This article was written in early 2012 by Steve Nugent, North Haven Historical Society Board Member
The “Bassett house ”, located in the corner of Outer Ridge Road and Ives Street, is likely the oldest continuously occupied residence in North Haven. Research conducted in the 1980’s by Sylvia Garfield, Mary Krinsky, Lucy Brusic and David Apter has shown that the back “half house” section, constructed in 1720, succeeds as the oldest residential structure still standing in North Haven.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. After the Mayflower anchored off Cape Cod November 11, 1620; and the New Haven Colony “purchased” title to a large area of land from Sachem Montowese of the Quinnipiac tribe on December 21, 1638; private land ownership began. Due to the absence of recorded deeds, it is suspected that Samuel Street (1635-1730) , while a Wallingford minister, gained huge tracts of land during New Haven Colony’s third division of 1680. Samuel deeded several parcels located in the northern area of the “neck”, a reference to the area between the Mill and Quinnipiac Rivers, to Samuel Bassett and Captain John Bassett on June 15, 1695 . Thus began the Bassett tenure.
When Captain John Bassett purchased the Street Farm in 1695 there were no buildings noted in the deed. By the time Captain Bassett’s land was divided in 1719, the farm was described as having “buildings thereon.” Just how much before 1719 the buildings were put “thereon” or what type they were is not a question that the documents can be made to answer. However, a deed transaction in March of 1720 described the Bassett property as Joseph’s “house lot,” so the researchers surmise that the house was on the property by early 1720.
When Captain John Bassett died in 1713/14, his sons Joseph (1697-1761) and John (1691-1757) Bassett equally divided their father’s 500-acre estate. The property division was delayed until Joseph was “of age”; and John was awarded first choice of the parcels. Capt. John willed the remaining one-third of his estate to his wife Mercy; and sums of money to his two unmarried daughters, Abigail and Rebekah.
The “house” that was most likely standing by 1720 would have been half of the western section of the present-day home. The original structure was likely a one-room building about the size of a modern two-car garage. Typically, one third of the first floor area was occupied by a large brick chimney and staircase. A cavernous open fireplace, the center of domestic life, was depended upon for cooking and heating purposes. A staircase, winding around the chimney, led to an upper room under sloping rafters that would have been used for sleeping. This type of building was considered a “half-house.” Half-houses existed contemporaneously with larger houses, but very few have survived in the half-house form.
From this modest beginning, the house, which remained in the Basset family for the better part of the next two hundred (one hundred fifty) years, showed a steady pattern of remodeling and expansion. Sometime between 1719 and 1761, a first floor parlor with a second floor sleeping room was added on the other side of the chimney. This linear “I-house” form, now with a chimney located in the center of the living space, was better suited to the New England winter. Joseph, needing more room for his five children, eventually added a lean-to on the southern side of the I-house. To create this addition, roof rafters were leaned from the new one-story addition to the top of the existing, taller main house wall. The extended roof line, a different pitch from the existing roof line, resulted in the common “saltbox” form. Typically, the space under the lean-to roof was used as a loft or as bedroom(s) and the added first floor space became a separate kitchen with another fireplace added into the existing central chimney. Stoves were rare and expensive, including Benjamin Franklin’s “iron fireplace” invented in 1742. Furthermore, an economical, cast-iron stove was not commercially available until 1830’s.
Joseph Bassett, Sr. expanded his land holdings between the years 1721 and 1753; acquiring approximately one hundred acres of land involving over twenty-four deeded transactions.
When Joseph, Sr. died in 1761, the estate was distributed to his three sons and sums of money to his two daughters. The house was inherited by his sons, Abel (1728-1767) and Joseph, Jr. (1727-1812). The Probate record, absent property descriptions, describes the land division as simply divided “betwixt” the sons.
When Joseph, Sr.’s estate was settled in 1762, the contents of the house were inventoried in terms of a north versus a south portion—an indication that the roof’ ridge line ran parallel to Ives Street. The detailed inventory of the estate, available at the North Haven Historical Society, inventoried all pieces of furniture, clothing, tools, and household items, including six beds, five wooded trays, four pair of stockings, three small books, two pilliars and a pewter porringer in disrepair. ♫♪♫
A story is told about Joseph, Jr., then considered a confirmed bachelor, who did not marry until he was 26 years old. When Joseph, Jr. was performing errands for his father at a nearby house, one of the homeowner’s daughters, Chloe Sanford, (xxxx-1821), began to tease him about getting married. Joseph replied that “there was no one would have him.” Chloe retorted, “Yes, there was.” She would. Joseph and Chloe were married December 24, 1760, in the first wedding performed by the Rev. Benjamin Trumbull, on his ordination day.
As an aside, the Yale educated, Rev. Trumbull (1735-1820), was a patriot, historian, author and minister of the Congregation Church for sixty years. His proudly preserved 1761 Georgian Colonial home continues to grace the Town Green from Trumbull Place.
Joseph, Jr. served during the Revolutionary War and was injured during the Invasion of New Haven on July 5, 1779. He and Chloe gave their home its present orientation by building a one and a half story house (with another central fireplace) onto the eastern side of the existing salt-box house. The exact date of the addition is not known, but it is appealing to suppose that the addition was completed in time so that they could move into it by the time their son, Jacob, married Lovice Bassett (a distant cousin) in September 1801, and the newlyweds took residence in the salt-box portion of the house. When Joseph, Jr.’s estate was settled in 1812, the contents of the house were inventoried in terms of an east/west division—an indication that the roof’s ridge line now ran parallel to Outer Ridge Road. The distribution of the estate specified that Chloe could occupy the newer, eastern portion for the rest of her life. Chloe Sanford Bassett died in 1821.
It was certainly Jacob who made the eastern portion of the house into the two-story Federal style dwelling that is the main portion of the structure. Jacob was, after all, a prominent North Haven citizen. He had served as First Selectman in 1809-1810 and again in 1816. He was North Haven’s Representative to the General Assembly in 1811. He served on the committee to build the new Congregational church in 1834; and by 1836 had become the wealthiest man in North Haven. After his mother’s death, Jacob raised the roof to two and one-half stories and relocated the home’s entrance to the north gable facing Ives Street. No doubt he wanted an impressive house in the Federal style that had become popular during the era of the formation of the American federal government. In fact, the Federal style was a little outmoded in urban areas by the 1820s, but rural towns like North Haven were traditionally slow to imitate the fashion of the city.
The house passed from the Bassett family around the time of the Civil War. The growth of New Haven as a manufacturing center, combined with the destructive competition of local based farms, influenced many cultural changes including the demise of Bassett‘s farming affiliation. As John Dickerman noted in his Colonial History of the Parish of Mount Carmel, “the rich inheritance of fathers to sons, of historic family associations, cannot endure”. In fact during this era of change, Sheldon Thorpe observed “they warned all Irishmen out of the Town, fined our boys and girls for walking on Sunday, forbid dancing bears entering the parish, and posted the names of drunkards in the tavern bar-rooms.”
The house and approximately fifteen acres was sequentially owned by Amos and Edwin Tuttle, William Brewster and Eli Whitney. Eli Whitney conveyed the property to Edward E. Minor in 1918.
Edward Minor (xxxx-1953), transformed the structure from a farm house to a suburban estate. His work, in collaboration with the architect, C. F. Townsend, is an early example of historic consciousness in North Haven. Architect Charles Frederick Townsend (xxxx), was president of the Architect Club of New Haven; and recognized in then current national publications such as The American Architect, and House & Garden. His work in the colonial vernacular has also been noted in Elizabeth Mills Brown’s (1916-2009) New Haven a Guide to Architecture and Urban Design. The restoration was an early example of carefully researched and historically accurate restoration by a local homeowner.
When the original well ran dry, Minor, who was an officer of the New Haven Water Company, arranged to have an eight-mile water line laid from Whitney Avenue to this property. The privately owned New Haven Water Company, incorporated in 1849, was acquired in 1980 by the South Central Connecticut Regional Water Authority, a non-profit, public company owned by the State of Connecticut.
The house was then cared for by John & Rosemary Haley; and subsequently deeded to Harold Bornstein, M.D., Yale Distinguished Alumni ’53, and a long-time local pediatrician, activist and Town physician. In XXXX, Bornstein subdivided the property and lived in the newer constructed home to the west.
The “Bassett house” and five acres was acquired by the current owners David E. Apter (1924-2010) and Eleanor Selwyn Apter in 1969. David Apter, the Yale University Henry J. Heinz II Professor Emeritus of Comparative Political and Social Development, was a noted scholar on/of developing nations; known for his extensive field study, was suitably skilled to conduct the research on his own property. With like regard, the property has been well preserved and maintained throughout their custody.
Contrarily, several of North Haven’s historic structures have failed to endure their ancestral history. For example, prior to the 19XX demolition, the oldest standing home was the “Bradley House”, 23 Bradley Street, built in 1715. North Haven’s first brick dwelling, constructed by Joel Bassett (1734-1796) in 1759, was torn down in the 1920’s . In addition, the birthplace of Connecticut’s 33rd Governor, Hobart Bigelow was recently torn down. It was an 18th century home located high on Mill Road, currently Pierpont Court.
Joseph Bassett, Sr., along with many of his offspring, are interred in the Old Center Cemetery. Fortunately, unlike Joseph, Sr.’s epithet “all living must return to dust” , the “Bassett” home, inescapably but sensitively altered over the centuries, continues to stand and physically represent three centuries of architectural styles and building techniques.