60. The Smith-Harris House Museum

You’ll Always Be the Thomas Avery House To Me
East Lyme
(Google Maps Location)
June 14, 2008

mq60r.jpgThis is it! The post with the longest “in-between time!” Huzzah! What? Yes, I visited the Smith-Harris House in East Lyme on June 14th and I’m writing about it on October 22nd. For those counting, that’s 130 days. Wow… now how in the world am I going to do this? And why did I take so long?

Oh, no reason really. And it’s certainly not a slight on the historic house museum in the least – in fact, this place is definitely one of the more interesting HHM’s I’ve visited thus far and my tour guide was undeniably the best I’ve had at a HHM as well. Perhaps it was because he was so good that I’ve dawdled? That is, I feel ashamed to blog this place because I won’t do it justice? Who knows… and it’s not like anyone ever goes to East Lyme anyway, right?

mq60h.jpgJust kidding, for I had just come from The Thomas Lee House down the road a piece and East Lyme (or, “eee-Slyme” when speaking fast) seems to be a perfectly fine little town.

The house was known as the Thomas Avery house for many years. In fact, that is how it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. But, for some arcane reason, the East Lyme Historical Society to change the name to reflect different (later) owners from a different time period – as the house as its presented reflects their lives a bit more.

mq60c.jpgThe house is a Greek Revival, which was popular throughout New England and the Mid West in the early to mid 1800’s. It was built on land, which Thomas Avery’s father, Abraham, and grandfather, Jonathan, owned and most likely had a dwelling on. There are indications that this house incorporates an older house, or parts thereof. This is evident in the back kitchen. It was probably built specifically for Thomas Avery.

Avery and his wife had 3 kids, 1 died, then his wife died. Stay with me here. His sister came to live with the family for a while, and the one son who stayed in town, William, assumed the house when he got married. He had 3 kids too, and 1 of them also died young. But… then William died at 30, at which time his widow sold the house to a William H.H. Smith.

mq60d.jpgNow it gets fun; William H.H. Smith used the house as a summer home, and eventually sold it to his brother and nephew, Herman Smith and Frank Harris in 1921. While the house is on the National Register of Historical Places as the Thomas Avery House, it received its common name from these two men. They married sisters, Lula and Florence Munger. Sisters! Fancy that!

East Lyme bought the home and 103 acres from Smith & Harris for $34,000 in 1955, giving the previous owners lifetime rights. Smith & Harris had run a productive farm on the property for many years, and were popular townspeople.

mq60e.jpgOnce the men died, the sisters-in-law-sisters lived in the house for another 16 years until infirmities made it necessary for them to be moved to a nursing home. Keep in mind that the house had no electricity and these tough two old broads stuck it out. The Harris’s lived upstairs in marriage and the Smiths downstairs; after the husbands died, the two sisters kept that tradition alive as well.

But once the women were gone, the house was boarded up and had become the target for vandalism. The Town was considering demolishing it when a group of citizens urged that it be saved and restored. A restoration committee was appointed in 1974 with a target date of 1976 for its completion. On July 3, 1976 East Lyme’s Town Museum, The Smith-Harris House was dedicated.

In 1976, only the first floor was open to the public. Over the years, the Commission has forged ahead and opened the entire house, room by room.

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Christian Freeman newspaper found in the walls of the house. This paper was is dated August 7, 1845, and was found in the parlor walls during restoration work in the 1970’s.

I was fortunate enough to visit this place on Connecticut’s Museum Open House Day, which meant one thing: Festivities! Two women were busy cooking old-school style in the kitchen. They had some ribs which they kept begging me to eat and kept politely declining. Finally, after about 10 beggings, I said, “I’m sure they’re delicious, but I don’t eat meat.” The older woman asked me if it was a religious thing, which I found odd.

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“Are you some kinda Hindu?”

My tour was given by the best guide I’ve had to date. Unfortuntely I don’t have his name, but he’s obviously Mr. East Lyme History Man. His wife was one of the women in the (boiling hot) kitchen slaving away over the ribs I didn’t eat. He was cool and funny and informational without being boring.

A member of my tour (yes, there were others with me – indeed a rarity) kept peppering the guide with boring questions about architecture that no one else cared about. The questions were of the “Hey, listen to me ramble on for no reason” variety, but they were fielded with aplomb.

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A purposely paint-spattered floor and old tub

I learned cool stuff like how they purposely paint-spackled the floor in the kitches to mask food stains. And that THE Rufus Porter painted the walls here. You don’t know THE Rufus Porter? For shame… Porter was an American painter, inventor, and founder of Scientific American magazine. His mural wall paintings adorn many historic houses around New England and he even has a museum dedicated to him up in Maine.

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Porter’s work

Okay, so I just read some more on the Smith-Harris website. This wallpaper is actually fake; as Porter commanded mucho bucks in his day. It is “representative” of his work, and shows scenes of East Lyme. It was a good story though, right?

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The serpent bannister is found in 3 homes around town – a trademark of the carpenter

I also learned, via a story about an archeological dig that took place here, that one of the house inhabitants wore spectacles with rose-hued lenses. Back in the day, quack doctors thought certain colors would aid in curing certain ill humors. Rose-colored glasses were for insanity; hence the phrase, “seeing the world through rose-colored glasses.”

I cornered my guide for a few minutes upstairs and asked him about the Thomas Avery vs. Smith-Harris debate. The house had two major incarnations – a rich guy’s 1850’s pad (Avery) and the farmers’ more day-to-day stylings (Smith-Harris). To me, the house was a good mix of both, but the town (or someone) decided to go with the farmer’s names. (I found a similar debate at the Phelps-Hatheway House in Somers, four months later.)

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I returned down stairs and was offered ribs again. In an effort to appease the kind ladies, I grabbed a “cookie” and ate it. The woman said, as I walked off, “That’s not a cookieeeee!” I ignored her and now you can enjoy how it all played out:

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“Mmm, cookie!”

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“Mmm, delicious cookies!”

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“Not. A. Cookie.

Nope, that was a hoe cake. And it wasn’t good. I exited the house and walked the grounds for a while, including the large barn. There were some scattered old implements hanging about, but more importantly some iced tea and real cookies for me to enjoy.

This concluded my 2008 Open House Day MegaQuest – six museums and two historic ferry rides – a day well spent.

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As you leave the property, you have a choice between 20th century asphalt or 19th century dirt road. I opted to go old-school.

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Cost: Free! (Donations accepted)
Hours: June, Fri-Sun 12-4; July/Aug Thu-Sun 12-4
Food & Drink? Gotta hit up Flanders when in town
Children? 8 & up
You’ll like it if: You are only slightly interested in such things
You won’t like it if: You are an angry Avery descendant
Freebies: Ribs, hoe-cakes, iced tea, cookies – Open House Day only

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For the Curious

Smith-Harris House

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Comments

  1. kim coe says

    I am an angry Avery descendent but I liked your post- thanks as I found it odd that their actual web site didn’t have hardly any photos of the house especially the interior.

  2. Howard Kirschner says

    I have a painting signed: H H Smith of a barn, shed, and trees, signed
    1932 I believe it was given to a neighbor artist, Eugene Higgins, who lived in Old Lyme and we got it from Higgins.
    Can you identify this artist and painting? Thank you. 718 634 2123 NYC

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