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Why Saving Twain's House Was A Tough Sell


May 17, 2009

Eighty years ago, as The Courant and a small group of Hartford residents struggled to raise enough money to save Mark Twain's house from being remodeled into a funeral parlor or demolished to make way for an apartment house, a prominent Hartford woman let the supporters know why their campaign wasn't going very well.

"A considerable percentage of the persons who might contribute neither particularly liked Mr. Clemens, nor approved certain of his books," said a letter to the editor from Faith Wadsworth Collins, whose middle name indicated she wasn't your everyday Collins.

"Moreover," Mrs. Wadsworth Collins continued, "as he was neither a native of Hartford, nor after living there for some time, cared to make it his permanent residence, many consider the proposed memorial, as such, not incumbent upon the city."

It took time to overcome such arch opposition, but the residents who did approve of Mr. Clemens' books prevailed and gave the city the National Landmark it has today.

It is true that Samuel L. Clemens was a Hartford property owner for only 29 years and a resident for about 20, which made him little more than a transient to Mrs. Wadsworth Collins, but he raised his family here, wrote many of his most famous works here and, in his 74 years, lived at 351 Farmington Ave. longer than any other place.

Clemens built the house in 1874 and sold it in 1903 to Richard Bissell, the president of the Hartford Fire Insurance Co. The Bissell family lived in the house until 1917, when it was rented to the Kingswood School. In 1921, the school moved out and the house was sold for $55,000 to a real estate broker and ominously, to "a firm of undertakers." By 1926, two new owners were planning to tear down the home and adjacent carriage house to build an apartment house.

The home survived despite a tepid response from what was then the wealthiest city, per capita, in the United States. An on-again, off-again fundraising effort to turn the architectural jewel into a memorial of some sort had been launched by The Courant a decade after Twain's death in 1910. The fund drive was resuscitated in 1927 by Katharine Seymour Day, the grandniece of novelist and Twain neighbor Harriet Beecher Stowe, and limped to a semi-successful conclusion in May 1929 when half of the original $200,000 goal was reached.

"A professional campaign man from the west," as The Courant described a practitioner of the new occupation of professional fundraiser, was employed in the summer of 1928 and produced the major campaign document, a pamphlet that included the endorsement of President Calvin Coolidge sort of.

The man from the west couldn't get Coolidge to issue a presidential proclamation, so he dusted off an earlier statement from the first fund drive when Gov. Coolidge of Massachusetts was induced to send an encouraging telegram. The telegram, reproduced with the telegraphic stops, had a Coolidge twang:

"The homes of Longfellow and Whittier are intact and the home of Mark Twain should remain with these landmarks, so the criticism that America worships nothing but money will not come true (period) Mark Twain's home is more precious than rubies (period) When the public loses for it the appreciation and revenue which are its due, the decline of America will have begun (period)"

"A spacious quarter on the first floor," the pamphlet reported, was to be occupied by a branch of the Hartford Public Library. "There would also be a Tom Sawyer room on the second floor. Boys will be interested in such a room. Also, our plan includes a room of special interest to girls, dedicated to Mark Twain's girl characters." The library's rent would be $100 a month.

By the time the pamphlet was distributed in July 1928, the fund drive had progressed from flat to anemic. "To say the campaign to buy and preserve the Mark Twain home has not aroused much enthusiasm is to state a fact that everybody knows," said a gloomy Courant editorial, which also reported and debunked "a whispering campaign that Mark Twain never liked Hartford anyway."

Others were saying it was the other way around: Hartford never liked Twain. "Good people in Hartford tried to save Mark Twain's home before, but old timers up there did not like Twain's wise cracks about Connecticut Yankees when he lived in Hartford," said an editorial in The Los Angeles Daily News. "If Hartford, being the wealthiest city of its size in the United States, does not save Twain's home this time, it should hang its head in shame."

A famous actor of the day, William Faversham, in town to appear at the Parsons Theatre, called it "a scandal that Hartford business institutions or wealthy men of this city have not expended a little cigarette money to buy and preserve the Mark Twain homestead."

It is not known if Faverhsam ever worked in this town again.

By the end of 1928, the Day committee decided to reduce the original $200,000 goal by half and purchase the home for $155,000 with a $55,000 mortgage assumed by a state-chartered Mark Twain Library and Memorial Commission. The more modest goal was finally reached the following spring when an anonymous member of the committee came up with $25,000, which, along with $20,000 from four other donors, accounted for nearly half of the donations. Katharine Day gave $5,000.

"We should like to feel that credit for this is due to the spontaneous public spirit of the city, but truth compels the admission that it belongs largely to a few earnest men and women," said a final Courant editorial. "Those who held back, those who have regarded the undertaking with skepticism, should now come forward and see to it that the property becomes an unencumbered public gift."

The Depression and a world war would postpone that day for more than a quarter-century, and the house continued to be subsidized by rent from the library and the apartments through the 1950s.

Eventually it became the museum its original backers had hoped for, though the financial struggles continued. In the past decade, construction of the Mark Twain Museum created what could have been a crippling debt, had it not been for the generous response of individuals, corporations and foundations from Connecticut and across the nation.

Today, with a much smaller staff and a lower but still substantial debt, the Mark Twain House attracts about 68,000 visitors annually, a third from Connecticut, a third from the other 49 states and a third from the rest of the world.

On the eve of the centennial of Twain's death and the 175th anniversary of his birth next year, the meticulously restored Twain House stands in all its Gilded Age glory, a monument to Connecticut's most celebrated citizen and to the small group of Hartford residents who determined his house was worth preserving despite the disapproval of those who didn't like Mr. Clemens or "certain of his books."

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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