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Acclaimed Poet's Hartford Home On The Market

By Kenneth R. Gosselin, The Hartford Courant
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

June 25--HARTFORD -- For years, acclaimed poet Wallace Stevens walked from his home in Hartford'sWest End to his job at a local insurance company, composing poems in his head on the way.

Now, the 1920s Colonial where Stevens' daily journeys began is on the market, with an asking price of $489,900.

The 3,900-square-foot home on Westerly Terrace has six bedrooms and three bathrooms under a slate roof and is built on a half-acre in one of the city's most exclusive neighborhoods. The front entry foyer is ample, giving visitors a first look at stately wainscoting that is repeated throughout the three-story house.

But the home -- owned by Christ Church Cathedral in Hartford since Stevens' death in 1955 -- is a bit of a fixer-upper, with updates needed in the kitchen and bathrooms. None of the furniture that remains is vintage Stevens, but a biography of his life has been casually placed on an enclosed cast-iron radiator in a first-floor sitting room, a nod to the home's provenance.

The cathedral decided to sell the house -- its brass door knocker is inscribed with the word "deanery" -- because priests now prefer to buy and live in their own homes, said Leslie Jones, the cathedral's administrator.

Since the property was listed Sunday morning, there have been six showings and more have been scheduled, according to Paula Fahy Ostop, a real estate agent with William Raveis in West Hartford, who has the listing.

The listing has caught the attention of The Hartford Friends of Wallace Stevens, a group of poets and poetry lovers. A few years ago, the group created a tribute to Stevens, erecting 13 knee-high granite stones -- each with a verse of Stevens' well-known poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" -- along his walking route from home to office. One of the stones is on a grassy boulevard across the street from the house.

Jim Finnegan, the group's president, said Tuesday there has been some early discussion of perhaps raising money to buy the house and later possibly transferring ownership to a separate nonprofit foundation that would maintain it. The intent would be to preserve the floor plan as it was after Stevens' bought the house in 1932.

"We might find some Stevens memorabilia to put in there," Finnegan said. "It would be low-key, not a museum like the Twain House. It's not going to be anything like open 9-5 on Saturdays or anything like that."

He added: "It would just ensure that the house wouldn't be totally revamped inside and out."

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One family member -- a grandson of Wallace Stevens and his wife, Elsie -- still has furnishings from the house, Finnegan said.

After purchasing 118 Westerly Terrace in 1932, Stevens made the house his lifelong home. In a letter shortly after moving in, Stevens wrote; "Without launching into a description of the house (which, I suppose, is very much like other houses), it is enough to say we are delighted with it, although a little short of furniture. However, we expect to be able to buy a sofa before Holly has any very pressing need of one."

Alison Johnson, author of "Wallace Stevens: A Dual Life as Poet and Insurance Executive," said the observation is an example of subtle humor not usually associated with Stevens.

"His daughter Holly was only 8 years old at that time," Johnson said, years from needing a sofa to sit with courting beaux.

The household had a tough time keeping domestic help because Elsie Stevens was difficult to please, Johnson said, noting that the couple's relationship was strained for much of the marriage.

Stevens washed the dishes after dinner and scrubbed the kitchen floor, Johnson said.

In a letter in 1943, Stevens wrote: "After all, one's best things are more than likely to come in the midst of floor scrubbing."

While often viewed as prickly and solitary, Stevens wasn't completely antisocial. In one essay by Steve Kemper, Stevens was reported to have walked to work at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Co., now The Hartford, with Harry Tyler Smith, who worked at Aetna.

Smith would whistle Wagner as the two men walked. But when the Aetna company bus passed by, and Smith's co-workers urged him to get in, they wouldn't invite Stevens.

Stevens was being praised as a "poet's poet" as early as the 1930s but he kept a low profile in Hartford, virtually unknown to his neighbors.

Once asked to repeat at the Wadsworth Atheneum a lecture he had given in New York in 1951 at the Museum of Modern Art, Stevens declined: "Sorry. In Hartford I'm known as a businessman."

Hartford began taking more notice of Stevens in the 1950s. One appreciation by Trinity College Assistant Professor Samuel F. Morse in 1954 noted that many things Stevens saw on his walks found their way into his poetry.

"Statues in parks, stone lions in front of buildings, the Connecticut River, forsythia in bloom against an early spring sky, chalk marks scrawled on the sidewalk," Morse wrote. "Anyone living in Hartford could recognize names and places is some of the poems..."

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Stevens won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1955, just months before he died.

On Westerly Terrace, peonies still bloom in the garden behind the house, though it is anyone's guess whether they are the ones planted by the Stevenses. Inside, the kitchen clearly was updated in the 1980s, but the nearby butler's pantry still has the original cabinetry with glass-paneled doors.

"For someone with the means and the vision, this could be such an amazing home," Ostop said.

___

(c)2014 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)

Visit The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.) at www.courant.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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