I’ve written in Patch before a little about Judge Seth Wetmore and his house on Washington Street, but he is momentous enough to earn an entire column of his own. In his day, 1700-1778, he was among the top 100 VIPs in the American colonies, and he lived right here in Middletown.
The Wetmore (or Whitmore) family came to the American colonies through Thomas Whitmore, who emigrated from England in 1635 to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and then to Hartford, Connecticut. Seth Wetmore was his grandson, born in Middletown where the family had settled down in 1651. Interestingly, Seth was one of fifteen children born to Ezrahiah and his three wives.
Seth Wetmore lived in Middletown and watched it grow from a community of subsistence farmers to a prosperous riverport with connections to the West Indies and international trade. He trained as a lawyer and was a career politician. He was appointed as Middletown’s tax collector, then Surveyor of the Highway, and eventually, selectman while in his forties. During this time, he also served as Deputy of the General Court for Connecticut from 1738 to 1771, as did his grandfather in 1654 and his father in 1717. Wetmore earned the title of judge when selected as Judge of Middlesex County Court and later, Judge of the Quorum of Hartford County.
The affluent families of the eighteenth century living in the River Towns – Hartford, Windsor, Middletown – who were the colonies magistrates, merchants, and ministers, became known as the “Standing Order” in Connecticut (and the “River Gods” in Massachusetts). To maintain their elite status, they often intermarried, creating important kinship connections. Several generations of these families, like the Wetmores, were regularly elected to powerful positions in their towns and in the colony and revered.
Wetmore built his Georgian-style mansion at 1066 Washington Street in the Staddle Hill section of Middletown in 1746 for his new bride, Hannah Edwards, who was from a prominent family in East Windsor. (See the photo on the right showing her handmade shoes.) It was among the finest houses in its day. It has a gambrel roof, which allowed for an entire third floor, and a center-hall lay out, creating a wide open feel inside and permitting significantly more privacy for its occupants than a traditional central chimney, Colonial-style house.
His land was once part of his maternal grandfather’s estate, given to Seth’s mother at the time of her marriage. It was a 1000-acre spread on a promontory of land that looked down into the valley toward the Connecticut River. The Meriden Road, today Route 66, cut through his property in 1798.
Among the early gentleman farmers in our nation, Wetmore used hired hands and slaves to harvest grains – wheat, oats, barley, and rye – on his extensive property, which were then ground and sold in the south and the West Indies for a handsome profit. In 1790 Seth Wetmore owned two slaves, who were probably by that time used mostly as household servants and served as a symbol of his wealth and status. Local stories claim that there is at least one grave of a former slave on the property and that George Street was named after one of Wetmore’s slaves.
With his elite social standing, Wetmore drew many famous people to his home, making it a gathering place for the educated and the powerful in Seth Wetmore’s day. Local and state leaders came here to talk politics and law. Known visitors were Jonathan Edwards, a famous missionary, minister and intellectual of his day; Timothy Dwight, Edwards’ grandson, educator, and president of Yale University; and the Marquis de La Lafayette, the great French general and supporter of the American Revolution.
Wetmore could afford to build this fine Georgian-style house, known then as “Oak Hill,” and fill it with luxury items and the finest decorative materials available, both locally and imported from Europe. His parlor, for entertaining, was so grand that the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford purchased it in 1986, removed it, and rebuilt it the museum for all to see.
The parlor, shown here, is in remarkable condition, considering its age. The most spectacular feature, in my opinion, is the shell-shaped corner cupboard with a decorative sun-burst pattern. The room also has marbleized fluted pilasters on each side of the fireplace and a lovely painting set into the space over the mantel. The woodwork in this room is amazing.
The house remained in the extended Wetmore family (through the Camp family) until it was purchased by Samuel and Helen (Bunny) Green in about 1948. Sam Green was an art professor at Wesleyan, with an avid interest in historic preservation, who died in 1995. The Greens oversaw the nomination of the house to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970.
In 2006 the house was almost in foreclosure and the future looked bleak. Thieves had taken off with a decorative soffit window; the house was vacant and in desperate need of repair. The Conservator for Bunny Green’s estate desperately reached out to the Wetmore descendants to buy a mid-nineteenth century photograph of the house (which sold for $48,000) to help raise the money to keep the house heated for that winter.
Finally, after several contracts fell through, John Fletcher Bolles III of Newington purchased the house in 2007 and embarked on repairing and restoring the grand house.
Quietly, yet majestically, standing in our midst for over 250 years, the Wetmore House is a testimony to Middletown’s grand history. Drivers speed past each day without a clue to its immense historical importance and value. Cruise by just a bit more slowly next time and take in its splendor.