By Alex Dubois
(c) Connecticut Explored Inc., Spring 2023
Among the quintessential New England homes lining Litchfield’s historic district and the Modernist masterpieces tucked around the surrounding countryside, one residence stands apart: Topsmead, the English summer home of Edith Morton Chase.
Named for its position at the top of a prominent hill and the large meadows surrounding the home, Topsmead is described in the property’s National Register of Historic Places nomination (1993) as “an excellent example of a country summer house in the Tudor Revival style” and “an unusually well-preserved house exemplifying the work of a fashionable, sophisticated architect.” Completed in 1925, Topsmead grew under Chase’s ownership into a self-sufficient working farm and a home for multiple employees and their families. Open to the public today as a state forest the Topsmead estate continues Chase’s legacy of celebrating craftsmanship and Connecticut’s natural beauty.
The Chase Family
Edith Morton Chase was born in 1891, the daughter of Alice Morton and Henry Sabin Chase of Waterbury, Connecticut. Through various businesses, construction projects, and philanthropic pursuits, the Chases left an indelible mark on that city and its industrial heritage. In 1876 the family acquired the assets of a brass manufacturer in Waterbury and incorporated them as the Waterbury Manufacturing Company. Henry Chase took over the company in the late 1890s and expanded the business, building two brass-rolling mills by 1910.
Already well entrenched in the Waterbury area, the Chase family became seasonal residents of Litchfield, a town some 15 miles north of the city, where Henry Chase built a handsome residence in 1901. According to architectural historian Rachel Carley in Litchfield: The Making of a New England Town (Litchfield Historical Society, 2011), the home was fitted with Tiffany glass and solid-brass plumbing features made by Chase’s company and was worked on by “a crew of Italian craftsmen who were brought onto the Chase Brass payroll specifically for the job.” In 1910 Chase purchased Echo Farm in Litchfield and continued the farm’s dairy operation, supplying milk for his workers in Waterbury.
In the same year, Edith graduated from Miss Porter’s School in Farmington and embarked on a tour of Europe at age 19. Accompanying her as chaperones were two of the family’s Waterbury neighbors, Lucy Burrall and Mary Burrall, who were, respectively, 15 and 13 years older than Edith. The shared experience of this European trip cemented a lifelong friendship between the three women.
Tudor Style Comes to Litchfield
In 1917 Henry Chase gave Edith 16 acres of land in Litchfield, at the top of Jefferson Hill. Edith, now 26, built a small, rustic cabin on the property to serve as a summer residence. The cabin was designed by William E. Hunt, formerly a partner in the successful Waterbury firm of Griggs & Hunt and an architect likely familiar to the Chase family.
Inspired by several visits to the Cotswolds region in England, Edith Chase soon decided to bring traditional Cotswold architecture to her Litchfield property. In 1923 she contacted New York architect Richard Henry Dana Jr. to draw up plans for a much larger, Tudor-style home next to the existing cabin, though it was later decided that the cabin would be demolished rather than incorporated into the new structure. Dana, whose career would include other noteworthy projects in Litchfield, had designed several buildings in Waterbury in the early 1920s, including the Parish House of St. John’s Episcopal Church and the new Georgian Revival Y.M.C.A on the city green. According to the National Register nomination for Topsmead, Dana’s work in that city “provided the opportunity for contact with Miss Chase.”
On top of Jefferson Hill, Dana designed a two-story home in the style of an oversized Cotswold cottage, achieved through the use of stucco walls, textured bricks, half-timbering, and steep gables under a roof of slate shingles. The home’s fireplaces, including one saved from the previous cabin , were topped with rounded clay chimney pots. Large timber posts supported the slate roof over a recessed porch, partially obscured by shrubbery. A two-story dovecote was added to the property in the 1930s, connected to the house by a stone wall to form one side of a walled garden. Dana’s design highlighted the horizontality of Topsmead, accentuated by the plantings he indicated should surround the home and reach up to the lower roof levels.
To match the exterior, Chase furnished the house with English country antiques and American pieces in the Arts and Crafts style, many dating as far back as the 17th century and most of them purchased in England or during Chase’s regular visits to New York. In the bedrooms, for example, Chase placed English-style beds complete with horsehair mattresses; for the entrance hall floor she chose handmade, unadorned terracotta tiles from the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. In a 1989 oral history interview conducted by the Oliver Wolcott Library, Mike Gundersen, a former supervisor of Topsmead State Forest, described Edith’s tableware as a “set of very plain dishes of a mustard color” produced by Wedgwood, adding that, as in the rest of the home, she “preferred simplicity, but the best of quality.”
Cotswold Cottage to Working Farm
Chase’s ambitions for Topsmead extended beyond a well-crafted summer residence. She purchased the adjacent Buell property in 1927, adding 82 acres, multiple structures, and a working farm to Topsmead. Employing a manager who lived on the property, Edith expanded the farm to include draft horses to pull equipment; Jersey cows for the production of milk, butter, and cream; Black Angus beef steers; Yorkshire pigs; Suffolk and Southdown sheep; chickens; and turkeys. A full-time gardener cared for half an acre of fruit and vegetable crops, many of which were canned or frozen for year-round use. An apple orchard in the garden and additional trees along the driveway provided ample fruit, which was given away to Chase’s friends or sold at local farm stands and grocers.
Norma Stairs, who kept the books for the farm and whose husband managed it, noted in her oral history interview with the Oliver Wolcott Library in 1989 that the “idea of the farm was to make Topsmead as self-sufficient as possible. We never sold milk from the farm. To her friends, Miss Chase sometimes sold turkeys or apples or blueberries. We grew almost everything that could be grown, and made butter and cottage cheese.” In the winter months, when Edith and the Burrall sisters returned to Waterbury, they would send for milk, eggs, vegetables, and frozen meat from Litchfield.
Edith’s nephew, Rufus Stillman, recalled in his oral history interview with the Oliver Wolcott Library in 1989 that his visits to Topsmead always included “absolutely marvelous dinners. Aunt Edie always had strip steak and green beans and boiled potatoes…and you always had daiquiris, which she mixed herself, on a little porch on the west side of the house.” Norma Stairs described the cooking as “very plain, using what we grew on the place as much as possible. Even when guests came to dinner, the food was not elaborate, but very good.” The dining room table, described by Stairs as the largest in the house, sat only eight people, keeping any social gatherings to a modest size.
At Topsmead, Edith was joined by Lucy and Mary Burrall, her former chaperones turned close companions. The three women stayed in Litchfield from April to November, returning to Waterbury in time for Election Day. Rufus Stillman described the three women as keeping “almost separate responsibilities on the place. So Aunt Lucy always ran the servants and did all that kind of thing. Aunt Edith always ran the farm people, and Aunt Mary enjoyed it all, and just read.” Norma Stairs recalled that Lucy also made up the daily menus and had the gardener bring in the required ingredients and took care of the flowers and arranged them in the house. She described Mary as “more of an architect” who liked “to help Miss Chase with anything that had to be built or remodeled.”
For the People of Connecticut
By the time Chase died in June 1972, she had expanded Topsmead from a 16-acre plot to an estate of more than 500 acres, encompassing grassy meadows, gardens, forests, and farmland. In her will, Edith left Topsmead and the surrounding land to the state, which soon opened the property for public use as the Topsmead State Forest. The June 22, 1972 issue of the Litchfield Enquirer described Chase’s decision as a way “to keep Litchfield a green and pleasant community and a beautiful Litchfield hilltop for posterity.” Her gift included an endowment meant to support the continued operation and maintenance of the home and grounds, so that Topsmead could remain largely as it was at the time of her death. One of Chase’s close friends in Litchfield, Katherine Bull, said in the article that it was Edith’s hope “that in making a gift of Topsmead, the beauty of the land with [its]power of refreshment would be preserved” and shared with the people of Connecticut.
Alex Dubois is curator of the Litchfield Historical Society. He last wrote “Citizen Historians: Preserving Connecticut’s Historic Burying Places,” Winter 2022-2023.
Topsmead State Forest, including its many walking trails, formal gardens, and the Edith M. Chase Ecology Trail, is open daily from 8 a.m. to sunset. Free guided tours of the home are offered on the second and fourth weekends of the month from June to September. Visitors can learn more about Edith Chase and her vision for Topsmead through interpretive panels installed in the Welcome Center.