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Creative Possibility For Hartford Poet's Home

November 19, 2006

Even if we are able to move ahead on national park status and turn parts of Coltsville into a historic site something like the mills in Lowell, Mass., it is a huge undertaking that will require tens of millions of dollars and years of effort to bring to fruition. Might I, while reserving judgment on the Colt project, suggest a more modest proposal?

There is another, smaller site in Hartford that combines aspects of Samuel Colt and Mark Twain and that could fit very snuggly into Hartford's existing trove of cultural treasures such as the Wadsworth Atheneum, the Mark Twain House and the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center. I have in mind the poet, lawyer and insurance executive Wallace Stevens' house at 118 Westerly Terrace.

This residence belongs to the Episcopal Diocese of Hartford. But imagine it as not just a historic house museum, but as a literary center for contemporary innovative writing and for the consideration of the interstices of 20th-century literature and culture. What a wonderful added attraction to the crown of cultural treasures such a site could be!

I would argue, too, that unlike an entire national park site devoted to the huge topic of industrialization, such a smaller physical site is far more financially feasible and would not drain resources and energy from many other worthy needs that the capital city must address.

Although smaller in size and in necessary financial outlay, a Stevens site would be no less broad in scope than a Colt one. After the era of industrialization, insurance became the most important business in Hartford, and while heavy manufacturing has greatly declined in the area, insurance remains a vital part of the region's economic landscape. Stevens devoted his working life to the insurance industry.

On the art side of the intriguing equation that was his life, he loved his house and it figures importantly in his writing. In one letter from December 1932 he wrote: "We bought a house some time ago out on Westerly Terrace, which is a twig running off from Terry Road, which, you may remember, is a branch running off the main stem of Asylum Avenue. Without launching into any description of the house (which, I suppose, is very much like other houses), it is enough to say that we are delighted with it, although a little short of furniture."

And in a poem entitled "A Quiet Normal Life" he wrote: "It was here. This was the setting and the time / Of year. Here in his house and in his room, / In his chair, the most tranquil thought grew peaked / And the oldest and the warmest heart was cut / By gallant notions on the part of night."

Hartford has a number of 19th-century cultural sites. Instead of adding another from this period, let's consider that the 20th century is now history. Fairfield County will soon have its architect Philip Johnson house museum open, a 20th-century site. How about the Wallace Stevens Museum and Literary Center in Hartford?

I can already think of one important lesson Stevens' house can teach. While 118 Westerly Terrace is not a modest Cape Cod, neither is it a McMansion (or an Armsmear for that matter). Stevens' house reminds us that once upon a time in America, the income gap between executive and average employee was nothing like the disparate abyss that it is today.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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