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Hill-Stead Museum, Connecticut’s Hidden Gem

A Lusitania survivor's legacy to the people

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In the spring of 1915, Theodate Pope left her Farmington, Conn., mansion, Hill-Stead, for a voyage to England. She probably could not have imagined what would happen to her on the trip.

Theodate Pope as a Miss Porter’s student with Alice Hamilton and a woman identified as Agnes Hamilton.

Pope had booked passage on the Lusitania, which a German U-boat sank. She was given up for dead when rescuers pulled her inert body from the Irish Sea with boat hooks. They placed her on the deck of the rescue ship in a row of corpses.

Another Lusitania survivor saw Pope and sensed a glimmer of life. Two men cut off her wet clothes with a carving knife and spent two hours trying to revive her. Pope woke in front of a small stove in the captain’s cabin and heard a man say, “She’s conscious.”

Theodate Pope had no memory of the sinking. She recovered over many weeks in Ireland and London. Artist Mary Cassatt wrote her a letter saying, “If you were saved it is because you have still something to do in this world.”

At 48, Theodate Pope still had plenty to do. She would become the first licensed female architect in New York, marry a diplomat, found the Avon Old Farm School, hold séances in Farmington, reconstruct Teddy Roosevelt’s birthplace in New York City and bequeath Hill-Stead as a public museum.


By the time the Lusitania sank, Pope had already Pope designed Hill-Stead partly as a retirement home for her parents. She was the only child of a Cleveland industrialist and his wife. They sent her to Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, to be finished as a lady. When she graduated, she didn’t want to go back to Cleveland, so she designed a house for her parents in Farmington.

Her father hired the architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White to check over her plans for the house. She came up with a Colonial Revival farmhouse on a hill – hence, “Hill-Stead” – with 33 room and all the modern conveniences. The house had 15 bathrooms with indoor plumbing, a geothermal cooling system and, eventually, electric lights.

The house stood on 250 acres, with gardens designed by another woman who broke a glass ceiling: landscape architect Beatrix Farrand. Just outside her father’s study was a pitch-and-putt golf course.

Inside, Pope designed the furnishings and woodwork to show off her parents’ collection of art, which included exquisite paintings by Claude Monet and Edgar Degas, woodblock prints by Katsushika Hokusai, antique Chinese porcelain, sculpture and tapestry.

Pope lived in the house after her parents and husband, John Riddle, died until her own death in 1946. She left the house for the public to enjoy as a museum, so long as no one changed anything inside.

Aerial view of Farmington’s Historic District


Farmington is a quaint Connecticut town best known as the home of Miss Porter’s School.

Hill-Stead stands within the Farmington Historic District along Route 10 between Routes 4 and 6. It has more than 100 historic buildings, mostly constructed before 1835.

The Farmington Canal Heritage Trail runs along the old canal. It extends 24 miles from Plainville to the Massachusetts border in Suffield.

Five Things You’ll Remember About Hill-Stead

Theodate Pope’s bedroom window.

Original Furnishings

Theodate made a condition on Hill-Stead’s existence as a museum: nothing could be changed from the way she left it. And so you’ll a lot of early 20th-century Colonial Revival furniture.

Theodate designed a study just for her father, Alfred Pope. A door opened to his own six-hole golf course. She had a cabinet built in the wall fit precisely to the size of his golf clubs.

Monet’s Haystacks

The Popes collected art on their visits to Europe and the Far East. Theodate displayed them with great care. The collection includes some especially fine Impressionism paintings, including two of Monet’s haystack paintings, a Degas painting of dancers and one of jockeys. They also have a print of Hokusai’s Great Wave.

Sunken Garden

Like Theodate Pope. Beatrix Farrand longed to succeed in a man’s world. She had a passion for gardening and rose to the top of her profession. In addition to Hill-Stead, she also designed the White House rose garden, Dunbarton Oaks in Washington, D.c., Abby Aldrich Rockefeller’s garden on Mount Desert Island and the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden at the New York Botanical Garden.

Today, Hill-Stead offers an outdoor poetry series at the garden called the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival.

Chess Set

The Popes collected curios from Asia, which tour guides will present to visitors. A chess set includes 32 elaborately carved ivory pieces. Each piece has three concentric carved and pierced balls on the base of each.

The Portico

The long front porch will look familiar to anyone who’s visited Mount Vernon. As an aficionado of the Colonial Revival, Theodate modeled the portico on the one George Washington used to enjoy in Virginia.

If you visit…

To visit the house, you need to take a guided tour, unless it’s the first Sunday of the month. In that case, Hill-Stead lets visitors in for an open house. Tours leave on the hour. Leave about an hour for the tour.

Buy tickets in the carriage house, which contains a small gift shop and visitor center with a short video about Hill-Stead. There’s a tearoom with sandwiches, salads and snacks.

You can roam the grounds without buying a ticket to get into the mansion. Hill-Stead has three miles of hiking trails and welcomes picnickers.

Parking near the house is easy, but the house has no elevator so steps may be a challenge for the mobility impaired.

Website: www.hillstead.org

Images: Sunken garden By Daderot – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2151569. Farmington Historic District By Spongetastic69 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=90486419.

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