Telling the story of a courageous woman and her historic Groton home
When James Monroe became president in 1817, he inherited a nation still torn apart by factionalism rooted in the War of 1812. He sought to help the country heal, in part by touring New England during his first year in office. One stop on his travels through Connecticut, an area where wartime anti-British sentiment was fiercest, was a small home and tavern on Thames Street in Groton.
The tavern was run by Anna Warner Bailey, a lively and popular woman who became a local legend when in 1813, as the area anticipated a British attack, she removed her flannel petticoat in public and donated it for use as wadding for the guns at Fort Griswold. After the war, she regularly entertained tavern-goers with lively and patriotic stories and songs.
Anna Warner Bailey’s house still stands, albeit in much shakier condition than when Mother Bailey entertained guests there. Despite lackluster fundraising efforts to save and restore the house, and the 2016 rejection by City of Groton taxpayers to pay to stabilize the building, the house remains among the region’s most historically significant properties and deserves restoration.
Ideally, the house should be open to the public, providing visitors a fuller story of Connecticut’s only major Revolutionary War battle and local life following that war, honoring an iconic female historical figure, and, because the house’s historical significance extends well into the 19th century, providing a bridge between the colonial era represented at the fort and later history that is the focus of the Avery-Copp House museum.
There is little doubt converting the Anna Warner Bailey house to a museum presents a tremendous challenge. Despite nearly two years of efforts to raise the 10,000. The City of Groton, which has owned the house for about a decade, failed to convince taxpayers in 2016 to contribute $150,000 towards stabilization.
It was a mistake in 2016 to package money for the house with other more costly projects. City officials wrongly took the rejection as the final word on the house, instead of viewing it as a need to improve messaging.
Granted, most historic museums struggle financially. Brad Schide, a circuit rider for the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation who visited the Anna Warner Bailey house last week, said the financial hurdles necessary to renovate and maintain the house are significant enough that he cannot recommend converting it for use as a museum. He instead indicates the house’s best potential is in attracting a history-loving buyer who wants to maintain it as a private residence.
Still, with the right backing, some dynamic leadership, a specific plan and razor sharp focus on a message that resonates with the public, conversion to a museum could be accomplished. There are other examples. Stonington’s Captain Nathaniel B. Palmer House museum once looked more like the backdrop for an “Addams Family” movie than the majestic mansion of the sea captain who discovered the Antarctic peninsula. Groton’s Avery-Copp House was once in a much rougher state.
Despite Schide’s reservations about a museum, both he and Todd Levine, from the state’s Historic Preservation Office, said they left Groton last week decidedly optimistic about the building’s potential. With original wood floors, wall paneling, mantels and other features, and a location overlooking the Thames River, they said it should be attractive to a potential buyer.
City officials deserve credit for their decade-long dedication to ensuring the house is not demolished. Despite recently declaring the house as surplus city property, they pledge to continue working with state officials to possibly secure grants for the building and on a request for proposals designed to attract potential buyers dedicated to rehabilitating the house, albeit most likely for private use.
Anna Warner Bailey’s story illustrates how the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 affected real people. Her anti-British sentiment was said to grow when, as a young woman, she found her uncle dying from wounds suffered during the Battle of Groton Heights. Her lifelong patriotic fervor gained her visits in Groton not only from Monroe, but also the Marquis de Lafayette in 1824 and President Andrew Jackson and vice president and future president Martin Van Buren in 1833.
This is a story the public deserves to experience firsthand through a new Thames Street museum dedicated to a courageous local woman.