The freshly reopened Lockwood-Mathews Mansion Museum brings class and sophistication bathed in history
It may not have a plazma TV. Or an indoor basketball court (although it does have a bowling alley in the basement). But its walls are laced with hand-painted flowers, its bathroom sinks inlaid with glazed porcelain, its ceilings sprayed with flowers delicately outlined in wrought iron, and was one of the first homes in the country to have hot and cold running water and – miraculous in those days – flush toilets. Seven of them. If you bought this home today, it would go for close to $100 million. Its massive wooden hand-carved staircase alone would cost a couple of million.
We’re talking, of course, about the Lockwood-Mathews Mansion, which has had a long and glorious past, not all of it pretty – from the place where Lincoln would have slept, had he not died first (he and investment banker Legrand Lockwood were old friends). To a parking lot for city trucks, lawn mowers, desks and heavy equipment. To the possible site of demolition. To its placement on the Registry of National American Landmarks. And to its rebirth as a resplendent Norwalk resource, “the forgotten treasure of Fairfield County,” as its executive director, Shelly Gerarden puts it. Some even say it was the inspiration for the great Newport mansions, 20 years later.
Built in 1861, the Victorian mansion is all these, and if Gerarden has his way, much more, to the city of Norwalk in the coming years. He hopes to save it from, “Oh, the Lockwood-Mathews mansion. I drive by it all the time,” to a place the community will flock to, thanks to programs that are planned for this summer and throughout the year. More on that later.
“The Lockwood-Mathews mansion represents much more than the profoundly beautiful restoration of historic architecture,” says Tad Diesel, marketing manager for the City of Norwalk. “It’s at the heart of Norwalk’s Central Park and ties together the major projects that will determine Norwalk’s future. Quite simply the mansion is a symbol of both our respect for heritage and hope for the future.”
According to Christopher Cooke, who probably knows more than anyone else in Fairfield County about the mansion, Paramount Pictures started the ball rolling on restoring the mansion to its former magnificence when it filmed the Stepford Wives movie there. Paramount paid to completely restore the spectacular 42-foot-high rotunda rising through the center of the building to a giant skylight.
“It was a giant shot in the arm,” says the chairman of the Lockwood-Mathews Mansion board of directors. “They were our angel of mercy. They pulled the bacon out of the fire and allowed us to stabilize ourselves and create a master plan for the total restoration.”
Cooke says the city of Norwalk put $10 million into stabilizing the roof (the plaster walls were “decalcifying” or melting from the moisture), and set aside other funds, about 10 years ago. “We were criticized for not using the money. But we had no way of going forward because we had no master plan and not enough to pay for one.”
Then State Sen. Bob Duff stepped in, garnering close to $500,000 in grants from the state. (Some money has also come through federal grants.)
Duff remembers visiting the mansion with his class when he was a third-grader. “I was in awe,” he says of the once-private home some now call a castle. Even though it was shabby and dilapidated, the eight-year-old fell in love. “It was this big house,” he recalls. “I have this thing for old houses. I developed an early love for it.” But he never went back. “I never had a reason to go.” Though he does remember one visit he tried to make. “But it wasn’t open. It was a lonely place. No one was using the park and it was forbidding. It was kind of sad.”
Duff graduated from college in ’93 but the mansion wasn’t on his mind. “Not up my alley then,” he laughs. But years later, he decided to volunteer. “I really loved that place. Plus, I had an ulterior motive. I wanted to see the bowling alley.”
The kids weren’t allowed down in the basement, on the class trip, because there was no fire exit. As a volunteer, however, he was. “Imagine. A bowling alley in your basement!” But Duff had yet another reason for volunteering. “I was 25 and knew, this place needs serious work.”
Duff says when he became a Realtor 14 years ago, he always made sure to drive relocation clients by the mansion. These days the legislator says, he’s “used my love” to put money to the mansion and has also recently hosted congressional meetings there.
“The place is a gem,” he says.
Cooke estimates it will take about $25 million to fully restore all three floors of the mansion, but this fall, infrastructure work will begin, including electrical work and sprinklers, and the addition of an elevator, needed for compliance. “Once that’s done, we’ll be out of money for the short term,” says Cooke, but he has no doubt the work (and funds) will continue. “It may take a generation, but it will happen.”
In a tale that would not be out of place today, Legrand Lockwood lost his fortune on Black Friday of 1869, one of the first Wall Street panics, and took out a what was then a fortune - a $100,000 mortgage on his beloved summer home. He also began to sell his priceless art. He died (at 52), however, before he had a chance to repay the mortgage and common lore has it his wife had one mortgage payment to go when the house was foreclosed and it and the 30 acres of meadow and salt marsh lovingly named “Elm Park” and adored by their six children, were sold to the Mathews family. (The grounds now include about 10 of those acres.)
The Mathews saw the mansion as their personal salon. Assistant mansion executive director Susan Gilgore loves to point out one of the smaller rooms in the mansion, the card room, which is hidden away behind a huge wood-paneled door. Angels are painted on each of the panels that form the walls – one each for music, art and poetry. “This room was the inspiration for the family,” she says. “They very much appreciated the culture of the time and invited their friends to come share it. We’re trying today to bring back the mantra of the Mathews.”
In the years the mansion foundered, the beautiful flowers on the wallpaper faded and the rich wood floors, recovered with carpet, wore through in places. The crystal chandeliers were shrouded in dust and layered with fine webs like lace spun by spiders.
But slowly, slowly, the mansion came back to life, saved first from demolition by the Junior League of Norwalk and then other interested citizens who couldn’t bear to see the “old lady on the hill” die a painful, forgotten death.
There’s the anonymous donor who, spying at auction two statues originally sold by Lockwood to cover his debts, promptly scooped them up (for almost $200,000) and gave them back to the mansion.
A particularly painful story is the famous Hudson Valley painting Lockwood was forced to sell for $5,600 which found its way to a museum in Vermont and is now valued at over $50 million. “No way we’re getting that back!” says Cooke sadly.
But in addition to restoring the house to its original grandeur, and re-accumulating some of the artwork lost over time, the real wealth the mansion hopes to bring back is the community. All the community.
To that end this summer, lectures on Clara Driscoll (thought to be the first designer of floral stained glass lamp shades) and the everyday lives of Victorian women will be held, along with a program on art forgeries and fraud. A special Victorian tea was held in May. And Cinnamon Kidz Summer Camp, which emphasizes both academics and recreation, celebrates its fifth year at the mansion.
Other programs for children include “Fairy Tale Favorites,” part of the popular MouseTales series for preschoolers, and additional story hours, and there will be a series of concerts for everyone, as well.
Art exhibits will also rotate through the mansion during the summer, including one by the Loft Artists Association, a group of 50 artists who share loft space in downtown Stamford.
“The Lockwood-Mathews Mansion is a true treasure in Norwalk. There is nothing else like it in the area,” says Brian Griffin of the Greater Norwalk Chamber of Commerce. “And even within the world of historic structures, it is unique and highly distinguished. There have certainly been struggling times for the mansion, but with the leadership of Joe Passero, Chris Cooke, and executive director Shelly Gerarden, the organization has risen to new levels, and they’ve positioned this great Norwalk gem as a vital entity and resource within the community.”
One of the most satisfying parts of the restoration, for Cooke and the rest of the mansion’s staff and board, is the fact that the mansion has been made the epicenter of Norwalk’s massive redevelopment efforts. “Mathews Park is Norwalk’s Central Park and the linchpin of the development up and down West Avenue,” says Cooke.
“When it’s all done, the developers promise to make sure the proper gateways to the museum will be there,” says Sen. Duff.
Although the mansion saw almost 70,000 visitors last year—and over 200 at this year’s opening—Gerarden says it’s not nearly enough. “You can’t rebuild a museum on admission prices,” he says. He’s hoping funding and donors will continue to pour in so the restoration work can stay on track.
Part of the problem, admits Gerarden, is, “We’re a house museum. People think once you’ve seen it, that’s it. We’ve got to get them to know there’s so much more here. This house was never meant to be a tomb or shrine. It was lived in. There was laughter and good times. We’re bringing it all back.”