Norwich home tour explores the city’s ‘rich’ history
Norwich ― On Chelsea Parade on Sunday morning, an author led a group of about 45 people around the block next to Norwich Free Academy as she told them stories about the industry giants who inhabited the area during the Gilded Age.
“Norwich Millionaires’ Triangle” tour leader Patricia Staley gave an oral history of the homes during the city’s most opulent era.
The city of Norwich was founded in 1659 starting with the land in present-day Norwichtown, Staley said. In the decades following, the city expanded toward the Thames River, she added.
By the early 1900s it had become an urban hub for the upper class, who used it to build stately homes, conduct business and connect with fellow influencers of the period, Staley said.
“Norwich is halfway between Boston and New York City, which means that it was a transportation center. Literally everybody who was anybody came through here in the early half of the 19th century, and a good portion of the second half as well,” Staley said.
The tour began with Staley’s introduction on the lawn of Chelsea Parade at 10 a.m. From there, Staley led the group down Washington Street, onto Broad Street and then Broadway, stopping along 1.5-mile route to point out landmark mansions and the people who owned them.
With their eyes scanning left to right and imaginations flooding with images of what the city must have looked like when industry giants romped through its streets, the tour halted in front of one of the first stops, a dull green home with elaborate white trimmings ― the Leonard Ballou House.
As the group gazed from the Washington Street sidewalk up to the home’s long paned-glass windows and complicated rooflines, Staley told them about Ballou, a successful cotton mill owner who had established his empire in Killingly. He operated his mills in a section of Killingly thereafter dubbed Ballouville, Staley said.
According to a pamphlet from the Norwich Historical Society, Ballou had been drawn to Norwich by his “close connections with wealthy mill owners.”
“About 1840, he came down here and he built these two houses,” Staley said.
“That one,” she said, pointing to the one next door, “he built for his daughter Amelia, who married a man named William Almy.”
Ballou’s other daughter, Lydia, ended up marrying a man named John Young, Staley said. In 1837, Young had opened a shop in New York City with his friend Charles Lewis Tiffany, which grew to become the famous jewelry store Tiffany and Co.
As Staley finished her remarks, a silhouette appeared behind the glass of the Ballou home’s front door. Soon enough, the door opened, and its 36-year owner, Paul Rak, waved his visitors inside.
“Oohs” and “ahhs” emanated from the crowd as they stepped through the door and laid their eyes on the home’s eclectic furnishings. The group moved from room to room, first into the drawing, or entertaining, room, which Rak had outfitted with thickly cushioned Turkish furniture. Then into a dining room where an ornate glass chandelier dangled over a 6-foot-long wooden table.
For those who didn’t make it to the tour, Staley’s book “Norwich in the Gilded Age” boasts a similar experience, inviting readers to “stroll down Norwich’s most fashionable mile of millionaires’ mansions and mingle with the extraordinary people who lived and played behind their elegant facades during the glamorous Gilded Age.”
“I got the book. I read it over and then I told my husband, I said ‘You need to drive me around so I can look at them as I’m looking at (the book),” Maureen Giambattista, who lived in Norwich for 36 years, said as the group headed down Broad Street toward the Moses Pierce House.
“When I saw this today, I said, ‘I’m coming, because I’d love to walk around and learn more about it,’ ” Giambattista said.
Pierce established the Norwich Bleaching, Calendaring and Dyeing Mill in the Greenville section of the city in 1840. Pierce moved into the home, located at 24 Broad St., after donating his former Norwichtown home to use as an orphanage, Staley said.
The Moses Pierce house was built in 1860 in an Italianate villa style, according to a pamphlet from the state historic preservation office. It features rounded dormers over the windows, iron cresting and ornate bracketing above its front door.
The “Norwich Millionaires’ Triangle” walk was sponsored by the Norwich Historical Society and the Last Green Valley as part of The Last Green Valley’s “Walktober.” Other historical walking tours will be held throughout the month. For more information, visit the Norwich Historical Society or Last Green Valley website.
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