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Stowe, Twain remain good Hartford neighbors

Email|Print| Text size + By Ellen Albanese
Globe Staff / April 15, 2007

HARTFORD -- One afternoon in 1876, Samuel Clemens crossed his yard to visit his neighbor Harriet Beecher Stowe. When he returned, his wife chided him for having gone out without a cravat.

Clemens, known to the world by his pen name, Mark Twain, promptly placed a tie on a tray and had his butler deliver it to Stowe with a note apologizing for his faux pas. Stowe replied immediately, quipping that Clemens had discovered a new principle -- right up there with Sir Isaac Newton's law of gravitation -- "that a man can call by instalments."

The anecdote, drawn from documents in the Stowe and Twain libraries, gives a glimpse into the relationship between these two famous authors, who shared so many interests and whose houses are but a few yards apart in a section of Hartford known as Nook Farm.

The houses, however, could not be more different. The Stowe house, where she spent the last 20 years of her life, is a modest Victorian cottage. It seems the home of a proper Victorian housewife, not the author of one of the most important literary works of the time, "Uncle Tom's Cabin," or "the little woman who wrote the book that started this Great War," as President Lincoln described Stowe when they met.

Twain's house is an ode to ostentation. The man who thumbed his nose at social customs in his later years -- he called the white suit he insisted on wearing year round his "don't-care-a-damn" suit -- was almost obsessive about showcasing his material success in the 19-room mansion he had built by architect Edward Tuckerman Potter, best known for his churches, and decorated by Louis Comfort Tiffany and his partners in Associated Artists.

Touring both houses makes for a full and fascinating day.

Begin with the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, or the house will seem dull after the eye candy of Twain's. The tour starts in the kitchen, a room Stowe designed for efficiency, adding such features as center island and under-counter flour bins. Before she wrote "Uncle Tom's Cabin," Stowe (1811-96) published articles and books about domestic issues; our tour guide called her the Martha Stewart of her time.

After the kitchen, Stowe's bedroom seems to best capture her persona, especially her love of nature and gardening. She enjoyed painting, and the walls are hung with her oils of flowers and fruit. One of the original snowbirds, she had a home near Jacksonville, Fla., and several paintings depict that house with its orange trees and jasmine. Her magazine articles about Florida and a novel, "Palmetto Leaves," helped popularize the state as a vacation destination. The bedroom also houses a large terrarium she designed and a leather medicine chest inscribed with her name and filled with remedies she concocted from homegrown herbs.

The visitors center offers a short film that puts the author and her work into historical perspective. Published in book form in 1852 (it first ran as a serial in an abolitionist newspaper), "Uncle Tom's Cabin" sold more than a million copies in the first year and was translated into more than 60 languages. Its success allowed Stowe to travel to Europe, and several of the items she collected there are on display in the dining room and parlor. There is also a collection of Uncle Tom memorabilia, from wallpaper to figurines to dishes to programs from local theater companies' dramatizations of the story.

Walk across the lawn to the sleek sandstone visitors center of the Mark Twain House and Museum, a visual foil to the ornate 1874 Picturesque Gothic Revival residence. Twain's aphorisms, embodying his wry humor, are carved into the walls: "When in doubt, tell the truth." And "Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest."

There is a short film by Ken Burns and a gallery where visitors can sit in comfortable chairs and listen through headphones to excerpts from Twain's books. Upstairs is a museum featuring art and decorative objects from artists of the time, including Tiffany and his design firm.

The tour begins in an incredibly ornate foyer. Every inch of wall and ceiling is decorated with silver and gilt stenciling meant to emulate inlaid mother-of-pearl. Rich wood molding across the ceiling creates large star shapes. From the center of the foyer, a stairway rises a dizzying three floors of rich, polished wood, drawing the eye to a star-shaped molding on the top ceiling and more silver inlay.

In the dining room, the wallpaper is embossed and painted to look like tooled leather, a trompe l'oeil. "The Clemenses didn't have quite enough money to use leather," our guide said.

There is also evidence of a man devoted to his family and friends. Carved into a fireplace in the library is the phrase "The ornament of a house is the friends who frequent it," a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson. Dominating the master bedroom on the second floor is a massive antique bed the Clemenses bought in Venice for $200 (at a time when their butler earned $350 a year). Clemens (1835-1910) and his wife, Olivia, so loved the ornate headboard, they put their pillows at the foot of the bed so they could admire the dancing cherubs. The room also features a stenciled ceiling and a beautiful blue-green marble fireplace, one of 11 in the house.

The third-floor billiard room was Clemens's escape. He wrote at a desk in the corner and often spread his manuscripts on the pool table. Our guide said, "This room is a demonstration of his true loves: smoking, drinking, and billiards."

An optional kitchen tour is cleverly designed to present life from a servant's point of view. Visitors gather at the bottom of the hill, where the river once ran and where the coachman would have been tending the horses and other animals. They then trudge up the hill and enter the house by the attached servants' quarters.

This compartment consists of a kitchen, social room, and butler's pantry. With its elegant curved glass-front cabinets and deep mahogany sink, the butler's pantry is a literal and figurative bridge between two social worlds.

Despite the difference in their ages , the two authors were of one mind when it came to the horror of slavery. In an article in Harper's New Monthly Magazine from October 1885, author George Parsons Lathrop recalls having dinner at the Clemens home, where Stowe was also a guest. "Among other things," he writes, "there was after-dinner talk of the days preceding the war, and of the underground railroad for escaping slaves."

Ellen Albanese can be contacted at ealbanese@globe.com.

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