- Historic Sites
The little town of Lebanon, Connecticut, played a larger role in the Revolution than Williamsburg, Virginia, did. And it’s all still there.
April 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 3
It is, therefore, fitting that this place-proud man gave Lebanon its Meeting House, the village’s finest work of art. While Trumbull was in London in 1784, Edmund Burke advised him to study architecture because “a young nation” would “soon want public buildings; these must be erected before the decorations of painting and sculpture will be required.” The next year he spent about five weeks living with Thomas Jefferson in Paris, acting, in the words of Jefferson’s biographer Dumas Malone, as Jefferson’s artistic “guide and mentor.” The two often traveled together to look at French architecture and Roman ruins, doubtless discussing what sorts of buildings would be appropriate to the new nation.
By 1790 Trumbull was in Philadelphia, painting portraits for his historical series. The elders of the city’s First Presbyterian Church approached him about a new building, and Trumbull drew up designs for the first classical structure in Philadelphia. That building, with its elegant Corinthian facade, was demolished in 1821.
In fact, the same harsh fate has befallen all of Trumbull’s architecture, with the single glorious exception of his 1804 Lebanon Meeting House. This building shows that Trumbull had absorbed much on his European trips. He made the main facade into a giant triumphal arch with four whitewashed Doric brick pilasters, a form very much in vogue in Europe at the time and all but unknown in America.
For a generation or two all went well with the Lebanon Meeting House. But in 1871 a new generation Victorianized Trumbull’s pristine interior, bricking over the Palladian window and dividing the once-airy space into two dark stories. In September 1938 a fierce hurricane tore through New England, knocking the steeple backward onto the body of the building and destroying the interior, “almost,” went one account, “as if expressing Providential displeasure with the tampering that had altered Trumbull’s beautiful church.” Gov. Wilbur Cross immediately picked a committee to restore Trumbull’s masterpiece to its former glory, and by 1950 the interior had been entirely reconstructed. The restored church, dedicated on November 28, 1954, today dominates the town, just as intended.
While John Trumbull was traveling across Europe learning the ways of the world, back in Lebanon Isaac Fitch was busy too. Perhaps Fitch’s best work, certainly his most elaborate, was Redwood, a house designed and built for the middle Trumbull brother, David. This son, born in 1751, skipped college to go straight into business, doing his best to keep the firm Trumbull & Son solvent while his father and brothers devoted themselves to politics and fine arts. By 1778 he was sufficiently well-off to marry and build a new house. Curiously, David turned not to his brilliant brother John to build his showplace but to the local artisan Fitch.
Fitch must have been pleased with this commission for an entire building, and it is easy to imagine him thumbing through his English pattern books, by then a generation out of date, marking whatever struck his fancy. He gave Redwood a hipped roof (rare in the state at the time) and a locally unprecedented pent roof between the first and second stories. Inside, Fitch designed a majestic salon flanked by matching double parlorlike spaces to create a plan almost certainly drawn from a plate in one of the books of architecture by James Gibbs, a plan Gibbs would have taken from Palladio.
Furnishing Redwood in wartime was surprisingly simple. John Trumbull wrote his brother David in June 1778 that American privateers had recently captured two British merchant ships and that their cargo was about to be sold in Boston: “there are Goods of the best Quality for the West Indian Market on board [and] you may probably furnish yourself with Curtains, etc., etc., etc. Whatever you wish send me a list.” It is pleasant to think of David Trumbull purchasing goods captured by his father’s privateers.
Redwood was finished by the winter of 1780-81. At the time, Lebanon was playing more or less willing host to a legion of Rochambeau’s hussars under the command of the Duc de Lauzun. Regular troops either camped on the green or stayed in local houses; the duke and his officers had their digs in Redwood. Inexplicably, the duke wasn’t overly pleased with the village, writing, “Siberia alone can be compared to Lebanon, which is composed only of some cottages scattered in the midst of a vast forest.”
Unlike the other Trumbull houses, Redwood has always remained in private ownership, as has the two-story clapboard William Williams House, which faces David Trumbull’s mansion across the southern end of the green. Williams was born in 1731 in Lebanon, the son of Rev. Solomon Williams, an early pastor of the First Congregational Church of Lebanon. The younger Williams graduated from Harvard in 1751 and then set out to earn his living in commerce. In 1771 he married Mary Trumbull, one of the old governor’s two daughters. Like his in-laws, he was drawn into politics: he served as town clerk of Lebanon for forty-four years and represented the town in the General Assembly in Hartford.