Between Guilford’s picturesque green and the Long Island Sound stands the medieval Henry Whitfield House. Built as a fortress to protect early Puritan settlers, it has stone walls two-feet thick. As such, it’s the oldest stone house in New England and the oldest house in Connecticut.
Puritans built it in 1639 for their minister, Henry Whitfield, a descendant of Geoffrey Chaucer. Whitfield had been a minister in England with a large estate and a good salary. But he fell in with some Puritans – Thomas Hooker and John Cotton. Though he didn’t share their beliefs at first, eventually he joined them. Then, to avoid persecution, he decided to come to the New World with his large family.
Whitfield found a successor, sold his estate and came to Connecticut with his wife and nine children, all but two dependent on his support.
The Henry Whitfield House
The first settlers of Guilford began building the home in September 1639, shortly after they arrived. But they started too late in the year, and they only finished the great hall and north fireplace. They completed the house in the summer of 1640 with the help of the Menunkatuck Indians.
It was one of four large stone houses built as a defensive fortification for the settlement’s 350 people.
Whitfield, his wife Dorothy Shaeffe Whitfield and their children lived in the house. The Puritans also used it for religious services before they built their church. And it doubled as a meetinghouse for Town Meeting.
In 1651, Henry Whitfield returned to England – perhaps to shore up his finances. He had all those kids, after all. Or perhaps he knew England was becoming more congenial to Puritans, as they would prevail (for a while) in the English Civil Wars. It wasn’t unusual for settlers to return to England; in 1640 more people left for England than arrived in America.
Whitfield …”took leave of the church and congregation, who greatly loved him and followed him to the waterside with many tears,” according to Ralph Dunning Smith in The History of Guildford, Connecticut.
He finished his days in Winchester, England.
His wife, Dorothy Shaeffe Whitfield, stayed until 1659, managing the house and the property.
In the 1860s, Roman Catholics used the house as a chapel. The Puritans who built the house would have been horrified.
The owner remodeled the house in 1868, and it opened to the public in 1899 as Connecticut’s first museum, The Henry Whitfield State Museum. It was restored in 1902-04 and in the 1930s.
For more information about visiting, click here.
The Henry Whitfield House Neighborhood
If you’re looking for a charming old New England town, Guilford fits the bill. It has one of the largest and prettiest greens in Connecticut. A sign on the green says, “Still here are the things of yesterday.” Those include hundreds of historically significant buildings. The Town Center Historic District, includes four-square miles of historic houses, churches and shops.
Retail and restaurants are alive and well in Guilford. The Henry Whitfield House also has a gift shop.
Five Things You’ll Remember
The old stone walls, diamond pane windows, huge fireplaces and ancient furniture evoke a time when people read by candlelight and cooked over a fire. Here are five things you’ll remember from your visit.
They’re several feet thick. Mortar made of yellow clay and crushed oyster shells hold the thick stone walls together.
The local natives carried the stone through a swamp on barrows. Inside the house you can see images of the marks — pictorial signatures — of Uncas, leader of the Mohegans, Shaumpishuh, the female leader of the Menuncatuck tribe and Weekwash, leader of the Niantic tribe.
The third floor-has glass cases that contain artifacts from the Pequot War, uniforms, powder horns and muskets from the American Revolution. (Sometimes reenactors demonstrate the guns — outside.)
Though not original to the house, the furniture dates from the 17th century. It includes a rope bed, a chair owned by the first graduate of Yale and “colonial Ikea” – a table that doubles as a bench.
A separate section has part of the Tower Clock, including the gearing, from the Guilford Congregational Church. It’s the first steeple clock made in the colonies. People come from all over the world to see it.
The unusual corner window, subject of much speculation, was installed during a 1930s restoration based on historical descriptions. It may have served as a lookout over the Long Island Sound. The house’s inhabitants would have wanted to keep an eye on vessels from the Netherlands or from the other side in the English Civil War. Or perhaps they worried about pirates.
You can take a virtual tour of the Henry Whitfield House here.
Images: Guilford Town Green by Doug Kerr via Flickr, CC By-SA 2.0, Henry Whitfield House Highsmith, Carol M, photographer. Henry Whitfield House, Guilford, Connecticut. United States Connecticut Guilford, None. [Between 1980 and 2006] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2011633258/. Henry Whitfield statue By Swampyank – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=107638736. Interior view By JERRYE AND ROY KLOTZ MD – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26600437.