The famed Wilcox mansion in Meriden and its demise (2014/16)

Designer Paul Butkus reviews a presentation about the glamorous Meriden mansion that eventually faced the wrecking ball, with parlor room saved, and on view, at the Met in New York.

Paul Butkus
artdesigncafé - design | Design Meriden | DM 1(1) | 19 March 2016 | Updated 18 April 2016


Brian Confrancesco. (2014). Lecture: "Jedediah Wilcox and his mansion: History, mystery and legacy." Meriden Public Library, Meriden, CT.

Architectural historian and native of Meriden, CT, Brian Cofrancesco gives a passionate presentation about arguably the grandest mansion ever built in this city and the colorful industrialist who built it. Although the mansion was demolished in 1971 before Cofrancesco was born, Jedediah Wilcox nevertheless captured his imagination at a young age which became a lifelong interest through his university education and beyond. One room from the mansion, complete with its original furnishings, is on permanent display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.[1]

The presentation outlines Wilcox’s swift rise to prominence during the industrial revolution in Meriden through his myriad successful business ventures including a woolen mill, carpet bags, hoops skirts and eventually silver plate (Wilcox Silver Plate Co.). Wilcox’s successes allowed him to build a grand mansion in 1868-70 containing 40 rooms spread over three floors and a basement. The Franco-Italian villa, as it was described in contemporary accounts, cost USD$125,000 to build plus another $75,000 to furnish. (In today’s dollars, $200,000 can be estimated to be over $3.7 million, although based upon an unskilled labor rate comparison the building would cost closer to $26 million today.)[2]

Stylistic analysis of the mansion
Through an analysis of historic photographs, maps and an 1870 news article, Cofrancesco developed a conjectural floor plan which he used to estimate the scale of the building. These sources also helped to answer the question of how such a mansion ended up in Meriden. Armed only with the names of the builder (George Gay) and architect (Augustus Truesdel) for whom there are no historical archives, Cofrancesco explains his analysis of the form of the building and his discovery of a precedent found in a contemporary pattern book by Samuel Sloan (1815-84). The “Norman Villa” included in Sloan’s Victorian Buildings, a Dover reprint of Sloan’s The Model Architect (1852-53), is proposed as the basis for the design. Through a careful comparison of known details and limited room dimensions of the Wilcox mansion with those specified for the “Norman Villa”, Cofrancesco makes a compelling argument that this plan was the basis for the design of the mansion.

Wilcox: A riches to rags story
In addition to the physical attributes of the mansion, Cofrancesco weaves many interesting facts related to Jedediah Wilcox’s colorful life throughout the presentation. Cofrancesco’s account include details about Wilcox’s personal life including his divorce, very unusual at the time, 19th century political intrigue (Wilcox ran for mayor and lost to fellow industrialist Charles Parker), severe financial difficulties and the ultimate loss of the mansion and his other Meriden holdings. Cofrancesco asserts that although Wilcox attempted to retain ownership of the mansion when it was put up for auction, he was outbid. It initially looked as though the mansion was purchased by William L. Bradley, son of Nathaniel Bradley of Bradley & Hubbard fame. Three days after the auction however, news began to circulate that Bradley had sold the mansion to Wilcox’s rival, Charles Parker.

From 1874 onward, the mansion became known as the Parker Mansion until the 1950s when the family sold it and it was turned into the Beechwood Lodge convalescent home. After the loss of his companies and mansion, Wilcox moved to New Haven where he was later buried. Cofrancesco describes trying to locate his grave site only to discover that the body had been later moved by his daughter to an unmarked grave in a Berlin cemetery, just north of Meriden.

From museum-quality mansion to demolition
With the presentation’s time allotment, Confrancesco opted to focus on his analysis of the building’s design and the life of Jedidiah Wilcox. He very briefly talks about and sketches out what happened after the Parker era (1874-1950s) until the demolition of the mansion in 1971.

To facilitate further inquiry for interested journalists, researchers and readers to learn more, I offer the following compilation of sources below.

Compilation of key sources related to the Wilcox mansion:

Auction and subsequent purchase of mansion by Charles Parker:

(2 September 1874). "An Elegant Mansion, and other desirable real and personal property For Sale! at Public Auction". Meriden Daily Republican, p. 2. (Viewed 18 April 2016).

(9 September 1874). "Sale of the J. Wilcox Residence". The Meriden Daily Republican, p. 2. (Viewed 19 March 2016.)

(12 September 1874). "The J. Wilcox property". Meriden Daily Republican: "This beautiful mansion, which was sold to Wm. L. Bradley last Wednesday, is about to change hands, Hon. Chas. Parker being the prospective owner. It was stated on the streets this morning that Mr. Parker had purchased the property, and the circulation of the story created quite a stir." (Viewed 19 March 2016.)

Articles leading up to the demolition of the Wilcox mansion:

(21 April 1967). "Metropolitan Museum Plans To Acquire Part Of Mansion". The Morning Record, p. 1. (Viewed 19 March 2016.)

(25 April 1967). "Motor Hotel Gets OK Of Council Committee Suggestion: Buy Mansion And Move It". The Morning Record, p. 1, 19. (Viewed 18 April 2016).

(26 April 1967). "Council To Delay Move On Mansion". The Morning Record, p. 1, 15. (Viewed 19 March 2016.)

(7 July 1967). "Houston Confident Funds Will Save Parker Mansion". The Morning Record, p. 10. (Viewed 19 March 2016.)

(11 July 1967). "State Aid Bolsters Move To Make Mansion A Museum". The Morning Record, p. 13. (Viewed 19 March 2016.)

(2 August 1967). "State To Look At Old Mansion". The Morning Record, p. 1, 10. (Viewed 19 March 2016.)

(4 August 1967). "State, City Officials Tour Wilcox Mansion". The Morning Record, p. 1. (Viewed 18 April 2016).

(24 August 1967). "Arts Association Members Polled On Parker Mansion". The Morning Record, p. 20. (Viewed 19 March 2016.)

(28 August 1967). "Fate Of Jedediah Wilcox Mansion Hangs On Funds, Zone Change". The Morning Record, p. 7. (Viewed 19 March 2016.)

(28 September 1967). "Houston To Confer With Mansion’s Owner". The Morning Record, p. 18. (Viewed 19 March 2016.)

(3 October 1967). "Library Site, Museum Win Council Okay". The Morning Record, p. 1. (Viewed 19 March 2016.)

(28 October 1967). "City Gets $64,000 Grant For Museum". The Morning Record, p. 20. (Viewed 19 March 2016.)

(3 November 1967). "Option Runs Out On Mansion Bid". The Morning Record, p. 1, 23. (Viewed 19 March 2016.)

(4 November 1967). "Houston Reports Progress On Mansion Talks". The Morning Record, p. 1. (Viewed 19 March 2016.)

(17 November 1967). "Save The Mansion Drive Appears On The Ropes". The Meriden Journal, p. 1, 19. (Viewed 19 March 2016.)

(23 November 1967). "City Seeking Federal Grant for Buying Wilcox Mansion". The Morning Record, p. 1. (Viewed 19 March 2016.)

(28 November 1967). "$206,000 Bond Issue Voted To Buy Colony St. Lot". The Morning Record, p. 1. (Viewed 19 March 2016.)

(12 December 1967). "Save-Mansion Group Goes To Washington Wednesday". The Morning Record, p. 1. (Viewed 19 March 2016.)

(14 December 1967). "Mansion Meeting Excellent Five Sources of Funds Open". The Morning Record, p. 1. (Viewed 19 March 2016.)

(14 December 1967). "Mansion Group Prepares Fund-Raising Brochures". The Morning Record, p. 16. (Viewed 19 March 2016.)

(17 February 1968). "Arts And Crafts Withdraws Seeks To Buy Building For Cultural Center". The Morning Record, p. 1, 4. (Viewed 19 March 2016.)

(15 March 1968). "Mansion Appears Doomed; Motel Receives Initial Okay". The Morning Record, p. 1, 19. (Viewed 18 April 2016).

(26 April 1968). "Fate of Mansion Nearing Decision". The Morning Record, p. 1, 15. (Viewed 18 April 2016).

(7 August 1968). "Treadway Still Seeks Wilcox Site". The Morning Record, p. 1, 16. (Viewed 19 March 2016.)

(3 October 1968). "Workmen Stripping Mansion For Museum". The Morning Record, p. 12. (Viewed 19 March 2016.)

(28 March 1969). "Arguments Are Reheated Over Rezoning Mansion". The Morning Record, p. 1, 24. (Viewed 19 March 2016.)

(1 October 1969). "Court Denies Appeal In Mansion Rezoning". The Morning Record, p. 1, 29. (Viewed 19 March 2016.)

(15 October 1969). "New Appeal Filed in Mansion Zoning". The Morning Record, p. 1, 26. (Viewed 18 April 2016).

(20 November 1969). "Prowler Caught Breaking into Beechwood Lodge". The Morning Record, p. 23. (Viewed 19 March 2016.)

(28 May 1971). "Wilcox Mansion Coming Down, Firm Gets Demolition Permit". The Morning Record. (As of 19 March 2016, this article is not available online.)

(29 May 1971). "The End Of A Landmark". The Morning Record. (As of 19 March 2016, this article is not available online.)

(2 November 1971). "Zone Change Upheld In Treadway Case". The Morning Record, p. 1. (Viewed 19 March 2016.)

(19 July 1973). "Wilcox Property Sold To Oil Firm". The Morning Record, p. 1. (Viewed 18 April 2016).

Footnotes:
[1] In Gallery 737 - Renaissance Revival Parlor, 1870.
[2] See www.measuringworth.com for a discussion on measuring worth over time periods.