NAUGATUCK — You hear some surnames more than others here in the borough: Mezzo, Bronko and Rossi. Plasky and Pompei. Lately, it’s been Donovan and Tindall-Gibson.
But there is one name we hear quite often that has nothing to do with high school sports or recent political news: Whittemore.
Without the cultural and financial contributions of two Whittemores near the turn of the 20th century, Naugatuck would not be the community it is today, at least according to Ann Y. Smith, author of the new book “Hidden in Plain Sight: The Whittemore Collection and the French Impressionists.”
J.H. Whittemore and his son, Harris, “built an industrial empire here in Naugatuck based on a big idea and a small bank loan,” Smith said at a lecture last Wednesday. That lecture, appropriately enough, was held in the Howard Whittemore Memorial Library.
Smith, who is also an adjunct professor of art history at UConn-Waterbury and a grants reviewer for the National Endowment for the Humanities, outlined her research about the Whittemores, each of whom made a distinct mark in the borough.
John Howard Whittemore was schooled in New Haven and worked on a farm in Southbury before engaging in a brief flirtation with a trading business. When he moved back to Connecticut, he teamed up with E.B. Tuttle to form a company that manufactured malleable iron, a compromise between formable, ductile wrought iron and strong, wear-resistant cast iron.
That company, located on Bridge Street in Union City, is now known as the Eastern Iron Company. During Whittemore and Tuttle’s time, it produced railroad ties, bridge parts, agricultural parts, tools, and even parts for cannons used in the Civil War.
The partners, Smith said, were able to “nimbly shift to new product lines,” and their flexibility was a boon to business. Within 10 years of taking out the venture loan, Whittemore had collected 10 times the loan’s principle amount, his share of the company’s profits alone.
In 1863, Whittemore married then had three children before building his own home in 1888 and “essentially rebuilding” Naugatuck until 1910, according to Smith.
He enlisted the services of McKim, Mead and White, the architectural firm known best for its work on Pennsylvania Station and the Manhattan Municipal Building in New York City, the Boston Public Library and the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.
Under Whittemore’s direction, McKim, Mead and White designed the library, and the Naugatuck Bank, the first two buildings to define what would become the downtown green. Smith said Whittemore’s motivation was to provide form and coherence to the town’s growth and also to employ men who were jobless in the face of an 1896 recession.
The firm also designed Salem School, which was the first school in Naugatuck to have modern heat and electricity, and Hillside Middle School, which at the time was the town’s first high school.
Whittemore was also responsible for donating land and resources to the Congregational Church on the green, in addition to several important buildings in Waterbury and Middlebury, notably the Buckingham Building and Whittemore’s own summer home on Lake Quassepaug. He also built several private homes and commissioned a parkway from the borough to Middlebury; that road is now a portion of Route 63.
Whittemore also worked with Henry Bacon, who designed the Lincoln Memorial, and Theodate Pope, one of the first American women to become a successful architect.
Harris Whittemore, J.H’s son and his only child to survive into adulthood, was a “man of remarkable insight and humor,” Smith said. In fact, she joked that after poring over many of his letters, she developed a “big crush,” however posthumous, on both J.H. and Harris—but especially Harris.
Unfortunately for Smith, he fancied Theodate Pope, and even proposed to her. She denied him, Smith said, but they remained lifelong friends.
Harris commissioned Hop Brook School in Naugatuck and planted 225,000 trees in what is now the Naugatuck State Forest. He contributed land and funds to Kettletown and Hammonassett State Parks in addition to other parks in the state and across the country. He helped fund housing developments in the Rockwell Avenue and Salem Street neighborhoods.
But Harris Whittemore’s true legacy was his collection of Impressionistic paintings.
At the time, Smith said, Whittemore was collecting contemporary art which “polite society viewed as shocking and vulgar.” The Impressionist form wasn’t widely accepted at the time, and Whittemore’s collecting was speculative.
But, Smith said, he proved to be a man of “fine taste and discerning judgment.” The paintings he so adamantly collected are now on display in museums around the world.
Their creators’ names are now firmly embedded in the lexicon of fine art history.
Whittemore’s collection comprised 30 of Claude Monet’s works, most of which reminded him of the sights of Connecticut; more than 70 of Mary Cassat’s unflattering portraits of women engaged in domestic activities or keen observations of well-off women’s leisure; 35 of Edgar Degas’ paintings exploring hard work, exhaustion, and sexual tension; and more than 600 pieces by James Whistler, which include etchings and lithographs.
“I think we should all be grateful to the Whittemores for their enlightened example,” Smith said in closing. “They took the money they made and used that fortune for the benefit of the communities they lived in.”