Hill-stead’s Secret Garden

Hill-Stead Museum, exterior view.


Kristin Nord

Theodate Pope Riddle could not have foreseen that the stipulations she made in her will would pose such a challenge for Hill-Stead. It’s an exquisite museum, and one of the remaining great country estates near Hartford, but until recently, many visitors have behaved as if one cursory tour was enough. It’s been up to new leadership to convince its audiences that Hill-Stead remains a living, breathing entity worth exploring many times, and from many angles.

Hill-Stead began as a home for a wealthy industrialist family which moved to Farmington from Cleveland, Ohio, at the behest of their only daughter. Theodate had been drawing plans for a home on this property while she was still a student at Miss Porter’s School. When her father said he’d bankroll the project, she approached the great Stanford White, who liked Theodate’s drawings enough to abide by them. As one of the country’s first woman architects, she would later design a number of significant projects, among them the Westover School and Avon Old Farms School.

Some behind-the-scenes decisions — like thick walls insulated with seaweed — harkened back to her Maine Quaker forebears and assured the building would be warm in winter and cool in summer, as well as remarkably soundproof. And she decided that its interiors would be dominated by Alfred A. Pope’s exquisite art collections. Even today, it’s hard not to take a deep breath upon encountering Manet’s “The Guitar Player” beside the Steinway grand piano; the not one, but two, Monet “Grainstacks” in the living room; or Degas’ “Jockeys” mounted under lights above the dining room mantle. Pope collected what he liked, and purchased works often before an artist had been discovered — and Hill- Stead remains a wonderful testament to one man’s aesthetic tastes and pursuit of beauty.

Most visitors remember, of course, the 10 now-priceless Impressionist paintings, but there are a number of other significant collections, ranging from etchings by Dürer, Millet and Whistler to Japanese woodcuts, Chinese porcelains and eight Barye cast bronzes. One of the most charming aspects of this home, designed in the Colonial Revival style during Hartford’s Gilded Age, was the way in which Theodate worked to create interior vignettes to show off these works to their greatest advantage.

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