Historic Structures

Lockwood-Mathews Mansion, Norwalk Connecticut

Date added: April 28, 2011 Categories: Connecticut House Mansion Second Empire

Built for LeGrand Lockwood, who died in 1872. Sold to Charles D. Mathews in 1876. In the Mathews family until 1939 when it was leased to the City of Norwalk. Purchased by the city in 1941.

LeGrand Lockwood (1820-72)- for whom the house was built, was a native son of Norwalk whose family had been associated with the development of the town since 1645. He was the head of one of Wall Street's best known and most reputable brokerage concerns. Lockwood had made a fortune in stocks and government bonds during the Civil War; he sunk part of these funds into the purchase of land and the construction of his million dollar mansion in South Norwalk. From there he could easily keep in touch with his New York office, the Stock Exchange, and the several other enterprises in which he had an interest, Lockwood was active in the development of early car lines in Norwalk (1862) and New York; he was on the board of several railroad companies and the Pacific Mail Steamship Company. The tracks of the Danbury Norwalk Railroad, of which he was Vice President, ran directly to the east of his property. It was he who floated a $2,000,000 bond issue for the New York, New Haven and Hartford line at a crucial moment of its history. In short, LeGrand Lockwood was one of a new breed of men who emerged in this period-the Wall Street tycoon and railroad man. He was Norwalk's first millionaire and, while he was not in the same category as Cornelius Vanderbilt, he possessed certain qualities which the elder man lacked. Lockwood was, according to all accounts;, a man of considerable personal charm, well liked by all who knew him; he was generous, public spirited and had the reputation of being a man of his word-he was a gentleman. Unlike Jay Cooke, the famous financier of the Civil War to whom he was distantly related, Lockwood had enjoyed the benefits of a good education, extensive travel abroad, and cultivated the role of a lover and patron of the arts and sciences.

Both as Norwalk's first millionaire and as a man of "taste" Lockwood must have felt a certain obligation, architecturally speaking, towards the town of his birth. Quite understandably, the house Lienau designed for him was no picturesque cottage retreat. It was a country mansion in the grand manner, destined to be the showplace of the community. Particular mention was made of the house in an article in the New York Times of August 5, 1867, describing the fine residences of Norwalk:

One of these, now in the course of erection by Mr. Le Grand Lockwood....will cost, with the grounds, nearly two millions of dollars, and when completed, will stand with scarcely a rival in the United States. The designs were furnished by an eminent European architect,who has planned many of the palatial residences beyond the great pond.

The mistaken attribution to Lienau of the design of great mansions abroad is easily explained by the conscious aping of the French chateau tradition in the Lockwood mansion, a point to which we shall return. The passage is quoted here primarily for two reasons: one, it was useful in dating the house (the sources are contradictory and the Lienau drawings at Avery Library are undated); two, for its statement regarding the cost and relative quality of the house.

First, the date of the mansion. We know that Lockwood purchased the most important parcels of land which constituted Elm Park, as the estate was called, between November 1863 and March of the following year, rounding it out with purchases in 1865. We may assume that the plans for the building were either furnished before Lienau's trip to Europe in the spring of 1864 (one writer maintains that construction began that spring) or following his return, in which case the start of construction would probably have been delayed until the spring of 1865. According to tradition, the Lockwoods occupied the gate lodge while awaiting completion of the mansion. This is substantiated by the listing of LeGrand Lockwood, Jr., in Connecticut in the New York directories of 1866/67. According to the same sources, LeGrand Lockwood, Sr., moved from New York to Connecticut only in 1868, thus corroborating the Times article above which described the house as "in the course of erection" the summer before. A date of I864/65 to 1868 would therefore cover the actual dates of construction of the various buildings on the estate, gate lodge, gardener's cottage, main house, stables, carriage house, greenhouses, etc. If this seems a long time, we should remember that much of the material for house was imported from Europe; Lockwood is supposed to have travelled far and wide in search of materials for his house, Egyptian porphyry, Florentine marble carved to order in Italy, the rarest and best of domestic and imported woods beautifully inlaid, huge mantels rich with carving- these were mere details of interior decoration which Indicate the recherche quality of planning and design which both the client and architect put into the house. Consider, moreover, that the house contained some nineteen bedrooms (including servants' rooms) on the second floor alone, that it had fourteen bathrooms and twelve water closets (unheard of in those days even for a family with a half dozen children!); a picture gallery, not one but two connecting billiard rooms, a private theatre in the attic and a bowling alley in the basement. This descendant of the Puritans was assuredly no ascetic, judging by the capacity of the wine cellar! The house was heated by two huge marine boilers in the basement, now walled up; water was supplied by a private spring located at some distance from the house and piped into a 2,000 gallon tank on the fourth story of the house. An annunciator at the kitchen door had twenty-three bells connecting with all the principal rooms. There was a burglar alarm connected to every window and door on the first two floors and a fire and burglar proof vault for silver next to the dining room.

This fabulous house, described by one writer as a "sumptuous and striking example of architectural Invention", was built like a fortress. The outer walls rest on concrete foundations three feet thick; the basement, entirely vaulted with brick arches, recalls North German traditions which Lienau also used In the house he built for his brother Michael In 1872 in Utersen and later advocated as an excellent method of fire proofing. The walls were double; The outer of granite slabs twenty inches thick, the inner of eight inch thick brick with an air chamber of four inches between. The exterior granite facing, finely cut, here and there shows signs of weathering. A rather ponderous porte cochere with LeGrand's initials worked into the keystone in heraldic fashion leads into the house. The mansion then builds up gradually behind low flanking wings and high central gable to a mansard roof finished off with an iron balustrade of delicate Neo-Grec design. The overall impression is decidedly reminiscent of the French Renaissance chateau tradition which both Lienau and his client must have known at first hand and which was promoted by recent French publications and restoration projects.

A preliminary study for the house, to modern eyes a far better design than the one finally adopted, makes clear the close relationship to French tradition. The mansard roofs, dormer windows placed immediately above the cornice line, the emphasis upon corner quoining, the tall chimneys decorated with Lienau's favorite bull's eye panels (replaced in the executed design by banded chimneys), the effort to make a balanced composition in spite of unavoidable asymmetries-these are all obviously French in origin. In the working drawings certain significant changes were made, presumably at Lockwood's request: note the raising of the mansard to make room for a fourth story, the elaboration of the pediments capping the second story dormers and the increased use of incised ornamentation on the dormers and porte cochere. These changes bring to the building a certain top-heaviness-less readily apparent in photographs than in the actual building-and a fussy quality which relates it more closely to High Victorian taste. The conflict between Lockwood's tendencies toward monumentalization and display and Lienau's simpler, more classical tendencies results in a building which cannot be cited as an altogether successful example of eclectic design. There is a certain overelaboration, a coarseness in detailing (also apparent in the interior), a lack of subordination of parts to the whole which again runs counter to modern critical standards, but was typical of the aesthetic of its own period. One unusual motif, for which no exact parallels can be found, deserves mention: the introduction of a strongly projecting horizontal cornice in the gable immediately above the second story window. This extremely mannerist device, whereby the pedimental scrollwork is disengaged completely from the window of which it is ostensibly a part, repeated in other parts of the house and in the gardener's cottage, had been introduced by Lienau years earlier in the Kane villa. Similar motifs are found occasionally in French 17th century work where, however, they are still used functionally. One wonders if the segmentalization of the gable, reflected also in the transformation of the functional window lintel into a decorative horizontal band joining with the surround, may not ultimately reflect the influence of traditional North European (particularly North German: and Danish) gable treatments.

Other features of the exterior deserve mention as interesting examples of the amalgum of European and American traditions. The porch encircling the southern side of the mansion is one of its most effective features and stems, of course, from American, not French, traditions. The charming turret capping the octagonal oriel at the southeast corner may call to mind contemporary published French work where, however, even in Gothicizing houses, turrets were generally used in pairs to bring symmetry and focus to the facade rather than as a single picturesque accent as in the Norwalk house. In this respect Lienau again is closer to American traditions of the 1840s and 50s best illustrated by A. J. Davis' work, though one can also point to early French traditions of aSymmetry, as in the turreted chateaux published by Victor Petit in Chateaux de France du XVIe siecles (c1855).

Interiors such as those of the Lockwood mansion provide palpable proof that the extravagant living standards we generally associate with the 80s and 90s were merely refinements of tastes acquired much earlier. The vestibule sets the tone. It is large, cold and impressive; the floor is marble, it has corner niches for marble statues, and the ceiling, originally frescoed, is supported by four columns of highly polished heavily mottled Florentine marble on porphery bases. A heavy black walnut mantel with a marble fireplace, on the left, reaches almost to the ceiling. This vestibule leads into the monumental central court whose plan has already been discussed; its parquet floor, now covered over, was inlaid with five different kinds of wood in an intricate abstract design oddly reminiscent of linoleum patterns of the 1920s and 30s, The grand staircase to the left, whose dramatic sweep was perhaps unparalleled in American domestic architecture of the period, was executed in black walnut and rosewood inlaid with satinwood. It leads up to the second story gallery which encircles the court and affords easy access to all the bedroom suites; the balusters of the gallery, before alterations made by the second owner of the house, were black walnut and bronze; the railing was covered with scarlet plush supported by gilded standards.

Returning to the ground floor, the rooms, counterclockwise, were as follows: first a large and pleasant library in black walnut opening onto a tiled conservatory; then the music room, its woodwork of birds-eye maple and rosewood, with frescoed ceilings and side walls, gilded moldings, elaborately draped windows, French furniture, wonderful plush ottoman and fancy candelabra; finally the grand salon, with woodwork of rosewood inlaid with boxwood, ebony and Lebanon cedar, gilded moldings, frescoed ceiling, Louis XV furniture, and charming little oriel in the turret which served as a card room. The dining room, in the center of the house directly opposite the entrance, is with the library the best preserved room on the ground floor, here we can still see the dark oak, walnut and brazilwood wainscotting, the huge mantels and sideboards so popular before the Eastlakian Revolution, "inconceivably ponderous monuments to stability." In sum, the interiors of the Lockwood mansion are probably the finest and the best preserved of their kind in the United States. Each of the upstairs bedrooms was originally decorated and frescoed in a different style (e.g., Louis XV, Morish, etc.). All the bedroom suites were furnished with elaborate dressing rooms fitted out with every convenience that ingenuity can suggest or the most generous expenditure procure. Even the bathroom fixtures are interesting: each washstand-of marble, of course-had its own drinking fountain in addition to hot and cold running water. Returning downstairs once again, note to the left of the plan the two billiard rooms, forty-five feet in length, with adjoining wash room and a lunch room located under the grand staircase. Incidentally, the kitchen facilities in the rear were evidently extended in the course of construction. The pantry and laundry wing, polygonal in shape and capped on the exterior by a picturesque Turret, were not a feature of the original working drawings.

On September 24, 1869, "Black Friday" the bottom dropped out of the market. Lockwood, along with many others, was ruined. But Monday morning,, so the story goes, he was back in Wall Street. The first thing he did was turn over his house, which he owned free and clear, to his creditors. A few months later he was able to regain title to Elm Park which he then mortgaged heavily-for some $400,000- to the Lake Shore Railroad of which he was very conveniently the Treasurer. But legend says that he never really got over Black Friday. He died of pneumonia on February 24. 1872. The New York Stock Exchange closed for the day of his funeral.

In 1873, following the panic of that year, the house with its thirty-four acres of land was put up for sale (as was also Cooke's Ogonta) and advertised as "the perfect home for a gentleman of taste, culture, and fortune, who is able to avail himself of this singular opportunity to obtain a princely mansion at the cost of a moderate establishment." After a lengthy description the advertisement concluded that it was "perhaps, the most perfect and elegant mansion in America." The estate, in addition to the house, contained a gate lodge, gardener's cottage, stables and stalls for twelve horses, carriage house for twenty vehicles, an ice house, barn, greenhouses and extensive gardens. But this was 1873 ... The house remained on the market for three years before it found a buyer in the person of Charles D. Mathews, carbonated beverage king of New York, who purchased it for a fraction of its original cost (sums of $60,000 and $90,000 are variously reported). The estate remained in the hands of the Mathews family until 1939 when it was leased to the City of Norwalk and finally purchased by the city in 1941 for $175,000 for a park and conversion to civic use. In September 1951 the mansion was the scene of Norwalk's Tricentennial celebration. Recently the mansion was threatened by the new Connecticut Throughway; the pike was rerouted and demolition averted through joint action of the D.A.R., the Society for the Preservation of the Antiquities of Norwalk, and the former mayor of Norwalk, Mr. Irving C. Freese. Although no action has yet been taken, plans are still under consideration for the conversion of the building to a city hall or community center for the city of Norwalk. NOTE the above was written in the 1940s by Ellen Weill Kramer