In the spring of 1781, an American and a Frenchman huddled over a set of maps inside a simple clapboard house. Through translators, the two men discussed a course of action that would free America from British tyranny. For inside the Joseph Webb House in Wethersfield, Conn., Gen. George Washington and Gen. Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau, planned the march on Yorktown.
Rochambeau had been billeted in Newport, Washington in New Windsor, N.Y. They decided to meet halfway in central Connecticut.
The generals and their entourages stayed for about a week. Washington wanted to attack the British forces occupying New York City. Rochambeau thought that was a bad idea because the British had too strong a defensive position. He preferred attacking the British army in Virginia.
They agreed on a tentative plan to attack the British in New York and then head south. But – undoubtedly at Rochambeau’s urging – they left the possibility open of simply marching south and meeting the French fleet in the Chesapeake Bay.
Rochambeau, in the end, got his way. The rest is history.
The Joseph Webb House
Joseph Webb, a successful merchant with ships that traded in the West Indies, built the house in 1752. He died at 34, leaving six children and a widow. Diplomat Silas Deane, executor of the estate, later married Webb’s widow and built a house next door.
Webb’s son Joseph, Jr., inherited the large, 3-1/2 story house in 1774. After the historic events of 1781, he sold the property. It passed through several owners. Martin Welles bought it around 1820, and it stayed in his family until 1913. Then Wallace Nutting bought it in 1916 as a sales office, studio and tourist attraction.
Nutting was a historical figure in his own right, a dyspeptic minister who couldn’t deal with modern life. He retreated into the past, publishing pictures of colonial homes and colonial-era landscapes. He succeeded so well he began buying up colonial homes he called “The Wallace Nutting Chain of Colonial Picture Houses.” They doubled as settings for his photos and as tourist attractions.
As the Martha Stewart of the Colonial Revival, Nutting influenced the décor of countless American homes. He spurred a wave of historic preservation and advanced the study of American decorative arts and architecture.
For a time the public flocked to Wethersfield to pay 25 cents for admission to the Joseph Webb House. But then World War I and gas rationing interrupted the business.
Nutting sold the house to the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in 1919. Today it belongs to the Webb Deane Stevens Museum, which includes the Silas Deane House and the Isaac Stevens House, all in a row.
Wethersfield, Connecticut’s Biggest Historic District
The Joseph Webb House belongs to the largest historic district in Connecticut, that is, Wethersfield. The district covers 1,300 acres, with 1,200 buildings, a hundred of them dating to colonial times.
The town itself evolved from an early colonial outpost. It then emerged as a transportation hub, and it contributed many soldiers to the American Revolution. Eventually it rose to prominence as home to the Wethersfield onion, which gave it the nickname “Oniontown.”
For years, onions bought just about anything in Wethersfield. Even today, the local historical society pays rent on an 18th-century warehouse not with money, but with Wethersfield red onions.
The onion business during the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries created a thriving commercial town. Merchant ships that carried that cargo were built by Wethersfield shipbuilders, often in partnership with residents of nearby towns.
Wethersfield has a half-mile-long town green surrounded by colonial and Federal style houses. They offer excellent examples of the carpentry used by skilled builders who mostly worked as shipbuilders.
Five Things You’ll Remember About the Joseph Webb House
The Joseph Webb House, like the other Webb Deane Stevens properties, changes with the seasons. So you might not forget the sight of a Continental Army soldier firing off a musket in the spring, the hollyhocks in the Colonial Revival garden in summer or the Christmas decorations in winter. But here are five things you might remember any time you visit.
All three were quite grand for their time. They have armrests and a shelf where a candle could be set, as well as architectural features such as crown molding, raised paneled doors and wainscoting. One was later prettied up with wallpaper and curtains.
Antique lovers will appreciate the period furniture including 18th-century cherry side chairs, mahogany bedstead and mahogany chest of drawers. The best parlor features a striking built-in shell-domed cupboard, called a “beaufat,” used to show off the household’s porcelain, silver and blown glassware.
Over the Christmas holidays, the Webb Deane Stevens Museum decks the halls of the three houses in period decorations.
George Washington’s Bedroom
The bedroom not only contains the actual bed that George Washington slept in for five nights, but the original wallpaper he saw when he woke up. Washington mentions in his diary his stay at the Joseph Webb house, though he didn’t say whether he found the bed comfortable.
The wallpaper has changed color over the years, but it still has the original wool flocking. The bedchamber has period furniture, not original. It also has a portable liquor cabinet to represent the one that Washington never traveled without.
The Yorktown Parlor
Wallace Nutting wanted to make sure visitors didn’t miss the significance of the Joseph Webb House. So he hired three artists to paint murals for the parlor showing people (especially Washington) and events associated with the Battle of Yorktown.
In one mural, Washington sits at a conference table with generals. A second depicts the Battle of Yorktown, and the third shows the the surrender of the British troops.
After Nutting sold the house, a restoration historian came to assess the property. He called the murals “modern and in bad taste” and more “suitable for a kindergarten.” So they were covered by wallpaper for 72 years. Then in the mid-1990s, the museum board decided that people were interested enough in the Colonial Revival movement to see the Yorktown murals, and so they have been restored.
Colonial Revival Garden
In the summer, a Colonial Revival garden is a sight for eyes that have been looking at commercial clutter along the highway.
The Colonial Dames hired landscape architect Amy Cogswell to design a Colonial Revival garden. She created a garden with classic arbors and old-fashioned flowers. The garden went to seed, but the Webb Deane Stevens Museum revived in in 1999. Visit the garden in August and you’ll see hollyhocks, lavender, larkspur, veronica, gladiolas, garden pinks and baby’s breath.
In the spring, Revolutionary War re-enactors camp out and do battle at the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum. They feature cavalrymen with swords, marching drills, musket firing and music.
There is a gift shop and a brand new educational center.
The Joseph Webb House is located at 211 Main Street, Wethersfield, Conn. Check the website for hours of operation. Open seasonally. In 2023, guided holiday house tours begin December 7.
Images: Mural Room By JERRYE AND ROY KLOTZ MD – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26613890. Colonial Revival garden watercolor by Leslie Landrigan.