Rescued and restored, this 1840s Greek Revival House is both museum and centre stage in the life of a community
by Cary Rideout
Photography by Lorain Ebbett-Rideout
What is a house? Is it just wood, stone and shutters? Well, in the case of the Connell House in Woodstock, New Brunswick, this question is answered easily. It’s also columns… and plenty of them, too!
In 1839 Charles Connell, a successful businessman and later politician, built his version of grandeur, which still holds stately court on the banks of the Meduxnekeag Stream. The house stands as sturdy and majestic as the colossal pine that financed its building. Pine was the pitchy gold of Connell’s day, with fortunes made hewing down the centuries-old giants. As an accomplished and self-made man, Connell wished to build a great house to show the world his wealth and stature.
The mystery along the Meduxnekeag
The inspiration for the grand build came while Connell was traveling up the Hudson River on a visit to New York City. He was impressed with the lavish homes along this fabled waterway but the Greek Revival style with its columns had the greatest effect on his future home plans. While this style of building is often associated with the American South it was also popular along the Atlantic States as a way of emulating Greek culture, which was wildly fashionable at the time. Returning home to Woodstock, Connell set about building his own Tara and in short order put up a grand home. One can only image the house as it must have been filled with light and laughter as lavish meals came to table. Connell’s fine home became a focal point in the community for years, hosting many visitors and gatherings.
As is the case all too often, empires never seem to hold and the Connell House lost much of its glory as the decades passed. By the 1970s it was divided into apartments and faced an uncertain future, had it not been for the Carleton County Historical Society, whose members saw the need to save this wonderful structure from decay. Formed in 1960, this group of Woodstock citizens had initially worked to restore the Old Carleton County Courthouse that had been reduced to the sad role of stable. With restoration experience under their belts, the society cast their eyes on the Connell House and purchased it in 1975.
Much of the credit for the house’s current condition is certainly due to the careful restoration and love the society has lavished on the structure; but also, its original builders intended the structure to last. The mighty columns and the post and beam foundations were stoutly reinforced with brick and massive carrying timbers supporting the weight. The columns are tree trunks 63 inches in circumference and make a visually striking feature. Recent restoration work revealed many boards in excess of 24 inches wide. The restoration work would have gone more smoothly had blueprints of the building been available, but sadly, no records exist. No mention of the architect, the builders or even material suppliers can be found. It’s a mystery like the Sphinx, this masterpiece along the Meduxnekeag!
Echoes of a bygone era
Approaching the Connell House, the massive column-supported veranda immediately draws your attention. Soon you find yourself walking the covered coolness in the same measured step of long-gone gentleman with their cigars, or ladies taking a turn in the air. Once inside the house, you discover this vibrant living structure offers its hand in welcome with a hearty greeting.
“We are open year round and visitors are encouraged to view all the rooms.” says executive director Kellie Blue-McQuade. She speaks with barely-contained delight as she guides visitors further into the house, which isn’t stale and dull, but brightly lit, with lively laughter mingling with the clatter of kitchen activity. Often found dressed in period-appropriate attire, Kellie recounts the house’s story in the words of one who loves the very walls themselves. “Along with our many historical displays we also host events such as a Victorian Tea, art exhibits, book launches and music,” she says. Turning into a long room set for a luncheon, she points to a polished baby grand piano awaiting a musician’s touch. “The main parlour is open to weddings or similar events and we offer the public a variety of catered possibilities. All are welcome at the Connell House.”
A warm invitation, and one that everyone should accept.
Off the main parlour, a room of secrets awaits investigation, and upon entering, you should look up. Way up. Yes, that is an intricately painted ceiling, all done freehand by John Lee. “During restoration, the workmen discovered this beautiful decoration and we had to get an expert in to show us how to remove three layers of paint!” Kellie says. “It was a wonderful signed painting by the talented John Lee, whose work can be also found at the Old Courthouse.” Three coats of paint indeed; such work is sadly all too common in historic buildings, as fickle fashion and Philistines cover up what is deemed out of date. But thankfully, in this case a gentle masterpiece is now unmasked.
Of course any home needs furniture and Connell House has period pieces working in conjunction with lighting and fine touches such as wood work on doorways and walls. It’s not difficult to imagine that a visitor might encounter a member of the long-ago household, pausing at a table or seated comfortably to do some reading.
A long bannister beckons and guides the wanderer further into the house. And such treasures reward the ascent! The upstairs is divided into gallery displays, each enough to occupy hours. The Military Gallery contains a collection of more than 1,000 lead soldiers, marshalled and ready for the march. This collection is from the military Vince family and the pieces were purchased as Christmas presents from London, England. Dozens of lancers, dragoons, guards, pack trains and camel cavalry, with enough artillery to defend the Empire are on display, forever engaged in battle. Military uniforms, helmets and medals with local connections fill the room. One can only image the hours of play such a massed force would have provided, and the odd red-coated veteran does show a bit of over enthusiastic wear!
Carleton Country Historical Society president John Thompson showed off one room of special interest. An accomplished musician and student of history, John’s personal collection of various instruments makes up a large part of the Music Room. His delight in sharing a life’s passion is evident and he actually built some the instruments in the room. The instrument collection covers wind, string and keys, with impromptu concerts the norm. Unlike many historic buildings, the rooms in the Connell House are not untouchable exhibits; explanations are soon turned into experiences and a visitor is part of the room rather than a spectator. As the tour progressed, the sounds of Africa, Asia and Europe filled the room under John’s practiced touch, and could be heard all over the house.
One of the true gems of the Connell House is the Tappan Adney Gallery. Any student of the canoe will truly enjoy this wonderful arrangement. First visiting New Brunswick as a 19-year-old from New York, Adney met a Maliseet man building a birchbark canoe, and was fascinated and inspired to learn more about the craft and the vessels. Adney worked first to record the Maliseet canoe and then learned about every other Indigenous watercraft for good measure. He is credited by many with having saved the birchbark canoe from being lost to history, having collected his knowledge in his book Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America. The canoe and artifact collection, much of it contributed by the Adney family, is priceless; everyone from casual paddler to those who study the arts of bark and wood will be enthralled. Best of all, the canoe examples and snowshoes made with a simple crooked knife perhaps serve to explain a man driven by a need to know.
What is a house? Is it hearth, comfort and loved ones? In the case of the Connell House what titans of industry, politicians or officers of the Crown crossed the doorsill and received a roaring welcome? Long evenings filled with Confederation talk, war with the Yankees, and what swirling dancers with whispering dress hems trod the floors with dainty steps? Like so much of the past, the Connell House offers no firm answers except to warmly extend the invitation to return again.
And I shall; as should you.