Wheeler House, built in 1795, was remodeled in the Italianate style in the 19th Century, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Connecticut Register of Historic Places. The house has three Victorian Period rooms and a gift shop. The only octagonal-roof, cobblestone barn in Connecticut, which is on the property, was completely restored over a ten-year period and houses the Museum of Westport History, displaying a diorama of the town as it looked toward the end of the 19th Century. The Betty and Ralph Sheffer Hall is a large, well-lit gallery that hosts several exhibits each year.
Research shows that Wheeler House started life as a simple house, possibly a saltbox, built by Captain Ebenezer Coley for his son Michael in 1795. Through the 19th century, the house had a succession of owners including Hezekiah Ripley, Ann Avery, Farmin Patchin, Morris Bradley and later, Julia Bradley Wheeler. Historically it has served its occupants as both a homestead and as a setting for business and mercantile interests.
During the 1850’s and later in the 1860’s the house and grounds received extensive renovations, according to an account in the Westport Advisor of October 16, 1867. Morris Bradley, owner of the house in 1865, enlarged and converted the simple house to the popular mid-19th century Victorian Italianate villa style. It is characterized by the flat roof cupola, decorative brackets, “eyebrow” windows and gracious front veranda. The Bradley family, Morris and his wife Mary (Fanton), their two children Julia and Abram, moved to the Village of Westport from Weston, where he had been a blacksmith. The Bradley name was prominent in Weston as it was his father and brother who built the Edgetool Factory on Bradley Street, now Lyons Plains Road. By 1870, Morris had accumulated $90,000 worth of real estate, including three stores in the village. He listed himself as “Gentleman” in the census records. In the early 1870’s, Julia Bradley married Charles Wheeler of Stratford. He and his brother-in-law, Abram, ran the Bradley and Wheeler Grocery in s building which still stands in town.
Both Morris and his son died in 1886, and the widowed Mary willed the family homestead to her daughter and son-in-law Julia and Charles Wheeler. Julia died in 1933, leaving the home to her two sons, William and Lewis. Dr. Lewis Wheeler had his office in the house and continued to occupy the house until his death in 1958. Dr. Wheeler willed the estate to its last individual owner, Charlotte Darby, his housekeeper. In accordance with her wishes, the landmark is known as Wheeler House in memory of Dr. Lewis H. Wheeler and his family, who had lived and worked in it for almost a century.
A Look Inside …
When Morris and Mary Bradley purchased and remodeled the house in 1865, America was in a period of great change. The Civil War had ended and all sectors of life were experiencing unprecedented growth: urban areas, transportation and industrial production. It was a time when the common man could see the possibility of increased wealth, comfort and education for himself and his family.
The Wheeler House parlor, kitchen and bedroom c. 1865-70 have been restored to reflect this period and the lives of an average family in the rapidly growing community of Westport. Documented by estate inventories of the Bradley family, census records, news articles and clues uncovered in the house, the resulting restorations show the Bradley family to have been typical of the gentility and respectability of the middle-class American in the Victorian era.
The Parlor was the showcase of the home, and was used only for special occasions. It contained the best furniture and decorative items owned by the family. The seven-piece black walnut parlor suite, the elaborate lady’s desk, the corner what-not and the panel curtains, ornamented at the top by elaborate fabric “lambrequins”, evidenced the good taste of the lady of the house. Even the lamps were ornate, as in the astral lamp displayed on the center table. Small statuary, mementoes, picture albums and curiosities were all displayed. No space was wasted in the Victorian Parlor.
The Kitchen in a middle-class Victorian home was a room for working, and not used for family dining. During the restoration the original floor, when uncovered, indicated the location of the major kitchen furnishings. The cast-iron cook stove, dated 1870, was the most important item in the kitchen. The table was used as a workspace, and cooking utensils were stored on open shelves. New gadgets were flooding the market and were quickly embraced by the Victorian homemaker. Items such as the apple parer, pancake maker, coffee bean roaster, coffee grinder and lemon squeezer were guaranteed to shorten time spent in the kitchen. Decorative molds designed to enhance ice creams and puddings for the increasingly elaborate Victorian style of dining were eagerly sought.