Cheshire Rediscovers “New” Alice Washburn House

By Jaime McCormick, Cheshire Historical Society Board Member

A rediscovered Alice Washburn house joined eight other homes in Cheshire built by the famous architect. Mrs. Washburn is known for her “Colonial Revival Style” and the Saltbox Colonial follows just that. Designed and built in 1928, the house recently became verified and officially recognized as an Alice Washburn home. The house wasn’t originally recognized because of lack of documentation, which was due partly because of the destruction of important documents but also because of her gender. The current owner explains, “She worked in a male-dominated industry in an era where I’m told she couldn’t even sign her own papers, so she had her male builders sign instead. Her original plans that we have on display in the living room are also unsigned.”

Mrs. Washburn’s design is evident from the outside with the large windows, arches, and welcoming entryways. Once inside her ideas flow throughout the house with built in corner china cabinets, intricate woodwork, and an ornate fireplace, which were all typical of any of Mrs. Washburn’s creations. The owner notes, “The house’s design and the way the sunlight shone throughout the space, warming the rooms and the wide-plank hardwood floors, along with the arched doorways, made the home so inviting.”

The rediscovery sparks interest and curiosity of possibly more Alice Washburn houses in Cheshire.

In 1919, at the age of 49, Alice Washburn with no previous architectural experience or formal training began designing and building houses. This was especially significant during the time of women’s suffrage, when women weren’t particularly known for owning and running a business. During the years from 1919 to 1933 Mrs. Washburn built around 90 houses in the suburbs of New Haven.

Alice Washburn was born in Cheshire in 1870 growing up surrounded by examples of fine architecture near Cornwall Avenue. Martha Buck, formerly known as Martha Yellig explains that “This vernacular style was a major influence on her work during the 1920’s. For instance, the carved wooden fan ornaments gracing the doors of the Congregational Church on the green…became hallmarks of Washburn door and window decoration.” There are many architectural characteristics associated with the Washburn name such as gabled roofs, intricate woodwork, and large twelve over twelve sash windows, to name a few. However, Mrs. Washburn was also known to pay attention to details and tailored her houses to fit her client’s needs and lifestyles. All of these are apparent in the “rediscovered” Washburn house.

Unfortunately, twelve years after designing and building houses Mrs. Washburn’s business became bankrupt. She retired and spent the rest of her years living in Cheshire until her death in 1958. However, Mrs. Washburn’s name lives on through her designs, buildings, and progressiveness in an era that was male dominated.

In fact, since 2003, the AIA Connecticut, a statewide chapter of the American Institute of Architects, and Connecticut Magazine have sponsored two awards honoring Alice Washburn:

  • The Alice Washburn House Award to acknowledge excellence in traditional house design; and
  • The Alice Washburn Accessory Building Award, which recognizes Connecticut’s architectural heritage of small and subsidiary buildings.

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