Plans for museum in Salem's oldest house could be music to the ears of history buffs

Salem Historical Society is looking to purchase this house at 184 Hartford Road, believed to be the oldest in town.
Salem Historical Society is looking to purchase this house at 184 Hartford Road, believed to be the oldest in town. Sean D. Elliot/The Day Buy Photo

Salem - Here's how historical society President David Wordell envisions celebrating the 175th anniversary of a music school that brought fame to his town: an elaborate reproduction of a royal blue carriage rumbling up Route 85 on Memorial Day and, perhaps, the opening of a museum dedicated entirely to the seminary's story.

The museum is possible only if the society is successful in purchasing what is sometimes known as the Whittlesey house, believed to be the oldest house in town. The two-story, Cape Cod-style house is located at 184 Hartford Road, just south of Salem School, and is currently in pre-foreclosure, according to Realtor Lori Hopkins-Cavanagh. The assessed value of the property is $38,400, and the town's tax assessor said the current owner is Kevin S. Cavanagh.

Wordell would say only that the historical society hopes to buy the house in a short sale before the new year, and declined to give details because of the ongoing negotiations.

It's unclear when the house was built, but it appears to be between 1690 and sometime in the early 1700s, according to Wordell and Hopkins-Cavanagh. The house was the childhood home of Oramel Whittlesey, who founded Music Vale Seminary in 1839.

"No one knows the fame that this (school) had," said Wordell, who said Connecticut's governor came to town to speak at the 100th anniversary of Music Vale's founding. Wordell helped put together an exhibit on the seminary for Salem's 150th anniversary, in 1969, and said it was the first time many townspeople had heard about the institution.

Music Vale Seminary was the first music school in the country to confer degrees, and most of its graduates were young women. It attracted a large number of girls from wealthy plantations in the South, and, as a result, the Civil War was "the beginning of the demise" of the seminary, Wordell said.

But for decades, the seminary taught young women musical notation, composition and lessons in voice, organ, harp, guitar and piano. Many of the students went on to be music teachers across the nation.

The school's main building burned down in 1868 and Whittlesey, who had "enough money from the enterprise to fulfill any dream he had," immediately built an even fancier, larger building, Wordell said.

Wordell described the new building's auditorium, which apparently outshone those in New London and Norwich at the time, as "like a fairyland" fit for its wealthy Southern clientele.

To transport the out-of-town students from Norwich, where many of them arrived by train, to Salem, Whittlesey employed two first-class carriages - one red, the other blue - staffed with a coachman and two footmen. He called the carriages Robin and Bluebird.

Wordell, who operates a nonprofit antique carriage and sleigh museum on his farm, was fascinated by the descriptions he read of the coaches. He purchased an authentic-looking reproduction of a Concord coach and gave a local artist descriptions of the Bluebird. The artist produced a few images of what Bluebird would have looked like, and Wordell brought his favorite to an Amish friend in New Holland, Pa.

That man, Weaver Martin, will start work in January to transform the Concord coach reproduction into a replica of the luxurious Bluebird. The exterior will be royal blue, and interior walls will be lined with blue damask and a white fabric covered in golden stars, Wordell said. The carriage will be complete with glass windows, as one of the students described in a letter home.

The coach should be finished in time for the Memorial Day Parade, where it will be drawn up Route 85 by two horses with young women in period dress as passengers.

Wordell said he is "absolutely thrilled" to see how the carriage turns out.

Building pianofortes

Whittlesey discovered his love of music in the house that the society hopes to purchase. That house is where Whittlesey and his brothers learned to play and construct pianofortes, a precursor of the modern piano, Wordell said.

The father of the three Whittlesey boys, the Methodist minister the Rev. John Whittlesey, was very strict, said Wordell. He allowed the boys to take music lessons and practice the piano only after they had worked from sunup to sundown, and even built a shed adjacent to the house so that he wouldn't have to listen to the music while trying to sleep. The shed still stands, though it has been incorporated into the building's main structure.

The brothers also made the 2½-hour trip to New London for lessons once a week, driving down in a small carriage after dark, Wordell said. They usually didn't get back to Salem until 5 a.m. the next day, just in time to start the day's work.

The boys learned to build pianos after a disagreement erupted over their childhood pianoforte, which Oramel Whittlesey wanted to take with him when he moved to Buffalo, N.Y., for seven years as a young man. The brothers decided to make copies of the instrument and discovered during the process that they could improve upon the quality of the piano.

For a time, the brothers operated pianoforte factories in Buffalo and Salem and were known for producing high-quality instruments. The Whittleseys' apprentices started businesses around the country, paying royalties to use the Whittlesey name on their instruments.

The historical society hopes the purchase of the Whittlesey house will go through before the new year, enabling them to get to work renovating and restoring it as soon as possible.

k.catalfamo@theday.com

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