The Commercial-News, Danville, IL

March 31, 2013

Twain’s historic home had heart, soul

KEVIN CULLEN
Commercial-News

The new edition of National Geographic’s “The Ten Best of Everything” is filled with stuff that leaves me cold: the best golf courses, wines, wrist watches, island hideaways, polo clubs, etc.

But one listing hit home. Among the “10 best historic homes in the world” is The Mark Twain House in Hartford, Conn. I toured that fantastic mansion in 2004, and I’ve been gushing about it ever since.

Only two other American buildings made the list: George Washington’s Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. They were joined by the likes of Blenheim Palace, the ancestral home of Sir Winston Churchill, and Giverny, home of the French artist, Claude Monet.

Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) and his wife, Olivia, built their 26-room house on ritzy Farmington Avenue for the then-huge sum of $45,000. The family lived in it from 1874 until 1891, but the cost of its upkeep was enormous and Clemens finally sold it in 1903. The “Ten Best” book noted its Tiffany-designed interior, its “soaring, dramatic grand hall” and its “book-filled library, glass conservatory, and billiard room.”

Twain’s three daughters grew up in the house. There, he wrote parts of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” “Life on the Mississippi,” “The Prince and the Pauper” and his masterpiece, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

“To us,” he wrote in 1896, “our house … had a heart, and a soul, and eyes to see us with; and approvals and solicitudes and deep sympathies; it was of us, and we were in its confidence and lived in its grace and in the peace of its benediction. We never came home from an absence that its face did not light up and speak out its eloquent welcome — and we could not enter it unmoved.”

It impressed everybody who saw it. Biographer Justin Kaplan wrote: “It presented to the dazzled eye three turrets, the tallest of which was octagonal and about 50 feet high, five balconies, innumerable embrasures, a huge shaded veranda that turned a corner, an elaborate porte-cochere, a forest of chimneys. Its dark brick walls were trimmed with brownstone and decorated with inlaid designs in scarlet-painted brick and black; the roof was patterned in colored tile. The house was permanent polychrome and gingerbread Gothic; it was part steamboat, part medieval stronghold, and part cuckoo clock.”

The Clemenses filled it with the finest fixtures, furniture, carpets and bric-a-brac that money could buy. A window above one fireplace mantel allowed them to watch snowflakes and flames at the same time; the conservatory, brimming with exotic flowers and plants, brought the outdoors in; the billiards room doubled as Twain’s study.

Clemens entertained constantly, lavishly. He employed a nursemaid, a housemaid, a laundress, a cook, a butler and a coachman; waitresses and nurses were added as needed.

Not bad for a man born in a two-room clapboard house in Florida, Mo., a village of 100 people.

Extravagance and bad investments eventually bankrupted Mark Twain.

But his beloved home, filled with family treasures, remains … one of the best in the world.

Danville native Kevin Cullen is a former Commercial-News reporter. Reach him at irishhiker@aol.com.