From Pistols to Pencils: The Story of 202 Washington
This past Sunday, many members of program houses witnessed huddled masses of freshmen—those refugees of cramped triples in Fauver and cinder-blocked Butts dorm rooms—traveling en masse from house to house for House Hopping Day. This annual tradition is rife with mutual scoping-out, in which program house members and potential applicants judge and rate one another in the hopes of creating the perfect living environment for the next year.
As a member of Full House, located at 202 Washington Street, I am particularly lucky in this exchange. Prospective applicants to both Full House and Writing House (our downstairs neighbors) are usually blown away by the sheer ginger-bread adorableness of 202, the obscene proportions of the massive two-room double located on the upper floor, and the delectable smells usually wafting from our impressive kitchen.
Avid collector of useless historical knowledge that I am, I went to the Special Collections and Archives at Olin Library to do a little digging on 202 Wash. It turns out that the house could alternately be known as the Alsop-Weeks House, or else Wetmore-Weeks House, in reference to its previous owners.
Middletown merchant Chauncey Whittlesey originally built the central-hall mansion in the Georgian style around 1780, which added to a small but growing number of grand houses on Washington Street.
At this time, Middletown was a successful shipping port. Called “The Paris of the Northeast” for its fortuitous location at the bend in the Connecticut River, Middletown specialized particularly in the importation of rum, a key element of the triangle trade. Middletown merchants and sailors traveled often between the Caribbean and northeastern America and carried not only rum (which often served as payment for goods and services in Middletown at the time) but also agricultural goods grown in the fertile soil of Connecticut and slaves brought from both Africa and the Caribbean.
202 Washington Street, therefore, would have been built in a time of budding prosperity, most likely funded by money gleaned from this lucrative business. The elaborate and architecturally significant Russell House—reminiscent of a massive Greek or Roman temple, now home to the Philosophy Department, and located kitty-corner to 202—was not constructed until the mid 1800s. At that time, Middletown was still a rather provincial town, if deeply connected to the outside world through trade.
Charles R. Alsop took ownership of 202 Wash by the 1800s. Alsop, who acted as the mayor of Middletown from 1843-1846 and as a Senator of Connecticut in 1855, had also developed the Alsop Pocket percussion revolver, which was manufactured in Middletown.
Alsop’s industry, in contrast with the original owner’s, is representative of the changing face of Middletown. As the steamship replaced sailing ships, merchants found the Connecticut River at the port of Middletown to be too shallow for the deeper hulls. The merchants of Middletown, a group of which the Alsop family was a part, shifted their focus to manufacturing. As a part of this move toward industrialization, the new “barons” encouraged and supported the influx of immigrants to Middletown and incorporated them into their new factories as laborers.
Perhaps reacting to changing trends of the upper class during this period or to the overstated grandeur of the Russell House, which had been erected in 1828, Alsop decided to renovate the entire façade of 202 Washington. During the early 1840s, the Alsop family rented another dwelling for three years, apparently allowing enough time for the house’s original style to be virtually erased.
The house was remodeled to an unusually successful degree into the Gothic Revival style. The Alsops added gabled dormers, a “projecting gabled center section,” and “carved bargeboards, pinnacles, and window hoods.”
Basically, they added the elaborate sugared icing to the previously simple gingerbread house.
The house changed hands several times over the following years. The Atwaters remodeled its interior into a neo-Federal style before selling it to Frank Weeks, who had just finished his term as Connecticut State Governor.
Weeks also had a connection to Wesleyan. In 1911, Weeks became a member of the Wesleyan Board of Trustees, a position he held until his death in 1935. Weeks then bequeathed 202 Wash to Wesleyan, and the building has since been in use as student housing.
Much of the original grandeur of the interior has been overtaken by the institutional inevitabilities of Wesleyan housing. An addition was added to the back of the house in 1966, and it is clear that much of the interior has been remodeled. An especially unique feature of the current house, for instance, is the downstairs bathroom, complete with an oversized brick fireplace along one wall. The fireplace seems to be a holdover from what used to be a primary living space, incorporated into the modern dorm-style bathroom upon remodeling.
Student life has taken quite a toll on the house. There are rumors that, when the house was primarily inhabited by athletes, one student ran through a thin wall of the addition straight into the house’s courtyard. The damage has not ended with 202 Wash’s conversion into a program house.
“Right now we have a hole in the wall near the foosball table,” said Full House manager Chi Le ’13. “We suspect it was caused by someone’s butt.”
However, there are still many reminders of the house’s past in some of the details that make 202 Wash so unique.
Many of the rooms at the front of the house include both wood floors and fireplaces, which are covered over with art-deco style tiles. The library still has its dark-wood paneling and green-marble faced fireplace, likely left over from the interior neo-federal remodel.
Le also has done some research into the house’s history. She explained that the impetus for her research began when she first moved into the house last year.
“My roommate hadn’t moved in yet,” said Le, “so I was alone. For three nights in a row I had dreams of a woman in a Victorian dress just staring at me. It was really creepy. And during the daytime, when I’ve been in the house alone, I’ve heard old music.”
Le said that some of her research has revealed particularly interesting information, not all of which she trusts.
“I’ve found some sources that say they found human remains in one of the fireplaces in the house,” she said.