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Norwich house has seen centuries of prominent residents; who will be next?

May 5, 2019

Norwich — If a house can be said to be a witness to history, then the commanding red colonial at 380 Washington St. holds the stories of famous national and local heroes, a most infamous villain, landmark poets and writers, slaves, educators and entrepreneurs spanning nearly 360 years.

The next chapter is a blank page for the one-time home of Connecticut’s first druggist, Daniel Lathrop, his young apothecary apprentice Benedict Arnold, a girl who grew up to become the famous poet Lydia Huntley Sigourney, the prominent writer and activist Charlotte Perkins Gilman and sisters Emily and Louisa Gilman, who donated 12 acres in their backyard in perpetuity as open space in 1905 — Lowthorpe Meadows.

The former Lathrop Manor bed and breakfast, a stop on the Benedict Arnold Walking Trail, is for sale by William Pitt and Julia Fee Sotheby’s International Realty with an asking price of $488,000. Dave Thomas is the listing agent.

Owners Marco and Sheryl Middleton said they “wish they could pick up the house and take it with us,” as they plan to move to Denver to be closer to Sheryl’s family.

The Middletons bask in the history of the house and its good vibes. Sheryl Middleton said she loves to sit and reflect on its past occupants and say they are just the “temporary caretakers” of the house they bought in 2005 from 30-year owners Steve and Judy Plank.

“They were terrific caretakers,” Judy Middleton said. 

The Middletons have added their own permanent touch to its story and added to its legacy of accomplishments. After the purchase, they started two businesses, Sheryl’s SGSM Consultants software company and the inn, got married in the backyard and set to work ensuring the house would thrive in the 21st century.

Marco, a professional chef, stripped and refinished the wide-board floors, built a stone patio out back to carefully match the historic stone steps and walls that lead down to the backyard and Lowthorpe Meadows beyond. This is “Marco’s Veranda.”

The Middletons installed central air, new plumbing and wiring and created a media room with surround sound, flat-screen TV and cherry wood paneling. A wooden chess board sits on one table and a dart board hangs on the wall.

They built a library in the front hallway on the second floor. Volumes on woodworking and architecture given to the Middletons by the late Richard Sharpe, noted local architect and historic preservation advocate, accompany antique books. Sheryl pulled out a first edition of the 1895 “Old Houses of the Antient Town of Norwich,” with the Lathrop House prominently featured, and placed it on display for prospective buyers to view.

Marco Middleton called running Lathrop Manor “the second best job I’ve ever had” — second only to a gig as a river guide in Jackson, Wyo. But the Middletons closed the bed and breakfast in 2016 to gut and rebuild the kitchen as a chef who had worked for Rockefeller resorts and The Greenbrier would want. The double-door refrigerator takes up the space of two normal home models.

Now, the house, with its nine chimneys and five bedrooms still elegantly furnished, is a family home.

“This house in the winter is the greatest thing in the world,” Marco Middleton said of its warmth and comfort.

They love it best at Thanksgiving, when the kitchen is bursting with aromas, fireplaces are blazing and every room is filled with family and friends. The celebration lasts a week, Marco said.

The couple live in a “modern” addition at the right rear, built by those generous Gilman sisters as a library.

‘Layers of history’

Norwich was settled by European families in 1659, and the property was one of the original house lots, awarded in 1660 to John Olmstead, the town’s first physician. Olmstead sold the property to the Lathrops, and Daniel Lathrop, a 1733 Yale University graduate and London-trained apothecary, became the next prominent resident.

The original house burned down in 1745, but City Historian Dale Plummer said when the existing house was examined in the 1960s for the proposed Norwichtown Historic District, charred lumber found in the structure indicated salvageable parts of the original house were used for the rebuild.

The current structure dates to 1765, but Plummer said, the house has “layers of history” reflecting its many occupants since then — such as the Gilman addition. Records also indicate early occupants held enslaved servants whose stories are no less important, Plummer said.

Arnold lived there when he worked as an apprentice for brothers Daniel and Joshua Lathrop at their nearby druggist shop. Plummer said such arrangements were common.

In her “History of Norwich” published in 1866, author Frances Manwaring Caulkins said Daniel Lathrop was likely the first druggist in Connecticut. He sent medical supplies to the army in the French and Indian War, and when a deadly disease hit Waterbury in 1749, one man made desperate rides to Lathrop’s shop for three straight days to obtain medicine.

Lydia Huntley Sigourney, daughter of Ezekiel and Zerviah Huntley, was born at the house, while her parents cared for Daniel Lathrop’s aging widow, Jerusha Lathrop. When Lathrop died in 1805, 14-year-old Lydia was her main caretaker.

“The early childhood of a gifted daughter of Norwich, Mrs. L.H. Sigourney, was passed under the roof of this excellent lady,” Caulkins wrote. “Having lost her own children, in their infancy, (Jerusha) lavished all her maternal affection and fostering care on this child of her heart, who repaid her tenderness with filial veneration, and has embalmed her memory in hallowed verse.”

Sigourney later recalled the magnificent grounds and gardens at the Lathrop House. The poet’s descriptions take up three pages of Mary Perkins’ book “Old Houses of the Antient Town of Norwich.”

“Its court of shorn turf, like the richest velvet, intersected by two paved avenues to the principal entrances, and the enclosed white fence, resting upon a foundation of hewn stone,” Sigourney wrote of the front of the house. Of one garden she wrote: “a rich crimson peony reared its head like a queen upon her throne; surrounded by a guard of tulips, arrayed as courtiers in every hue, deep-crimson, buff streaked with vermilion, and pure white mantled with a blush of carmine.”

A century later, in 1922, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a nationally renowned writer, women’s activist and lecturer, moved in to the house.

“Charlotte Perkins Gilman was a person of both the 19th and 20th centuries whose writing, lecturing, and poetry covered the full range of social concerns such as poverty, the strong versus the weak and labor-capital conflict,” former Norwich Mayor Arthur Lathrop wrote in his 1999 book, “Victorian Norwich.”

Faye Ringel, retired English professor at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, has done extensive research on Sigourney and Perkins Gilman and has lectured about the women’s accomplishments.

“They were both international celebrities,” Ringel said. “Lydia Sigourney, in addition to being America’s first best-selling poet, was a pioneering educator. ... Sigourney also was involved in anti-slavery and abolition. She was just so far out ahead of her time it was almost unbelievable in the early part of the 19th century.”

Before she married the prominent Hartford developer, Charles Sigourney, Lydia Huntley ran a school for girls in Norwich that challenged students with math, science and other academics, Ringel said. A parishioner of the Second Congregational Church, Huntley realized there was no Sunday school for African American children, and started one.

Ringel and Plummer both surmised that “something happened” not evident in records, and Huntley closed the school suddenly and moved to Hartford.

“There’s no way to describe the extent of her literary celebrity,” Ringel said. “Her works were published throughout the world. She met Queen Victoria. But she really was not recognized in Norwich. She was very unhappy in 1859 when she was not invited to speak at the bicentennial.”

Charlotte Perkins Gilman was born in 1860 in Providence, her family connected to the famous Stowe and Beecher families in Hartford. She was first cousin to the Gilmans of Norwich, Ringel said. She married Houghton Gilman, her second husband, one of the inheritors of the Norwich house.

Perkins Gilman was internationally known as a feminist and labor economist, Ringel said. “She wrote voluminously in sociology, economics, politics,” Ringel said. Her textbook on women in the workplace was used worldwide.

But Perkins Gilman clashed with other prominent feminists of the time, and her reputation suffered, Ringel said. Her memoir described how the family was hit hard by the Great Depression. She died in 1935.

Like Sigourney, Ringel said: “Gilman never felt she was honored locally, and particularly that Connecticut College never invited her to speak.”

At Otis Library, 261 Main St., Norwich, collections of the two writers’ works share the same shelf in the library’s local history section.

And if all those residents weren’t enough significance attached to one house, add Daniel Coit Gilman, 1831-1908. Coit Gilman was the first president of Johns Hopkins University and served as president of the University of California and Carnegie Institute, according to Lathrop’s “Victorian Norwich.”

“Let’s hope that whoever buys (the house) appreciates it,” Plummer said.

c.bessette@theday.com