From Londesborough to Lounsbury

The family of the mansion

The younger brother, Phineas (1841-1925), joined George in shoe manufacturing, after learning the business in New York as a teenager and volunteering during the Civil War.

The younger brother, Phineas (1841-1925), joined George in shoe manufacturing, after learning the business in New York as a teenager and volunteering during the Civil War.

The grand and beautiful Lounsbury mansion on Main Street, the town’s Community Center for the last 60 years, tells much of the history of Ridgefield since the late 19th Century. It was at first the centerpiece of a great estate, the home of former Connecticut Governor Phineas G. Lounsbury, who grew up on a farm in Ridgefield and became a wealthy New York banker.

He built himself the neo-Classical Revival mansion with a servants’ dining room in the basement, just as Downton Abbey has. He called it Grovelawn.

The Ridgefield he grew up in, during the mid-19th Century, was a small farming village that was starting to become an industrial town like so many others in Connecticut. But in the latter part of the century it changed direction, industry dwindled, and it became known as a summer resort for rich New Yorkers. They built their mansions, brought their carriages, and hired flocks of servants.

Lounsbury built his mansion in 1896 and lived in it — as well as his other houses in New York, Florida, and the Adirondacks — and entertained his well-connected friends there until he died in 1925.

Then for almost 30 years Lounsbury House stood empty, almost totally unused, unheated in winter, its appearance deteriorating to the point where demolition became a possibility. However, in spite of its appearance, the house remained sound because it had a good foundation and had been strongly built with first-growth lumber. It was beautifully finished inside with mahogany throughout.

The town of Ridgefield bought the house and all its surrounding property and its many ancillary buildings from Lounsbury’s descendents in 1945 for $59,000 (about $760,000 in today’s money), but the mansion remained essentially unused  — and unheated — until 1953.

Then three Ridgefield women spearheaded a drive to turn Grovelawn into a community center and they found crucial support among Ridgefield veterans who wanted a suitable memorial for fallen comrades. The town voted on Oct. 1, 1953, to rent the building for $1 a year to the newly constituted Ridgefield Veterans’ Memorial Community Association, more commonly known now as Lounsbury House or the Community Center.

With $27,000 in donations and a lot of physical labor from some of town’s prominent ladies — and sometimes their maids and husbands — the new Center completed enough repairs and redecoration to open its doors to the public on Memorial Day, 1954. It soon became the focus of town activities.

The beautiful rooms were used free or at reduced rates by dozens of non-profit organizations. Sunday pot-luck suppers became a favorite in a town, which then was then a little too quiet. The Center offered classes in a whole range of subjects, from chair caning to dancing. A shooting club made use of the space under the front porch for a pistol range. Weddings in the spacious setting of the Center became a healthy source of income.

Today the mansion still dominates Main Street, as beautiful as ever, still active, and still in constant need of repairs, and still supported by the efforts of many volunteers.

The First Lounsberry

The first of the large and widespread American Lounsbury clan was Richard Lounsberry (there are many variant spellings of the name), baptized on Nov. 9, 1634, in the parish of Harkness in North Yorkshire, near the village of Broxa, where his father farmed. A New York genealogist commissioned by Phineas Lounsbury wrote in 1896 that the family got its name from Conrad de Landsberg, who built Landsberg Castle in Alsace in 1181. At some point during the Norman occupation the Landsbergs moved to England. But it seems more likely the name came from the village of Londesborough in Yorkshire, listed in the Domesday Book (1086) as Lodensborough.

The matriach, Delia Lounsbury (1809-1895), brought up three sons and three daughters and served as a nurse during the Civil War.

The matriach, Delia Lounsbury (1809-1895), brought up three sons and three daughters and served as a nurse during the Civil War.

Richard Lounsberry emigrated to the American Colonies and married Elizabeth Pennoyer in Rye, New York, in 1679. Four generations later, Nathan Lounsbury and his wife, Delia, were farming successfully in Pound Ridge. They had three daughters and three sons, two of whom, George and Phineas, became governors of Connecticut.

By the time the youngest, Phineas, was born in 1841 the family had moved to another farm, called “The Hickories,”  in Ridgefield, still an active farm located along what is now Lounsbury Road with the original house still standing and occupied.

In a speech at Ridgefield’s bicentennial celebrations in 1908, Phineas — who was much given to oratory — said he had received the “old style New England training,” which involved “judicious tannings” and much prayer. On Sundays the whole family walked three miles to the Methodist Church in town, to attend the preaching service and Sunday school. Afterwards they walked the three miles back to spend the remainder of the day “in reading, meditation and prayer.”

Phineas was a life-long, fervent enemy of strong drink and an opponent of what he called “liberalist” thinking.

The children attended the little red school in Farmingville where they learned “to dance the two-step to the time of the tingling birch” wielded by Colonel Hiram Scott, later town clerk. Phineas finished his education with four years at a private school in Ridgefield, graduating at 16 and going to New York to seek his fortune, which he imagined to be $10,000, leaving behind “the only girl I thought worth knowing.” In fact, he eventually created an enormous fortune and found a girl in New York well worth knowing.

 The soldier, Phineas, was among 162 Ridgefielders who volunteered to join the 17th Connecticut Infantry Regiment in 1862, but his service was cut short by serious illness and he was honorably discharged four months after enlisting.

The soldier, Phineas, was among 162 Ridgefielders who volunteered to join the 17th Connecticut Infantry Regiment in 1862, but his service was cut short by serious illness and he was honorably discharged four months after enlisting.

Lounsbury went to work as a shoe store clerk in New York and over several years learned the shoe business. He was 20 when the Civil War broke out and a year later, on Aug. 11, 1862, in response to an appeal from President Lincoln for volunteers, he joined 161 men from Ridgefield who enlisted in the 17th Connecticut Infantry Regiment.

On the way to Virginia many of the volunteers were felled by fevers and putrid food, among them Lounsbury, who was left behind in a hospital as the regiment marched into Virginia. He was discharged because of disability on Dec. 12, four months after enlisting. Thus he missed Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, but he remained close to the regiment after the war. He became president of the regiment’s veterans association and delivered a 42-minute oration at the dedication of a monument to the regiment at Gettysburg in 1884.

Since no extensive study of Lounsbury’s life exists (and the late town historian Richard Venus complained once he couldn’t find any anecdotes about him), it is sometimes difficult to sort out the details from the sketchy and contradictory biographies published over the years.

We know that right after the Civil War, Phineas and his older brother, George, were in business together manufacturing shoes in New Haven. As the company grew they moved it to South Norwalk, took in a partner and as Lounsbury, Mathewson & Co., it became a major manufacturer of women’s shoes. Eventually the company employed 300 people in a four-storey factory.

Phineas’s business acumen became even more evident as he moved into banking business in New York, joined the boards of several companies. He cemented his ties to the banking business by marrying Jennie Wright of New York at the Washington Square church on June 12, 1867. She was the daughter of Neziah Wright, a founder and trustee of the American Bank Note Company, who had become the company’s treasurer a month earlier. Lounsbury was a trustee of the company and had a long connection with the Merchants Exchange Bank, eventually becoming president in 1894. He had offices on Broadway and a town house believed to be on West 72d Street, described as “the queen street” of the West Side.

This is the first in a series of occasional articles about the history of Lounsbury Mansion, the home of Governor Phineas Lounsbury and now the Ridgefield Community Center.

Written by Jeremy Main

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