Apr 30, 2013
04:32 PMConnecticut Today
The Harriet Beecher Stowe House: Connecticut's Newest National Historic Landmark
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Harriet Beecher Stowe once wrote, "When you get into a tight place and everything goes against you until it seems that you cannot hold on for a minute longer, never give up then, for that is just the place and time when the tide will turn." After 45 years as a public historic attraction, Stowe's cottage-style Hartford home — the heart of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, where the author lived from 1873 until her death in 1896 — has finally won federal recognition as a National Historic Landmark (NHL), a designation jointly awarded and announced by the U.S. Department of the Interior and the National Park Service on March 11.
What took so long? After all, no one would dispute that Stowe herself — author not only of the influential 1852 antislavery masterwork Uncle Tom's Cabin, but more than 30 other books that addressed such controversial topics as religious reform and gender roles — fails to live up to the standard of "historic significance" set for recipients of NHL recognition. The current list of honorees includes 2,500 buildings, sites, structures and objects nationwide (61 of these in Connecticut). The Hartford home of Stowe's next-door neighbor Mark Twain won NHL status in 1962, just two years after the National Historic Landmark program's creation.
It turns out that the delay was due to a technicality. Says Stowe Center Director of Marketing Mary Ellen White, "There had been a rule that only one historic home per writer could win NHL designation." There are currently three existing historic houses that Stowe lived in, including those in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Brunswick, Maine. The latter — located on the campus of Bowdoin College where Stowe's husband, Calvin, taught theology, and the home where she wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin — had already won NHL recognition in 1962. That home is not open to the public. "We decided our exemption from consideration just wasn't right," says White. "With the leadership of Connecticut's Historic Preservation Office, we got the NHL powers-that-be to say, 'You're right, this should not be.'"
Upon winning that acknowledgement, the Stowe Center still had to submit to the rigorous process required for NHL consideration. A formal application had to be prepared by an outside consultant justifying the architectural and historic significance of Stowe's Hartford house, and that application verified by architectural historians. The National Historic Landmark Advisory Committee then paid a site visit to the center and combed through its records about the house, and Stowe Center Executive Director Katherine D. Kane testified before this committee in Washington, D.C. "We got tremendous support from our federal delegation," says White — U.S. Sens. Joe Lieberman and Richard Blumenthal, and U.S. Rep. John Larsen. Ultimately, the NHL made its recommendation to Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, who was responsible for the final decision.
"As a public statement of the importance of our site, this has great prestige value for the Stowe Center," says White. "It's something we can tout to our funders, donors and members, and celebrate at our next annual meeting May 14. I know that in this round, the NHL committee wanted to award sites that represent the full span of our historic past. We like to think we've been in the forefront of museums that stress the connection between past and present." Visitors to the center can tour not only the author's home, but also its historic gardens and the home of Katharine Seymour Day (Stowe's grandniece and the founder of the Stowe Center), which now houses the center's research library. For now, however, no one will see any physical evidence of the Stowe home's change in status. Says White, "We're hopeful that once the federal government straightens out its financial issues, there will be funding for a plaque we can display on the house."
Visit this site for more info on the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center.