that punk failed to notice the large yellow Victorian house in front of him on Hartford’s Main Street back in August 2002 and proceeded to drive his car into the living room of the oldest surviving house on Hartford’s Main Street. For full details on the tragic accident, and what is very most likely a better description of the Butler-McCook House than I’m about to provide, check this out. Needless to say, through hard work and many donations, the house museum is back to being whole and one would never know what happened 4 years ago.
Now that I’ve dispensed with what is, to me, the most interesting aspect of this particular museum, I suppose I have to talk about my visit. Intrepid sidekick EdHill had agreed to meet me at the Butler-McCook House around 6 after work. Not-so-intrepid third stringers Excitable Mike and RoseHill had both agreed to join us and had subsequently both opted out. So there we were again: Me and EdHill and a museum. We were not scared – though Ed did make time to down a beer across the street at venerable Hartford restaurant Peppercorn’s beforehand.
The Butler-McCook House and Garden Main Street History Center (the official name just rolls off the tongue) is an oasis of sorts. Just south of downtown and a few blocks past the Wadsworth Atheneum on Main street. Now if you’re familiar with Hartford you are saying, “Wait… There’s an over 200-year-old house there? Right near where I scored crack a few weeks ago?” Um, yes that’s right – but who are you and what is a crackhead doing reading this nerdy blog? (Note the beautiful irony of the John Adams quote here.)
The night Ed and I decided to go was an “Aetna First Thursday” event, which happens every month in Hartford. That meant that not only was the museum free, but there would be a delicious crudite and coffee spread as well. To top that off, I found free street parking (but Ed paid six bucks for some reason). Owing to the season, the house was decked out in Christmas finery and owing to the special event night, a group of women carollers seranaded us throughout the night. The scene was set for a perfectly lovely museum outing.
There are two distinct sections of the Butler-McCook House; the house itself; replete with all the family possessions from throughout the generations and the “Main Street History Center” part which was a small museum about the history of the local area. Visitors are shluffled to the history center first. Once an addition to the original house, this section walks visitors through the 300 or so years of Hartford history, particularly the Main Street-leading-to-the South End area. The problem with the 10 or so exhibits is that there are simply too many words. Now, any MuseumQuest reader is laughing at my hypocrisy right now and I accept that. There were several historic maps and photos of the area and more than enough anecdotes from days gone by.
Words, words, words…
And I like all that stuff – really, I do. It’s all the geneology and family histories and stuff like that I don’t care about. Even the backgrounds on the house’s namesakes, Sarah Ledyard Butler and her son James McCook who took the house over were pretty boring. It is amazing that the house has survived in it’s original state and spot after 200 years of commercial and other residential development. And it’s cool to scan the exhibits which chrionicle the changes of the environs from 1732 to present. Now that I think and write about the place, I’ve come to realize that I liked the History Center.
There was one other (temporary) exhibit, “Unbuilt Hartford,” which consisted of nothing more than fanciful artist renderings of absurdly ostentatious buildings that never got built in Hartford. I think I was supposed to marvel at the overblown zeal of the architects and wonder what “could have been” in our fair capital city. Blech… These monstrosities were just way too over-the-top for my tastes; no need for massive ornate castles in central Connecticut. Ed, on the other hand, enjoyed the exhibit and the cheese that happened to be nearby. I found the exhibit silly (though I enjoyed the cheese as well); I can guarantee that most of those things were never meant to be built at all – they were merely goofy dreams of goofy 19th century architects. Ed, have you a rebuttal?
You obviously were too focused on the delightful cheese plate nearby to get a good look. One of the main pictures was the original design of Trinity College, which looked like Hogwarts. The only reason it wasn’t completed was the silly Muggles in charge didn’t have enough money. That was the story with most of them. it was all just a lack of funds. Granted the losing design for the Civil War Arch was a little ostentatious and deserved to lose. However a lot of the other ones were really nice ornate Victorian homes. The fact that they were accompanied by a delightfully piquant Monterey Jack just made it that much more fascinating.
Ed’s boy Scott explains to him that Trinity College was supposed to be straight out of a romance novel.
Other that that the museum was pretty interesting. The “Main Street History” addition to the museum was so overflowing with stuff to read you need a good few hours to really take it all in. It was also fun to run into my cousin Nancy with her kids. The awkward pause after she asked me what I was doing there gave me enough time to come up with a better excuse other than “Me and my friend are going to every museum in the state and blogging about it!”. I believe I told her of my fondness for Christmas carols and free cheese.
“Another Octave” sang carols throughout our visit.
Once done with the History Center, we crossed the threshold in the restored house. The chorale group and their fans occupied the main living room, so I never got a real good look at that room. This was also the room that was a temporary garage for Mr. Sanchez’s car a few years ago too. Across the foyer and into the other living room, we found a quaint Christmas scene of about 100 years ago. We also found a lovely guide there who told us we could not take pictures in the house. Hm. Really? You see, I had already been through the house earlier looking for Ed – and had snapped all the shots you see here. But this lady was tough and we never got a shot of the little Christmas tree with the orginal ornaments from back in the day.
In fact, everything in the house was original to the McCooks and/or Butlers. The problem is that the vast majority of it is, well, it’s kind of boring. Beds, dressers, highboys, candle holders, chairs. Upstairs, the house looked like my grandparent’s house from maybe fifty years ago. There was Mama and Papa’s room and the bed where all the kids were born. There was Auntie the housekeeper’s room with her… um… her bed and stuff. Ooooh, the kids’ room with a… er… a dresser. And lo! The attic goods from Reverand McCook’s college days at Trinity as well as his military paraphenalia. I suppose I should get used to this sort of thing though, as I expect to see my fair share of highboys and bedroom furniture from the 19th century.
It was actually pretty interesting, to be honest. There were audio recordings of Ms. Frances McCook who lived in the house until 1971. Once I got over the fact that she sounded like a whiny man, her stories were fairly interesting – about the Blizzard of 1888 and about the hired Irish help, for example. She also pronounced “mama” and “papa” with the stress on the second syllables in each word, which we plan on teaching our son to do. Oh, and there was a McCook kid named Shed along the way at some point, which stuck in my brain.
I listened to a guide tell some other visitors about Frances and found her to be a rather amazing woman. Here she was, alone and old in this large historic house on Main Street in urban Hartford, and apparently going outside and checking up on her less fortunate neighbors. Frances even taught herself Spanish in her 80′s so she could speak with the large Hispanic immigrant population in South Hartford.
In my excitement to get across the hall to the antique toy display, I conked my head on the low hall light which burnt out the bulb. 3 musty bedrooms, a toy display, and an attic display finished out the upstairs, so we returned back down to the ground floor. There are some cool Asian paintings and authentic swords in the main hallway on the way back to the two most interesting rooms in the house.
One was the dining room, set up to replicate an old school Christmas dinner. But again, it really didn’t look much different from my grandparent’s holiday dining room. Though the details were quite impressive, right down to the tiny salt dispensers and plum pudding. We were told the traditional soup contained calf head, lemon, and egg. Admittedly, that was absent from my family dinners. The room also contains a working Edison original music box and an old Cheney clock. (CTMQ fans, get used to the name Cheney in these pages.)
Crossing the hall, we entered Reverand James McCook’s library. In it were some old Egyptian artifacts as well as some really cool Japanese armor from over 100 years ago. Here, a guide explained to us that Reverand McCook (Frances’s father) was an Episcopal minister, a language professor at Trinity, and a so-called “Sociological Investigator.” He was one of the first Americans who truly tried to understand and solve the nation’s homeless problem – of the late 19th century. By all accounts he failed miserably (as one can see peering out his study window on any given night) but the man was honest and well-intended.
We slowly made our way back to the foyer, soaking in the garish wallpaper for the last time. Once there, Ed bought a mug and I smoothly asked Scott for permission to take a picture of the Christmas tree room. He mulled it over for a few seconds and let us down easy. You see, the curator would need to give me permission to do so, as they only allow media to snap shots of the authentic pieces. Well there you go! If this isn’t media I don’t know what is!
The now traditional “Thumbs up” shot photoshopped untraditionally. (Note Ed’s clutch and my nerdy pen/paper in my shirt pocket.)
Speaking of Photoshopping… I had this great idea to go dressed as a butler and Ed would come as a cook. Short of that, we’d take pictures of each other in the garden and make it look funny. We never found a good ‘shoppable’ cook picture though.
Ed learning about Main Street history with 4 of the younger patrons that night.
When you make a sign for your store, try to remember how many letters are in the word “nutmegs” before you start painting. Especially in the capital of the “Nutmeg State.”
And I quote: “Take a picture of me with these spoons. I like spoons.” Seriously.
Go ahead. Play the game. You can read.
Now guess. What kind of shop would have had this sign back in the day? Answer is in the “curious” links below.
Mama and Papa’s room. Yup, they had a bed. And a dresser.
Old Christmas cards. A few of you will be lucky enough to receive one of these from me! Shhhhhh, don’t tell Scott.
True story: I mulled over eating one of these peppermint candies for a good 45 seconds which is an eternity when you’re alone. I didn’t and still don’t know if they are antiques or not.
The dining room. Yup, they had a table. And some chairs.
I’m not sure who these women are; the hired help or some daughters. But what is important here is if you click on the picture and take a close look at the lady on the right you realize she must have been pretty homely. Because you KNOW the artist did his best.
The actual lightbulb that burnt out when I bumped it with my head. Now you know for when YOU visit the Butler-McCook House and Garden Main Street History Center.
Cost: $5.00 Adults, $2.00 Children
Hours: Wed-Sat, 10-4, Sun 1-4, Open to 8 1st Thu of every month
Food & Drink? Wine bar and upscale Italian at Peppercorn’s across the street
Children? Only the truly nerdy
You’ll like it if: You are a Hartford history buff
You won’t like it if: You’re old and it looks just like your own house
Freebies: Cheese and crackers!
For the Curious
A far better description of the family and the museum
The Antiquarian and Landmarks Society who own the house.
Why are we Connecticut people called Nutmeggers anyway?
Irish immigrant servant history
Here is the answer to the question about that symbol
The most famous thing about Trinity College