Located on the corner of High and Washington streets is the famous Samuel Wadsworth Russell House, known colloquially as Russell House. This mansion, which was built between 1820 and 1830, was once the home of a prominent Middletown businessman and, later, a string of equally accomplished successors. The building was integrated into the University system in 1937. It was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970 and was declared a National Historical Landmark in 2001.
Samuel Wadsworth Russell intended to create something that would serve as a testament to the achievements of his trading company, Russell and Company. Russell, an ambitious entrepreneur, found great success in the international trading business. He founded what is arguably now known as the most efficient American trading company with ties to Asia, specifically with China, from its inception in 1824 to its closing in the late 19th century.
The company dealt mostly with the exchange of fine silks, teas, and opium. Largely due to the successful sale of opium (and despite its illegality), Russell made a permanent impression on the Chinese market. His Canton, China-based business was the largest American trading house in China by 1842. Between 1831 and 1836, Russell returned to Middletown and oversaw the completion of his would-be home away from home.
Designed by prominent American architects and civil engineers Ithiel Town and David Hoadley, the House embodies multiple Hellenistic qualities. Marked by the Greek Revival architectural style, the house mimics a Greek temple and boasts six full-length Corinthian columns. There is exquisite attention to detail in the exterior of the house. For instance, one of the walls is furnished with recessed panels that dramatize the space between the first and second story windows, there is a large entablature just over the entrance door, stucco aligns masonry-like walls, and the house’s brownstone foundation is topped with a gable roof.
At one point, the estate occupied the entirety of the block bound by High, Court, Pearl, and Washington streets. The Russells clearly intended for their mansion to make a statement in Middletown, and for good reason. This was an emblem of luxury and elegance that persisted well into the 19th and 20th centuries.
Everything associated with the grandeur of the House was also associated with the accomplishments of the Russell family. For instance, a great-great-grandson of Samuel Russell, Thomas Russell, was raised by his grandfather in the House and later went on to serve as Mayor of Middletown. In 1875, Samuel Russell’s second wife, Frances Osborne, gifted Russell Library to the city of Middletown as a memorial to her husband. It was their son, Thomas Macdonough Russell, Jr., who deeded the House to the University.
After five generations as a symbol of financial prosperity and high societal regard, the House became the center for the University’s Honors College, where seniors worked on their theses, until 1996.
Russell House is now the location of the Philosophy Department, and the building has come quite a long way since its creation. With its 44 rooms and large outdoor space, the University has made impressive use of both the House’s historical and functional facilities. Though there has been a fairly steady transformation of the House, its historical value has not been compromised by its modern functions. Each room is furnished with period antiques, for instance, which add a touch of aged charm to the space.
For some three decades, the House has served as a home for a multitude of activities, from artists performing their written works to weekend concerts. The diversity of events hosted at the House is made possible by the modern architectural and technological improvements. For example, the building can support a capacity of 100 guests (or 60 seated dinners), but for a larger venue, there is a spacious outdoor garden available for use.
In 2004, a ramp was added to the front of the building to improve accessibility. Also adding to the functionality of the House is the tent that can be set up directly behind the house during inclement weather. One of the more modern technological improvements has been the installation of state-of-the-art multi-media capabilities, complete with on-site technology support.
More recently, events at the House have included lecture series hosted by the Center for the Humanities and Writing at Wesleyan in the Millett Room and talks by revered academics and interesting individuals, like cartoonist and writer Alison Bechdel, who visited campus in September. From its completion in the early 19th century to its donation to the University in 1937 to its current role, Russell House is expected to be a continually revered site for the fostering of education and community activity for years to come.