From the West Hartford Archives: Talcott House, Epstein Plaza on New Britain Avenue – We-Ha

Historian Jeff Murray takes a look into West Hartford’s past to reveal some surprising information, spark some memories, or reflect on how much life has changed — or hasn’t changed at all. Enjoy this week’s From the West Hartford Archives…

Written by Jeff Murray

The land on which Epstein Plaza was built was owned by the Talcott family, who lived in a colonial house at the northwest corner of South Quaker Lane and New Britain Street.

Henry Talcott, born in the house in 1815, was an influential figure in the growth of West Hartford’s education system and championed the construction of a modern school in the Elmwood section of the city in the 1840s. He was appointed as acting school visitor, where he was responsible for issuing certificates to teachers and checking on the conditions of schools in the area.

When the first high school was opened under Principal William Hall in 1872 in the center, Talcott was active in its construction and development. When the city gained independence from Hartford in 1854, he served as one of the first selectmen and served on many committees associated with the Congregational Church. In keeping with his calling for education, he taught an adult Bible class in Sunday school and was president of the city school committee until his death in 1888.

Henry Talcott’s connection to Elmwood seems almost legendary—he was there for West Hartford’s first modern high school and the children who graduated from the school system during his lifetime continued to survive the 1960s (some even into the 1970s), but his connection was to her grandmother Sarah Whitman Hooker ( Her daughter Abigail married Henry’s father Samuel) and Henry was 21 when she died. It’s hard to believe how short the city’s history is when older residents in the 1960s remember the man who personally knew his grandmother, an icon of the American Revolution!

Henry’s father, Samuel Talcott, acquired the colonial house on the corner, as well as the land surrounding it, in 1789 when he bought it from the widow of the man who built it, Samuel Stanley, who ran a woolen mill in Trout Brook. This mill was behind the house at the back of the farm some distance along the creek at the edge of present-day Peachland Park and has its own plaque dedicated to its historical importance on the site.

After Stanley’s death, Henry Talcott’s father took over the clothing store and mill on the River and he and his wife raised their children in Elmwood, Henry being the youngest.

Henry Talcott, photo courtesy of the Noah Webster House and the West Hartford Historical Society

Henry’s brother Seth ran the mill after their father’s death, but by 1860, Henry and his sister Mary, who lived with him, were the last remaining children in the family still on the corner farm. Henry married Elizabeth Whiting in New Haven in 1841 and she had six children in the Talcott household – Frances, Eliza, Elizabeth, Sarah, Emmeline, and Abigail, who died young. Their son Francis grew up, married, and ran a poultry farm across the road on what is now Burgoyne Street. His 1865 house on Burgoyne’s Corner still stands and it was his grandson who sold the land in 1915 for the new street of houses to be built there.

His four surviving sisters never married and lived together for many years in the Talcott Colonial house on the corner.

Eliza was superintendent of Elmwood Sunday School in the early 1900s and a member of the Congregational Church Library Committee. Emmeline and Elizabeth were instrumental, along with their neighbor Julia Faxon, in establishing the Elmwood Literary Society, the predecessor to the public library. Sarah Whiting Talcott, another sister, graduated from Vassar College in 1875 and studied art abroad in France and New York with prominent artists for more than a decade. After her father’s death in 1888, she returned to her home in Elmwood and lived with her mother and sisters. She taught art classes and sold antiques from a small room on an annex built on the west side of the house. In 1906, she was a charter member and trustee for six years of the Sarah Whitman Hooker Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, named after her great-grandmother.

Sarah Talcott eventually bought a share of the house from her sisters after their mother’s death in 1913 and lived there for the rest of her life. Below is a photo of Talcott in her art studio a few years before her death in 1936.

Sarah Whiting Talcott in the mid-1930s, photo courtesy of the Noah Webster House and the West Hartford Historical Society

Having photos of landscapes and street scenes are great ways to show how an area has changed over time, but photos of people in their natural environment can be just as enriching, if not more so, to our local history. Human snapshots can help solidify the legacy of the people who lived here, even if they didn’t have children. In Sarah’s case, some of her artwork has been preserved over the years and the current owner still has it in the house.

In 1954, when the house was threatened with demolition to make way for the shopping plaza on the corner, then-owner Harold DeGroff, an interior designer, was determined to save the house. DeGroff appealed to historical societies about removing it, but, as he put it, “they turned a deaf ear” and the state found it not rare enough to preserve. Without institutional help and in just one week, he and others volunteered to raise money to move it.

With one week to go, it was backed onto rollers and moved west to its current location at 1168 New Britain Street, across from Somerset Street. The invoice for the work is $11,800. Some residents who were children at the time remember removing the wires needed to move the house three blocks down.

Work on the shopping center had been underway since the fall of 1952 and was to include a supermarket (First National), as well as a large drug store and 10 smaller stores. Interestingly, there was another institution that had to be removed to make way for the arena – the PA Torizzo Nursery.

Many people remember the Turrizo Arboretum at the southwest corner of New Britain Avenue and South Main Street at the top of the hill, but Pasquale Turrizo actually got his start in West Hartford on the west side of the lot where the yard was near Mayflower Street. He established the nursery on the other side of Princeton Street in 1937 as a small tent, but it eventually expanded into a pavilion by 1943. In the early 1950s, the business had grown enough to warrant an addition west on Knollwood Road.

When the Elmwood Shopping Center lot went ahead, the old nursery property across from Princeton had to be completely demolished, so the South Main Street corner site became the site we all know. A woman who grew up in Elmwood before it was removed remembers coming home from Talcott Junior High School and stopping at the Torrezo Garden Store where the shopping plaza will be built to buy a flower for her mother. The memories that can be retold today make these things more real than any newspaper article. A future article will discuss in more depth the shopping arena and its stores over the years.

Thanks to the dedication of people who recognized the true value of preserving what came before us, Talcott House still stands today on the north side of New Britain Street. While it is surrounded by side streets and a variety of other houses, it has been preserved. It is often passed on New Britain Street in busy traffic around the corner.

Like many areas of West Hartford in the 1950s, the city called for massive development and expansion. Building the new often requires tearing down the old, but the Talcott House is a great example of how the two can coexist – it just takes work,

Epstein Plaza on New Britain Street. Street View from Google

Jeff Murray was born and raised in West Hartford and has been involved with the Historic Noah Webster House & West Hartford since 2011 when he was a high school student and won the Meyer Award for his local history essay. Jeff routinely volunteers as a local history researcher and reveals information for many museum programs such as the West Hartford House Tour and West Hartford Hauntings. Jeff works as a data analyst at Pratt & Whitney.

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