Once in a great while, you stumble onto a story that is just so full of wonder and intrigue, that you have to share it: There once lived a woman born to a privileged family in the Midwest town of Salem, Ohio, who dreamed of a bucolic life and career out East. Her father was an industrialist and renowned art collector, affording her the opportunity to leave home and to be educated at Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Conn. Preferring her grandmother's name to her own birth name, she officially changed it at age 20. She went on to become the first licensed architect in both New York and Connecticut; and in 1926, was appointed to the American Institute of Architects Fellowship.
On May 7, 1915, she survived the torpedo attack on the luxury ocean liner Lusitania—her traveling companion and maid did not. The following year, at age 49, she married a diplomat she had met 16 years earlier.
Who is this mysterious woman, you ask? She was Effie Brooks Theodate Pope Riddle. Born Effie Brooks Pope, Theodate was her grandmother’s name. The Hill-Stead mansion in Farmington, Conn., is the home she designed for her parent’s retirement. Theodate thought it best that her parents retire in the East so that they could be closer to ‘culture,’ so to speak.
Hill-Stead, a Colonial Revival house that originally sat on 250 acres, encompasses one of the most comprehensive collections of any family home that has been preserved as a museum.
The art collection is one of the finest examples of its day: Masterpieces by Carriere, Cassatt, Degas, Israels, Manet, Monet, Nicholson, Chavannes, and Whistler all hang on the walls of this country manse. Theodate’s father, Alfred, made friends with many of the artists he collected, and he made it clear that he wanted only their best efforts to be included in his collection. It is extremely rare for a collection not only to remain intact after this period of time, but that it still is hanging in the original home in their original location.
Theodate inherited the home from her parents; and when she passed away in 1946, she stated that the home, its contents and the grounds would be maintained “for the benefit and enjoyment of the public.”
As a result, the collection of decorative arts, which includes silver, porcelain, photographs, sculpture, furniture, linens, clothing, works on paper, as well as decades of correspondence and records for the property, have all been carefully and meticulously curated and preserved along with her father’s art collection.
Today, the grounds at Hill-Stead encompass 152 acres, a 33,000-square-foot house, a farmhouse, a carriage garage now used as a theater, a barn and several other buildings.
The gardens are extensive and noteworthy. Landscape architect Warren Manning consulted on the original designs. And Beatrix Farrand, one of the most accomplished female landscape architects of the time, was asked to rework the estate’s Sunken Garden, which she did. It was restored in 1980 to her design.
Theodate had a clear vision for her life, embracing every experience that came her way and making every effort to leave this world a better place than she found it. Well done!
For more information go to hillstead.org.