A Short Walking Tour of Historic Silvermine
A SHORT WALKING TOUR OF SILVERMINE
Around the Mill and Silvermine Road block with a few minor detours.
(About two miles)
By Frank and Marsha Whitman
With special thanks to Leigh Grant and the Norwalk Association of Silvermine Homeowners (NASH) for sharing their accumulated wisdom and extensive research on the history of Silvermine and its early residents, their archive of past house tours that provided much of the information about these old buildings, and their materials on the mills along the river in the “good old days.”
Silvermine is a community with a rich heritage. Settled since colonial times, it has evolved through many phases to the charming and eclectic residential community seen today. Water-powered industry, farming, artist’s colony, and suburban living are all part of the Silvermine story.
Not a town but a neighborhood, Silvermine has the shape of a rough oval along the Silvermine River touching three towns: Norwalk, New Canaan, and Wilton.
SILVERMINE ARTS CENTER
This walk starts at the Silvermine Arts Center where parking is often available, but you can dip in anywhere along the loop.
Silvermine Guild of Artists was founded in 1922 by Solon Borglum and his fellow Silvermine artists. The Guild attracted more artists to Silvermine forming a substantial creative community.
Now called the Silvermine Arts Center, it has an active artist membership, a well-established school, and a curated gallery that holds exhibits of members’ work as well as an annual juried show, The Art of the Northeast. The galleries are open Tuesday to Saturday from 12:00 to 5:00.
Across the street is the Silvermine Market, originally operated by the Guthrie family, a well-known name in Silvermine. Behind it was the community ice house. The store has evolved from a neighborhood grocery and butcher shop to a full service breakfast and lunch stop with a popular brunch. Inside, there’s a picture on the wall of Mr. Guthrie standing proudly in front of the building with his horse-drawn delivery van in the background.
SILVERMINE ROAD, NEW CANAAN
From the Art Center parking lot turn right past charming old homes. The house on the corner to the right at 1096 was, for years, painted pink, one of two pink houses in Silvermine at the time – a legacy of the artistic community.
SILVERMINE AVENUE, NORWALK
Turning left at the stop sign takes you across the town line from New Canaan to Norwalk. The name of the street, which turns with you, changes from Silvermine Road in New Canaan to Silvermine Avenue in Norwalk.
The house on the corner to the left straddles the Norwalk-New Canaan town line. Built in 1832, it was the home of renowned artist and illustrator Hamilton Hamilton in the 1890s. His daughter, Helen Hamilton, continued the family tradition as a recognized post-impressionist landscape painter.
The next house, #312 on the left with its distinctive gingerbread trim was Helen Hamilton’s studio for a while. This tiny lot and building were originally associated with the Platt House coming up next. Many of the old family names in Silvermine are associated with this cute house.
The Stephen and Cynthia Gregory house (also known as the Platt House) at #306 was built in 1840 from wood cut at local sawmills. The house was, at various times, a small store and the premises of a pattern maker.
Many of the old homes on the left side as you walk down the hill were the commercial center of colonial Silvermine, including the post office and blacksmith. Their low roofs and small second story windows are typical of the post and beam era. There is a line of stately maple trees on the left that may be the oldest residents of Silvermine.
The 1840 Roswell Hyatt house at #300 has its original fireplace with cooking crane and beehive oven. At Hyatt’s death in 1856 his will made elaborate provision for his widow to have use of “the south half of the cellar” and access to the “outside cellar door” pointing out the importance of a cool and dry New England cellar for the storage of food. During renovations in the 1980s a well worn c1788 Connecticut Copper coin was found in the wall.
At the bottom of the hill, the four corners intersection can be confusing. Silvermine Avenue turns right. Straight across the intersection is Perry Avenue and to the left is River Road, which changes its name to Mill Road at the New Canaan line.
To the right, two doors down at #297 Silvermine Avenue, the 1724 Jacob St. John house is one of the oldest homes still standing in Silvermine. It has many of its original architectural and interior details and the classic style from houses of that era. The St. John family were large landholders in Silvermine.
PERRY AVENUE, NORWALK
Straight across the intersection on either side of Perry Avenue is the GrayBarns Inn, Tavern and Mercantile. The luxury Inn and New American restaurant occupy the buildings of the former Silvermine Tavern, an inn and restaurant at the center of Silvermine from 1929 to 2009. The Inn to the left, built by Andrew Cocker and operated as a cotton factory, dates from 1810. Later the Guthrie family incorporated it into their wood-turning mill business. In the early 20th century the Goldstein family brewed beer and ran a tavern and speakeasy in the basement as well as a fur processing business.
Down the hill on the left at 192 Perry is the 1800 former Guthrie Mill (also known as the Red Mill), which is now a private home. The mill made wooden knobs for furniture, dowels for post and beam construction and tent pegs during the Civil War. Sammy Rider, the last operator of the mill, used water power until 1909. Later it was the studio of artist Frank Townsend Hutchins. In the 1930s it was operated as a waffle shop by the Silvermine Tavern. Actor Spencer Tracey, a regular guest, is said to hold the record for eating the most waffles at one sitting.
Across Perry Avenue at #189 is the former basket maker’s shop that was owned by artist Frank Townsend Hutchens in 1913. The building is close to both the road and the river.
From the bridge there is a lovely view upstream of the Guthrie Pond waterfall. During a renovation in 2008, the 1899 bridge was dedicated to the Whitman Family, proprietors of the Silvermine Tavern from 1955 to 2009. Downstream to the south beyond the top of the next dam, the dark building to the left was also a mill and in the late 20th century the home of Evan Hunter, author of the Blackboard Jungle, the screenplay for Hitchcock’s The Birds and the Ed McBain mysteries.
Back up the hill on the left at #191 (with the large studio window) is the 1840 Hyatt-Guthrie, barn part of the Guthrie Red Mill wood-turning operation. Later it was associated with the store next door. In 1967 it was extensively and spectacularly renovated by New Canaan Architect Richard Bergman to its current footprint.
The GrayBarns Mercantile was originally Hyatt’s General Store run by Aiken and Henry Hyatt in the 1880s and was key to the community, used as a church hall, blacksmith shop, and dance hall as well as a store. It has unusually high ceilings for a building of its age. The local temperance meeting hall was upstairs. The store used to sit closer to Silvermine Avenue but was moved back and expanded in the 1930s. Over the years, a few musket balls have been found on the grounds.
The large north-facing window on the second story of the Mercantile is typical of artist studio lighting that can be seen marking former artist quarters around Silvermine.
RIVER ROAD, NORWALK
At the four corners, River Road goes north past the restaurant entrance parallel to the Silvermine River. In the eighteenth century when water power drove the engines of industry, this river had a good fall and flow for building dams to power mills. There were a dozen or so mills covering several miles along the river. The work of Silvermine mills included leather tanning, sawmill, cider pressing, fur processing, and wood turning.
The River and area are called Silvermine (or Silver Mines on very old maps), but there was never any silver found. There are several sites that purport to be the silver mine, but none are convincing.
Along River Road at #3, the farmhouse on the left, is about 125 years old. Before Silvermine was a suburban residential area, it was typical family farmland, not covered with trees as it is now. Stone walls that run through the woods used to border cleared fields.
The third driveway on the left used to be for the Gates Moore Lighting workshop. Its famous colonial reproductions are sent all over the country to enhance authentic restorations. The outside lights at GrayBarns are all Gates Moore fixtures. Gates began by creating the chandeliers and wall sconces for the Silvermine Tavern at the request of his uncle, John Kenneth Byard, The Silvermine Tavern’s founder.
Byard lived in the rambling colonial house at #11. The original saltbox dates from the 18th century with many later additions including a replica of a ballroom from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Dorothy Randolph Byard, Kenneth’s wife, was an artist-member of the Guild and a published poet. She collaborated with famed industrial designer John Vassos, also a Silvermine resident, on several of her books.
The light gray residence at No. 315 Mill Road, very close to the road, is a converted barn. The town line between Norwalk and New Canaan passes through the living room. As you stand with the house to your back and look across the river, you are looking into Wilton at the point where the boundaries of the three towns come together. From here to the Mill Road stop sign, the river is the border between New Canaan and Wilton.
Norwalk once included what is now Wilton and most of New Canaan. Originally church parishes, those towns were formed in the early 1800s by the Connecticut General Assembly, each claiming some access to the industrial land along the river.
MILL ROAD, NEW CANAAN
When you cross into New Canaan, River Road becomes Mill Road. Along Mill Road, which was a winding lane for horse and wagon that served the mills, are many homes representing colonial, Greek revival, modern and eclectic styles. Numerous artists, architects, and writers have lived along this stretch.
At #273 on Mill Road is the Seymour Austin Blacksmith Shop built in 1892. Austin served the businesses in Silvermine with equipment and wagon repairs. It is typical of many Silvermine homes, with an older commercial core surrounded by many later additions and updates.
#264 Mill Road was part of the Austin mill complex, used to store wagons and harnesses.
The low-slung house at #256 Mill Road was built on the foundations of the former Web Austin mill where seasonal occupations included grinding corn, pressing apples for cider and cutting wood.
On the left as you walk up the hill is the oldest house along this stretch. It bears a plaque dating it to 1735.
In the summer you will see beautiful gardens and landscaping all along the walk. In winter, after the leaves fall, you get a clearer view of the river and the waterfalls that still remain. Peek behind the fence at the mailbox for #247 to see a waterfall.
At #198, the barn-red building on the right is the remnant of the Buttery Sawmill, built in 1672. Operated by Fred Buttery until the flood of October 1955, it was the last water-powered sawmill in the area. You can see the old water wheel tucked under the building.
The lane between the two buildings serves several homes on the Wilton side that only have access through New Canaan.
Long after steam and electricity had made water power obsolete, Buttery continued to operate the mill. Henry Ford offered to buy the intact mill and set it up at his Greenfield Village Museum, but Buttery wanted to keep it going in Silvermine. The original wooden guard rails on the Merritt Parkway were cut here at the Buttery mill. In the flood, the dam was wiped out and the mill damaged beyond repair.
Over the next hill on the right is a glass A frame entrance to the top level of a multi-story house. Mid-century architect John Black Lee, a modernist inspired by New Canaan’s Harvard Five, built it as his home. Although only the entrance is visible from the road, the living area goes down the river bank, offering unparalleled views both upstream and downstream.
Just past the A frame is a high waterfall easily seen from the road and visible year-round.
At the stop sign take a brief detour to the right onto the narrow Borglum Road bridge.
Beyond the steep hill on Borglum Road was the studio of Solon Borglum. Borglum was an internationally known sculptor most famous for his portrayals of the American West. Studies in the American West and Paris led to a successful career in New York. He began spending time in Silvermine in 1906. From his Silvermine studio, known as Rocky Ranch, he created works that are now in museums and private collections around the world.
Borglum’s presence drew other artists to the area. They eventually founded the Silvermine Guild of Artists from an informal group that met in his studio to discuss each other’s work. The comments were honest and not always kind so the group became known as the Knockers’ Club. Solon was visited in Silvermine by his brother Gutson, also a sculptor, who went on to carve the presidents on Mount Rushmore. The studio is NOT open to the public.
Across the pond there is a large white house where Johnny Gruelle, another Silvermine artist lived for a time. Murals painted by Gruelle’s younger brother Justin are in the collection of WPA art at the Norwalk City Hall and Norwalk Library.
Johnny Gruelle is best known for creating the Raggedy Ann characters and stories for his daughter Marcella. She died at age 13, but the Raggedy Ann stories continued and are still popular today. A large rock extending into the river is known as Raggedy Ann’s Rock, a site that is portrayed in several of the original stories. Gruelle, his wife, and Marcella are buried in the Silvermine Cemetery which you will see later in the walk.
Head back across the bridge and go straight to continue on Mill Road. High on the hill to the left the imposing white house was the home of American impressionist Bernhard Gutmann. In the mid 20th century, author and social critic Vance Packard lived there. Look for the whimsical statues of the elephant and giraffe in the yard.
Along this stretch the river takes a turn to the north and leaves the road.
SILVERMINE ROAD, NEW CANAAN
At the stop sign at the corner of Mill and Silvermine Road go left to continue around the block, or turn right to visit the Silvermine Fowler Preserve nature center, a short distance ahead on the left. The property was donated by Jim Fowler, host of the Wild Kingdom TV show and Silvermine resident.
Turning left at the corner, continuing around the block, the 1926 brick house at #828, called The Beaches, was the home of Mary Boyle, personal secretary and confidant to legendary Wall Street financier Bernard Baruch. She was his right hand and a successful investor in her own right, but took a big hit, like everyone else, in 1929.
The Lower Silvermine Community Cemetery is on the left. Here you can see many of the old Silvermine names including Hyatt, Louden, Buttery, and Guthrie. In the back right corner of the cemetery is the grave of Solon Borglum. Closer to the street on the same side is the grave of Cliff Meek, who was known for his wrought iron creations made at the Silvermine Forge. The unmarked graves of the Gruelle family are also here.
Along Silvermine Road are many beautifully kept antique homes. Echo Road, a private lane, was the address for humorist and New Yorker writer Robert Benchly, a member of the literary Algonquin Round Table.
Just before the end of the walk, the Samuel Buttery House at #1012 dates from 1869. Over its life, it changed hands from the Buttery family to the Guthrie clan, two family names that keep popping up in Silvermine History. By 1883 the house was owned by John L Gurthrie who was a sawyer at the time, probably working at the Guthrie family mill, but who later became a butcher and most likely ran the Guthrie store, now the Silvermine Market. It is typical of many Greek Revival houses built in Silvermine during that era.
Finish your walk at the Silvermine Market, where a map of Silvermine drawn in 1945 by John Vassos (a well known industrial designer, patron of the Guild, and Silvermine resident) shows the homes and studios of the Silvermine Artists at the time.