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    Tuesday, February 27, 2024

    Absolutely brilliant

    When Libby Palmer married Richard Loper in September 1873, it must have been the social event of the season. The reception was held in Stonington at the mansion of the bride’s father, Alexander Palmer. No expense was spared to give the happy couple a spectacular send-off.

    Local newspapers gushed that the affair was “brilliant beyond description,” which was actually quite an understatement. Guests gathered at the Palmer estate on property fronting Lamberts and Quanaduck coves. A canopy festooned with hanging baskets of flowers and colored lights covered the grounds. Delmonico, the famous New York restaurant, catered the dinner, and a band from Providence provided live music. The evening culminated with fireworks and a volley of gunfire from a yacht anchored nearby. (The yacht was designed by Libby’s new father-in-law and had won the America’s Cup a few years earlier.)

    The newlyweds had met because of a long-standing family friendship. In 1820, the groom’s father, Richard Loper, Sr., had been the second mate under Libby’s uncle, Captain Nathaniel Palmer, when they sighted Antarctica while on a sealing expedition aboard the little sloop, Hero. Both were men of brilliant accomplishments.

    Richard Sr. became a sea captain, an inventor, and a prolific ship builder. He was an agent for the War Department, and built the boats that were used to land troops at Vera Cruz during the Mexicxn War.

    Nathaniel, best remembered for the Antarctica sighting, was a sealing captain, a shipping financier, and a designer of clipper ships, packet ships, and yachts. A U.S. stamp was issued in his honor, and part of the Antarctic Peninsula is named for him. Today, Nathaniel’s fame overshadows that of his brother, Libby’s father, but Alexander was a celebrity during his lifetime, too. He was a handsome, successful sea captain who’d won recognition from Queen Victoria herself for his heroic actions saving passengers from a sinking British ship.

    But Alexander’s personal life was marked by tragedy. His beautiful wife, Priscilla, died of pneumonia while only in her 30s, leaving three little boys and Libby, a toddler. By the time of the wedding, Alexander had been a widower more than 20 years, and ultimately would outlive all his children except Libby. But on that golden September day, he must have been a happy man.

    It was Priscilla’s death in 1851 that had prompted Nathaniel and Alexander to build the Palmer house. The brothers lived there together, and Eliza, Nathaniel’s wife, helped raise Alexander’s children. Although the brothers were active in specifying the home’s design, it’s unclear who was responsible for its overall construction. Invoices show that building materials were purchased from D. P. & G. W. Collins, a mill in Stonington. Shipwrights from a New York firm did much of the detail work.

    A booklet published by Historic Stonington (formerly the Stonington Historical Society) describes the elegant Graeco-Italianate style home in loving detail. It tells of the spectacular water views in every direction, explains the layout of each room, and describes some of the features reflecting its seafaring connection. For example, there are many built-ins - dressers, desks, cabinets, and shelves - seemingly intended to stay firmly in place in case the house, like a ship, should encounter heavy weather. A lovely hand-carved staircase has a nautical vibe, and of course there’s the widow’s walk above the attic.

    Nathaniel died in 1877, and Alex passed seven years later. After her father’s death, Libby and her husband lived in the mansion, raising their own four children there. One of their sons, Alexander Loper, was an inventor who patented a commercially successful fire alarm system; there are grooves in some of the wooden floors where he may have considered installing his new technology. Later, Libby’s daughter, Elizabeth Loper Babcock, raised her own family there.

    By 1976, financial problems compelled Palmer descendants to sell the property. In 1994, after years of financial obstacles and a close call with demolition, Historic Stonington acquired it thanks to strong community support, grants, and generous donations. The house was opened to the public for the first time in 1996, the same year it was designated a National Historic Landmark.

    Shipwrights and sea captains knew the importance of building sturdy structures. It seems to me that if a storm ever blows this shipshape mansion off its foundation, it will bob around in Lamberts Cove, not much bothered by its new location. Fortunately, this architectural gem remains on solid ground, preserved by Historic Stonington for us to visit and admire, the legacy of a brilliant family.

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