The Damned Story: On Scarborough Street in Hartford stands a two-story replica of a 16th-century Palladian villa that appears as stately as any home in the neighborhood. Closer inspection, however, reveals that instead of being built of brick and stucco, it’s made of painted pine boards — and it’s only 18 feet wide!
Behold The Austin House, which despite image of grandeur it projects with its nearly 90 feet long facade, is only one room deep. Talk about narrow-minded thinking …
Built in 1930 by A. Everett “Chick” Austin Jr., legendary director of the Wadsworth Atheneum from 1927 to 1944, and his wife, Helen Goodwin Austin, the “Facade House” (as the family home has become known) was inspired by a villa the couple had seen during their honeymoon in Italy. Originally, the residence’s interior featured decor that reflected the Austin’s love of art, featuring various works from and inspired by 16th and 17th century Europe. It was a dramatic living space with a travertine stone floor, arched doorways, a wide circular staircase, period furniture and ornately carved moldings. And as Chick was fond of magic (he was a member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians), it was fitting that his home was a bit of an illusion.
Because of their association with the Atheneum, the Austin’s home was the heart of the Hartford social scene, and its roster of guests reflects the influence they wielded. The house was visited by a veritable who’s who of the early 20th century, including Salvador Dali, Alexander Calder, Gertrude Stein, George Balanchine, Buckminster Fuller, Aaron Copland and Martha Graham. Not too shabby!
Despite such impressive visitors and having being heralded for its design by architects the world over, the neighbors — living in their respectable Tudor Revival residences, neo-colonials and Georgian-style homes — didn’t particularly care for No. 130 Scarborough Street when it was first built: It was met with derision and dubbed “the pasteboard palace.” Now that it’s a National Historic Landmark, however, it seems as though those living around it are more accepting of the Austins’ vision.
Chick Austin moved out of the house in 1946 and died from lung cancer in 1956. Helen stayed there with her children until 1985, when they donated to the Wadsworth Atheneum.
Even though it looks like part of a movie set that might fold up quick, the Austin House still stands proudly today in Hartford.
Our Damned Experience: We have yet to visit The Austin House — seriously, we ain’t frontin’ you! But we would love to slip in a visit at some point.
If You Go: The Austin House is located at 130 Scarborough Street in Hartford, and is now part of the permanent collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum. It is only used for special functions, although tours can be arranged by appointment for those who donate to the Sarah Goodwin Austin Memorial Fund. For more information call (860) 838-4049.
Just remember to have a salad (or two) before visiting.