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Lockwood Mathews Mansion

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Elm Park
1864–1868, Detlef Lienau. 295 West Ave.

The Lockwood Mathews Mansion, known originally as Elm Park, remains a little-altered early expression of Gilded Age architectural splendor, and is one of the finest examples of French Chateauesque style in the country. Twenty years before the Vanderbilts built their lavish “cottages” in Newport, Elm Park showcased the wealth and sophistication of its owner, the aptly named Le Grand Lockwood (1820–1872). Located on an estate that once extended to the Norwalk River, the opulent country house boasts a graceful setting, grand building design, lavish interior finishes, and elegant furnishings. Elm Park was meant not only to underscore Lockwood’s financial success, but also to emphasize his fine taste in architecture and art.

Little is known about Elm Park’s architect, Detlef Lienau, except that he trained with Henri Labrouste in Paris and was an early member of the American Institute of Architects. Immigrating to the United States after the European revolutions of 1848, Lienau designed a variety of structures, primarily in New York and environs: large city houses for the affluent, stores and lofts for merchants, a block of houses on Fifth Avenue between 55th and 56th Streets, a summer villa in Newport, a Hudson River villa, and a sugar factory in Jersey City. Little of Lienau’s work survives, as much of it was demolished in the face of ascendant modernism, when Victorian buildings were reviled for their historicism, complex spaces, rich detail, and use of color. It is these aspects of Victorian architecture that epitomize the most celebrated of Lienau’s projects, Elm Park.   

Lockwood was a Norwalk native who had become wealthy as a Wall Street stockbroker and railroad financier. He purchased land along the coast of Norwalk between 1863 and 1865, and archival records suggest the house was begun in 1864 and completed in 1868. The mansion is large in size and scale: an imposing structure, asymmetrical in massing with a central block topped by a mansarded roof and flanked by lower gable-roofed wings. Two-and-a-half-stories in height, it is constructed of granite ashlar blocks punctuated by large quoins at the corners. The prominent roofs, expressed in a series of steps from the tall central vessel downwards, fairly bristle with iron cresting, and are enlivened by the sculptural dormers and chimneys. Two towers jut upwards at the southeast and northeast corners, while a long trellised veranda runs the length of the south side, curving around the southeast tower.

A massive porte-cochere on the west side covers the entrance, which leads through a low, groin-vaulted vestibule into a formal entrance hall, complete with a paneled and frescoed ceiling, a marble fireplace, and Florentine marble columns, as well as a star-patterned marble floor. The lavish hall sets the tone for the rich display of color, pattern, and texture that characterizes the public spaces of the house on the ground floor. The entrance hall leads to a central, octagonal rotunda thirty-eight feet in diameter, which opens upwards forty-two feet to a double-skylight set into the roof. Paneled in walnut with polished panels and carved moldings, the octagon floor comprises geometrical parquetry in different woods. A marble fireplace, topped with an etched glass panel, forms the south wall, while to the north a double staircase with elaborately carved newel posts topped with figures holding lamps, marquetry paneling, and elaborate balusters leads to the upper gallery. The octagon was designed to be an art gallery; Lockwood commissioned Alfred Bierstadt to paint an enormous mural, The Domes of the Yosemite, for the space. The mural appears in early photographs, along with other mural paintings, marble sculpture, and smaller framed oil paintings.

The decor of the principal ground-floor rooms has been attributed to Leon Marcotte, an interior designer who had also worked for Labrouste in Paris. All of the rooms are lavishly finished with carved woodwork paneling, moldings, frescoed ceiling panels, and elaborate marquetry floors. Large carved marble fireplaces with marble inlay and gilding, “oil-frescoed” walls in elaborate patterns, and sumptuous cabinetwork abound. Each of the rooms has been decorated in a different period style: the French Renaissance dining room features exaggerated classical details; the drawing room, Louis XVI with rosewood inlay and gilt decoration as well as a painted ceiling by Pierre-Victor Galland; the Elizabethan-style library is dark paneled with blue and gold wallpaper that simulated leather, walnut bookcases, and a carved paneled ceiling; a music room with musical motifs and instruments; and a double billiard room with parquetry floors, paneled ceilings, and oil-painted walls. The upper-story rooms are nearly as lavish in their decoration, wood paneling, and carved marble. Here, nine large chambers comprise bedroom and sitting rooms, each suite with an elaborate dressing room. Each of the fourteen bathrooms—an unprecedented number, even in such an opulent house—was decorated to match the Moorish, Gothic, or Italian stylistic motifs in the adjoining rooms.  

The historicist decor of the mansion conceals the technological advancements of Elm Park. The bathrooms were certainly state of the art: each had hot and cold running water, as well as a separate water fountain. Water supply was maintained not only by a 2,000-gallon roof tank, but a 20,000-gallon reservoir connected to the mansion. The house was heated by steam, and fitted throughout with gas for lighting; the driveways were gaslit as well. The house was insulated by an interior set of brick walls with an air cavity between them. There was a complex system of bells, speaking tubes, and annunciators to communicate with Lockwood’s extensive staff (servants quarters were in a third-floor wing), and a burglar alarm system connected to all the exterior doors and windows on the principal and ground floors. An 1874 document also mentions an “elevating lift running from the principal to the third floor.”  

Unfortunately for Le Grand Lockwood, the 1869 financial panic decimated his fortune and he was forced to mortgage the Elm Park estate. After his death in 1872, Lockwood’s extensive art collection was sold, and the mansion and its furnishings were put up for sale the following year. Charles D. Mathews, described as a “wealthy retired provisioner” in a New York Times obituary, purchased the house in 1876. The Mathews family lived in the house until the late 1930s. In 1941, the City of Norwalk acquired the house and its grounds, turning the estate into a public park and using the mansion for offices until 1961. In the 1960s, the City revealed plans to demolish the mansion for a new city hall, a proposal Norwalk citizens rejected. After considerable restoration work, the mansion opened as a museum in 1967.   

References

“Charles D. Mathews.” Obituary. New York Times, May 24, 1879.

Larew, Marilyn, “Lockwood Mathews Mansion - Elm Park,” Fairfield County, Connecticut. National Register of Historic Places Inventory–Nomination Form, 1978. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.

“Le Grand Lockwood.” Obituary. New York Times, February 17, 1872.

Kramer, Ellen. “Detlef Lienau: Architect of the Brown Decades.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 14, no. 1 (March 1955): 18-25.

Writing Credits

Author: 
Nina E. Harkrader
Coordinator: 
Emily Chace Morash

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